Charlotte is an empowerment and innovation expert working across sectors and through entrepreneurship on the question of agency. How can people feel more powerful to take part, provoke change and innovate? She leads Wow!Labs, an innovation studio that collaborates all over the world with the private sector, cities, governments, universities and the third sector to create contexts for innovation to emerge. Her practice is based on two decades of fieldwork and applied research and collaborations across disciplines, including social sciences, design and business.
Her work lies in creating collective movements, individual leadership and contexts that favour empowerment – from physical spaces to programs, curricula, events and interactions. Highlights of her path include:
- Having created the Beehive (La Ruche), social business incubator in Paris with 6 sites that have served hundreds of thousands of innovators
- Speaking at Obama’s Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington DC
- Carrying out a Fulbright scholarship in San Francisco on interculturality in innovation in 2018
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
My background is somewhat unusual in the entrepreneurship field as my undergraduate degree was in Philosophy. Later, I studied Law and Development in London. I would say that my foundation in Humanities and Social Sciences determined my approach to entrepreneurship, which is largely based on systems. This background rooted in human systems gave me a desire to take action and bring about change in the systems I studied. Already during my time at Oxford, I was involved in the creation of several projects that I coordinated, including a magazine called Margin, through which we set out to express unusual points of view on trending topics while inventing innovative ways to work together across disciplines.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
I would say entrepreneurship is about developing new types of value for people. It is about taking action and not waiting for things to happen through existing structures and institutions. I specialize on the link between entrepreneurship and innovation.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop?
Ideas go through a maturing period during which I evaluate them before taking action. I look for signs to check market relevance, and evaluate the scale of the solution I am developing based on signs in the ecosystem: what alternative solutions people have found to what we want to create, the way the media verbalizes the problem, how other actors develop in the field. Once the idea is matured, we create prototypes with short iteration loops, so that we can get feedback from potential users as soon as possible. Through this, we can test the appetite and make a reasonable estimation of what reception the idea could get.
It is important to constantly be on the alert mode and look out for all the signs in the system. You need to be ready to bin many projects in the process, it’s just a natural part of generating ideas. When this happens, it is important to keep in mind that it is not only the victories that feed the entrepreneurial spirit, the quest is as much a part of the journey as the success. In fact I love both sides of the coin.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that are needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Resilience, to enjoy the journey as much as the destination and keep searching for solutions. Collaboration, to build high-performing, enjoyable teams with a unique culture that reflects its members. Confidence in your intuition, to set your own indicators for success and take decisions that will get you there, whatever the twists in the path.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
Creating teams to make a project work. Bringing people together and managing the messiness of human potential to reach a common goal.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
Towards the end of my studies, I became interested in microfinance structures, and took a series of trips to rural India to study the dynamics that were created through investment into women through microfinance. I found it fascinating to see how the women who received investment came up with creative ways to be better entrepreneurs in order to reduce the risks for themselves, and created peer groups of micro-entrepreneurs to stay accountable for themselves and each other. Looking at these dynamics was an excellent way to analyse the birth of an organisation.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual(s)/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
‘What makes you so strong?’ and ‘How can we support your strength?’! Through their example, I would like to understand how these intuitive entrepreneurs define success and what their internal indicators are.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
When I found myself in Washington as a panelist at the White House, as a young woman. I was running an incubator I had created in Paris, and Obama’s State Department looked at what I was doing as a hybrid between business development and community organizing, and wanted to replicate it. It was at this time that one of my mentors told me I had to see the forest for the trees – look at the bigger picture I was creating through my work. This advice changed my relationship to what I do, to this day: I try to step back and see the value of what I am building not only in operational terms, but in a more systemic way, including other actors.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
There are so many lessons learned all the time! However, maybe the biggest mistake I made was letting people make me believe that I needed others to validate me, that you need an infrastructure of broad shoulders behind you and that you need to give credibility to more formal figures to approve of what you are doing. These beliefs could have led to a lot of compromises. Luckily, I have always been the captain of my own ship.
How have you funded your ideas?
For each of my ideas, I set up a business model and the money is generated by different sources: clients, partnerships, investment. Projects bring different types of value to different stakeholders. I always define partnerships around those who will benefit from the idea, which in my field, apart from direct users, often involves governments, cities and private investors.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
The most important support I receive comes from the different peer networks I take part in. Among other networks, I am a Fulbright scholar, a BMW Foundation Responsible Leader and a State Department alum. All these international networks are very rich in the kind of people they attract. It is extremely valuable that I have the possibility to turn to these people as sounding boards for my ideas. They offer an honest and safe space, and it feels like peers inside these networks are always accountable to each other. We all share a similar mindset in that we all like to be challenged. In the world of entrepreneurship, it is key to know how to offer and receive support continuously.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Oxford for me is not an obvious place to spur entrepreneurship. However, it is a place that incentivises thinking about complex issues and difficult challenges, which, to my mind, offers a fertile ground for entrepreneurship. The way I see it is that different societies have always come up with solutions for their problems and were capable of always moving forward – entrepreneurship is one such way to move forward. Since in Oxford, there is a focus on studying this evolution of human thought, many students are already aware of all the things that can be created. The key, in my opinion, is to bring business in closer conversation with Humanities and Social Sciences – and vice versa. The more these fields will get to know each other, the more value will be created in both.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
There’s two types of resources: First, people, projects and support programs specific to the field that you are developing your idea in. Take anything you can get, consume huge amounts of data, to grasp the system you are setting out to tackle. Second, entrepreneurship support programs and mechanisms, which have developed significantly in the last 15 years and support any field. Integrate groups of peers developing their own projects, get close to pre-incubators and coworking spaces, like The Foundry in Oxford; it will give you a feel for the world of entrepreneurs, and you can decide if it resonates with where you want to go.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Every woman does. I would say you have to be twice as good and twice as convincing at any stage of your project because you are trying to operate in a world that does not look like you. I have been a jury member on many different occasions in all-men committees. Obviously, nobody wants to be consciously discriminatory, but we have to admit that it has traditionally been a male-oriented world. It is important not to define success by what others say, but to be self-driven, to set a goal for yourself and just go for it! I receive my validation mostly from myself, so I rarely feel personally affected by external environments. That is particularly useful if you are not a majority in your environment. And as a woman in the start-up world, you probably rarely are!
What resources would you recommend for other women?
I recommend, not just for women, but for everybody, becoming participants in peer groups to find your own support. Having mentors has also helped me along my journey. I perceived their strength and it feels like part of their strength became mine over time, just through intention. It has also made the journey more joyful. I had the joy of getting close to Pamela Hartigan in the last years of her life, when she was heading Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford until 2016. She related to my own journey beautifully, challenged me and was abundant in personal anecdotes, and it gave me both courage and perspective.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
I am not completely familiar with what is on offer now, but an openness to the world of entrepreneurship is a great start. Unfortunately, I did not feel it to have been the case when I was an undergraduate at Oxford – it always felt like business was perceived as inferior to the noble pursuit of knowledge, in some way! There was a lot of information on what you could possibly do with your degree, but entrepreneurship was never mentioned as an option. Therefore, my entrepreneurial endeavours were almost like a secret life! I would love if the university could make a more direct link to the possibilities of entrepreneurship for people who love the Humanities and Social Sciences. The complexity they are at home with is a great start for an entrepreneurial journey, and their unique perspective will greatly contribute to the world of business and innovation.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
I don’t think it should be any different for women than for men and I hope that in the future, such questions won’t be separated by genders. But overall, I would tell them not to try to fit into what feels like safety. Entrepreneurs are risk-takers, but for young people there is so much uncertainty that they have to confront every day that dealing with risks has become second nature for them anyway. They should keep asking themselves the question of whether they want to create a life that looks like them and steer it in the way that they believe in and if they do, they already have the right attitude to become entrepreneurs. May they enjoy the journey as much as I do!
Any last words of advice?
It’s key to research the need for an idea, not only focus on the solution, but what it actually solves. Get intimate with that problem and its many dimensions, understand how it shows up in people’s lives. Once you have figured that out, you’re on the right path to developing innovation in answer to that problem.
EnSpire Oxford is a University of Oxford initiative to help connect people to the entrepreneurship resources they need, and to promote entrepreneurship across Oxfordshire.
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