Investor Odile Roujol on Building a Network of Female Founders & Funders, and The One Obstacle Women In Business Share
Former CEO of Lancôme International, Odile Roujol, on a career in beauty that led her to Silicon Valley, building the global FAB Network and starting her own fund.
Odile’s career has been both impressive and diverse: Brand Manager at Chanel, Make-Up Marketing Director at Saint Laurent, CEO of Lancôme (L’Oréal), Chief Data & Strategy Officer at Orange Telecommunications, to name just a few. Now she has combined her extensive knowledge and experience in fashion, beauty and technology to launch the Fashion and Beauty Tech community (FAB), as well as a seed-stage Venture Capital (VC) Fund.
Headquartered in Silicon Valley, FAB is a global community of 7,000 global founders and funders with 15 chapters worldwide. It was at a FAB event in London where our Co-Founder, Alexandra, initially met Odile and witnessed first-hand her determination, straight-to-the point attitude, and incredible ability to genuinely connect people.
You have had a very impressive career and now you’re leading a founder’s network as well as recently starting a VC. What drives your passion for start-ups and female entrepreneurs?
I would say that it is mainly to make an impact. When I moved to Silicon Valley in San Francisco, the tech ecosystem, I realised that female leaders were rare. This is why I started connecting founders, helping them get funding and building a network where we helped each other.
From 2017, you have met and brought together thousands of female founders and key opinion leaders in the Fashion and Beauty Tech world. What surprised you the most?
Most of the people that want to build a sustainable beauty or fashion brand are female. Yet, when I speak to female founders, they are often much more realistic in their approach - a bit too realistic - to a point where they share even the bad things. For example, let's say you talk to a female founder about her new SaaS product, she might say something like, “It’s not entirely ready, I'm still iterating, it has bugs”. Or, if it's a consumer brand, a female founder might say, “I don't think I can make more than X revenue.” While many men in the same position would claim to make 10 times this kind of revenue.
I remember when I was the CEO of Lancôme my big boss would say to me, “You're better at delivering than you are at saying what you’re about to do, or what you have already accomplished.” At the time, I was a little upset and didn’t entirely know what he meant. I think we have one thing in common worldwide, whether in Russia, Dubai or in Texas: we are too shy about what we can accomplish. We are fab leaders.
That made me laugh – because I can quite relate. Especially in the beginning it was quite difficult to adapt. Why do you think it is like this?
It is very much linked to education. Even if our parents do a great job, there is the media and there is also the entertainment industry. Even if we think we're bold and assertive, when it comes to business plans and figures we often show less ambitious growth goals than our male counterparts. They might not truly believe that they will achieve their projections, but they sell the higher numbers anyway. Women tend not to do so, because we think we could be over-promising, and we don’t often feel comfortable doing that.
How can we overcome this obstacle?
Anything we can do to leverage solidarity, to be stronger, and to feel more confident. I am happy to see the FAB community growing fast, we've built virtual bridges between Shanghai, Tokyo, California, New York, Paris and London... I see a lot of solidarity in this network, which is great.
Within the fashion and beauty space there are many female founders, yet still only a few female investors. What is your view on this, and do you think it might change?
That is true. I think Elizabeth Edwards from H Ventures published some pitchbook data saying that only 6% of Venture Capitalist firms (VCs) are female led. So that means, when it comes to the decision to invest in companies like Hedoine, 95% of the time, a man is making the decision (whether LPs or GPs). That means a lot.
We need to learn the language of talking to men when pitching, especially when we want to talk about things that are individual to a female experience. I've heard so many stories of male investors saying, “I will ask my wife”. However, that’s not to say we female-led VCs are perfect, as shown in a
Harvard Business review report (published in Techcrunch 2 years ago). At times, if you're pitching to a female investor as a female founder, the questions you get asked might be phrased more aggressively than with male founders due to unconscious biases or learned habits.
I'm lucky enough to be part of a group that includes female VCs which meet every six weeks to help each other, share the pipeline, share notes about great founders - and I think we need to continue this solidarity because it is the best way to continue to grow and to make sure that there is a lot of diversity.
From what you say, it sounds like female investors sometimes act like their male peers. Do you think it is helpful to have more “masculine” traits to live up to expectations, or will we get to a point where we acknowledge our differences?
I think you show different behaviour and adapt to the environment when you are the only woman in the room. And without noticing, you’re adapting your management and leadership skills - which can be a strength and a weakness.
I only realized that I did the same thing at L’Oréal after I left around 12 years ago. I was perceived as very assertive and a bit bossy; and that began to change once I started working at Orange, where the number of female leaders at the top was 50/50. Changing your environment can help you to grow as a leader, and I strongly believe that people learn by adapting to different environments.
Tell us about your own experience - how did your fundraise go for your VC fund?
I was lucky to be able to leverage my network with co-investors from luxury-, beauty-, and corporate ventures, family offices and business owners that believe in what I do. But if you ask me, it can be a struggle sometimes, because people expect you to have done it multiple times before. I am sure it will be exactly that in your case, too, when investors might say “OK, you are a founder, but are you a serial entrepreneur?”
When I wanted to be a board member people would say, “But, you haven’t had a board position.” They were correct, I hadn’t yet, but if I want to be a board member one day, someone needed to trust me to be a member. I did end up becoming a board member of multiple companies, but at the time, it was a chicken and egg game.
You’ve built a network of mainly female entrepreneurs with a clear vision for fashion- and beauty tech, and a focus on sustainability. What are the current big topics in that space?
The people that are the most successful are the ones who have a community around them who share the same interests and values. The beauty of brands like Hedoine is that you know your customers, because you can directly interact with them, and you gain a deep knowledge - compared to global brands that have millions of customers relationship, you have a deep knowledge of
yours, listening to them.
I believe that one big trend in beauty is self-care, and a more holistic approach to beauty. I'm about to invest in a traditional Chinese medicine platform which enables interaction and support via a coach and a traditional Chinese medicine doctor. It helps individuals with a holistic approach, creating tailored routines for their diet, exercise and sleep.
For fashion we see a growing awareness of the circular economy, high quality production, up- and recycling. Behaviour changes will come from education, and brands like Hedoine, for example, do a great job to educate people and raise awareness.
What advice would you give founders who are at the start of their journey?
1. Surround yourself with people who are different, who complement you with "super powers".
2. Get advisors, then independent board members at some point because they will help you think long-term, as investors focus on financial metrics.
3. Pick your team wisely. One day you might have 10,000 employees; but the culture starts with the first 10 people in your team.
What does authenticity mean to you?
Authenticity is what you express to the world and what you stand for. I like to be very loyal to the people I surround myself with. I give a lot of feedback to help people grow. In my view, authenticity for founders is essential, because it sets the tone of voice for your brand. I love what you do on your Hedoine Instagram by the way - it's fun and it's joyful. The energy of a brand is the people behind the brand. I think authenticity is the best quality that founders can have.
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned professionally?
I would say “learn for life”. I've got a feeling that the people that are the most interesting are the ones that are not sticking to their comfort level, but are continuing to meet new and different people, because you learn from people. When I was still in Paris I had only friends of my generation. Now in California, it is a diverse mix and that excites me. That is what I love in life, personally and professionally, to meet different people and discover new things.
What’s your favourite indulgence?
Chocolate and wine! I prefer French Burgundy, and French chocolate. Every time I go to Paris, I come back with chocolates.
What makes you a Hedoine?
I embrace joy! People can be so serious sometimes! I like to look at all the small things that make my day a fun one or a nice one. I like that Hedoine is not just about high-quality products and having a purpose, but also about the everyday joy in life.
Learn more about Odile and the FAB community here, connect with her on Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram, and don’t forget to share with a fellow Hedoine. You can also sign up to our newsletter for Real Hedoines below.