By Nazanine Nouri
Roxanne Varza is known in France as the Queen of French Startups. The Iranian-American runs Station F — the world’s largest startup incubator – in Paris. Varza is considered one of the most influential figures on the French startup scene.
In 2017, Varza was chosen by the French billionaire and founder of Free/Iliad Xavier Niel to head up Station F, his startup campus, which opened in a former rail freight depot (known as Halle Freyssinet) east of Paris. At the time, France was struggling to attract venture capital, lagging behind both UK and Germany in the annual number of startup investments, and French President Emmanuel Macron had declared that he wanted France to be a startup nation.
A lot has changed since then.
“Less than five years ago when we launched @joinstationf people wondered if we would be able to find 1,000 startups in France,” Varza tweeted in December. “Today the number of startups is over 1 million…”
— Roxanne Varza (@roxannevarza) December 2, 2021
Varza’s career took off in a big way in 2012 when she was hired by Microsoft to lead Microsoft Ventures Paris. She joined Station F three years later. Since then, she has also become part of the first group of scouts in Europe for Sequoia Capital, as well as an angel investor in such companies as Dance, Claap, Folk, Resilience, Moka.care, Colette and others.
In a recent interview with the French podcast “Pause,” she compared and contrasted entrepreneurs on either side of the Atlantic, noting that they had the same DNA, with one major difference.
“In the United States, people are far more transparent about the fact that they want to earn money,” she noted. “You hear this much less in France. That doesn’t mean the French don’t want to earn money, it’s just that money is not their main motivation.”
According to a recent Bloomberg article, French startups are pulling in record funds, with as many as 20 companies valued at more than $1 billion in 2021, “well on track to surpass Macron’s target for 25 such firms by 2025.”
Varza was born in Palo Alto, California in 1985 to Iranian parents of Zoroastrian descent. Her parents chose to leave Iran following the 1979 Islamic Revolution to settle in America, where her father obtained his engineering degree from Stanford University.
Varza grew up in Palo Alto and fell in love with French culture in a Californian school. “Everyone was learning Spanish and I wanted to do something different,” she told France-Amérique magazine in an interview published in April. “It was my way of being a bit rebellious. Then I became fascinated by the culture and the history.”
After a degree in French Literature from UCLA, she spent a year living in Bordeaux before returning to San Francisco, where she started her first job at the Agence Française pour les Investissements Internationaux (now named Business France), encouraging American firms to open offices in France. This is where she first came in contact with the world of startups and entrepreneurs.
“I wanted so badly to work with France and in the French language that I was constantly looking for anything that had to do with France, including a job in France, which at the time was impossible due to visa restrictions,” she said on the “Pause” podcast.
It was during her year in Bordeaux that Varza actually fell in love with the country and decided to live her life in France. “The United States had changed a lot after 9/11,” she explained, “and given my roots, I was wondering whether I really belonged there.”
“When I came to France, I realized I shared the same values with the people I met. So, I thought: I want this to be my country,” she added.
Varza later returned to Europe for her graduate studies, obtaining a double master’s degree from Sciences Po Paris and the London School of Economics. Thanks to TechBaguette, her blog about French startups — which was started around that time and still exists — she was offered a job as Editor of TechCrunch France.
Varza continued to grow her network by cofounding StartHer in 2010, a non-profit that supports women in Tech and entrepreneurs (and was formerly known as Girls in Tech Paris). Today, a third of the residents at Station F are women and “five of our programs have at least 45 percent female founders or cofounders,” said Varza.