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A decade ago, Alisée de Tonnac co-founded Seedstars, a global investment holding that empowers impact-driven entrepreneurs in emerging and frontier markets. Today, she is a leading figure in social entrepreneurship and innovation, with accolades like Social Entrepreneur Forbes 30 under 30, Innovation Fellow of Wired UK, and more. We spoke with Alisée about her journey and what it takes to make a real impact. 

Hi Alisée! 2023 marks the 10th year of Seedstars. Could you tell us more about the journey to this point? 

Yes, absolutely. Seedstars is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and we will go back to our world tour. The company was founded in 2013 when one of my co-founders and I set off on the first world tour. We covered 20 countries. Before the pandemic, we had completed the tour, visiting 100 cities in person with teams traveling worldwide throughout the year. This year, we have decided to hit the road once again. But this time I will be bringing my three children along, so it will be a big anniversary!

What inspired you to start Seedstars? 

I think I was kind of, if I may say so, a “good student”. I thought it was really important that my CV has good grades, and consulting was very big if you wanted to have a generalist career. I thought status, career, and brand were what mattered, and I joined a big luxury company and worked for a luxury brand. The career path there would have been quite clear if you managed to hit your milestones.  

But I soon realized that I was far away from what was meaningful to me. I wanted to do something positive where it felt like I had a tangible impact. With these reflections and great role models, I decided to quit. I was very fortunate to meet my cofounders because usually, it takes some trial and error to find the right people. Thankfully, we’re still the same 10 years later and we want to spend another 10 years together building Seedstars. 

We’ve tried many things to stay true to our culture. Using our values in our day-to-day lives is perhaps one of the better practices still in use today. It’s not at all something static on a webpage. It’s incorporated in our self-development reviews, in the recognition, our ambassadors, and even down to our Slack channels. We make decisions guided by our values.  

How do you feel the company has evolved over time? 

Our gut feeling 10 years ago was to ask who was out there, who were the entrepreneurs leading high-growth ventures and where were they outside of the typical startup ecosystems. And then we focused on how we could support and invest in them. This was really feeling at inception, and then it became the business model.  

Today, Seedstars has several funds. We invest in start-ups around the world with an impact thesis and in emerging markets only. On the other side, we operate different entrepreneurial programs, even two-year schools if we think that’s what’s needed on the ground to support the next generation of these entrepreneurs. 

So, what was a gut feeling evolved into a mission statement and values. We’ve seen our share of highs and lows, but it’s the values and the integrity reflected in our core team that keeps us afloat on this chaotic but rewarding journey. 

How do you find people who align with your values? 

There was a Harvard Business School case study that said something like you need to define a culture that is not a fit for everyone. Your values must be personal enough to reflect the founders and the DNA of the company, but it’s also important for them to be definite enough that it only lets the right ones in. If it isn’t, we risk being a fake standardized company, which would probably increase the misalignment with future talents that would join us.  

We’ve tried many things to stay true to our culture. Using our values in our day-to-day lives is perhaps one of the better practices still in use today. It’s not at all something static on a webpage. It’s incorporated in our self-development reviews, in the recognition, our ambassadors, and even down to our Slack channels. We make decisions guided by our values.  

Alisee de tonnac

What is the role of money and how important are financial knowledge and education when working with impact-driven entrepreneurs? 

I remember one time when each founder did a video on one of the values that we call “Follow the Money”. The idea was that money is one of the more important vehicles needed so that you can grow, scale, and, more importantly, sustain. It’s like oxygen for the human body. We’re very comfortable with the idea that our services need to bring value to a point that someone is willing to pay for it.  

Now, a lot of our activities are also non-profit. So, I do believe there is a space where some institutions need to spend 100% of their principles to tackle those immediate emergencies in more complicated sectors where there isn’t the maturity yet for private capital to come in. So, this whole blended finance approach is something that we believe in because we are first-hand in these markets, and we are also the first investors exposed to industries like education or healthcare that are very difficult to monetize for lower middle-income groups. It was very important for us that our teams were educated and had financial acumen because it’s a big part of how we should operate to think at scale. 

What are the qualities you’re looking for in entrepreneurs? What’s the process to try and identify them? 

As investors, we come in as venture capitalists. We have a VC fund and a clear investment thesis that prioritizes return on investment. The entrepreneurs we typically invest in are more mature and business-driven compared to the potential companies we may support through the other side of our business relating to our entrepreneurial programs. So, it’s a different kind of process and conversation. While there is still a focus on impact, it’s not a trade-off with return on investments regarding the business opportunity. 

When it comes to our second geographic agnostic fund, where we really invest everywhere around the world in emerging and frontier markets, we have a stronger focus on certain sectors such as future finance and future commerce. Of course, we also consider the market opportunity and unique selling points, but the team dynamic is key. We look for founders with integrity, who have thought through different scenarios and are committed to educating themselves on how to be more intentional in their approach to making an impact. 

We have our own theory of change and impact framework, but we understand there is still a lot of theory in this field. Ultimately, it’s about finding the right team that shares our values and can execute on their roadmap. 

Is there a project that you’re really proud of? 

I have examples from aquaculture to healthcare to even particular microfinancing tailored for women in Pakistan. I mean, there are so many stories out there that embody it. It’s tough to pinpoint one because we’re in so many industries and countries. 

One that immediately comes to mind is Agrocenta in Africa. They were trying to improve the agricultural value chain in Ghana. And quickly, as you scale in many businesses in these markets, they had to start thinking of building the whole value chain themselves, because it was non-existent. Without access to a great postal service or great logistics company, they had to become the payment company and the logistics company. They started building warehouses as they scaled so that they could buy the produce from the farmers and keep the better quality and store larger quantities. And now, they partnered with a local bank to provide loans to farmers to increase their crop production. 

So, that for me is absolutely impact at scale, from the inception of an idea to how you scale and redefine an industry. Now, the question is, as you scale, how do you manage and operate with this constant tension of profit and purpose? That’s a whole subject in itself! 

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs looking to make an impact? 

I do believe I am the sum of the people that surround me. So, one piece of advice would be to find the right people. That doesn’t mean waiting for a great idea or waiting to create the perfect CV like I would have initially done. It’s doing things with people who share your interests and values. From there, it’s about shaping your network with these people so that you can have an impact. 

I think it’s also figuring out what type of entrepreneur you are. That can evolve over time. I have imposter syndrome, so I’m not confident about most things. But I was quite confident that I was not a founder. I’m not comfortable with a blank sheet of paper. My partners are great at that, so I’m more of a follower if I may say so. That helps a lot because there’s a lot of ego and noise about what everyone should be and not be. But figuring out your strengths and where you fit in is very powerful. 

It’s funny, I just gave a commencement speech at a school here and the best phrase I found to explain this was, “Do something that matters with cool people”. That’s it. 

Having three kids gave me perspective and made me stronger. I’m a better asset for the company today, but it’s also an eye-opener on biases. I started working on what it means to become a woman and how to better manage biases within the company.

What challenges do you face being a woman entrepreneur and how do you overcome them? 

I come from a very privileged background and had the opportunity to go to university and have my studies paid for. I never felt like I was being treated like a woman until I became a mother and realized the biases and inefficiencies of society towards women. It was tough because I didn’t have many comparisons and had to work twice as hard as my partners to feel relevant. Society still expects me to focus on my children, which is a priority for me, but there are many ways to be a parent. 

Having three kids gave me perspective and made me stronger. I’m a better asset for the company today, but it’s also an eye-opener on biases. I started working on what it means to become a woman and how to better manage biases within the company. I used to use expressions like “man up” without realizing the gender bias in them. I’ve trained myself and managers to better equip all talent for better performance. 

For entrepreneurs like yourself, is work-life balance possible or is it a myth? 

It’s difficult to give a perfect checklist for balancing work and life because it’s a very personal journey. For me, it’s a lifetime journey of figuring out how to integrate work and family. I used to feel like I functioned in two separate worlds, but I realized that I am the same person and it’s about figuring out how to mix them in the most optimal way. 

At Seedstars, we try to create a safe environment where people can tell us what’s personal for them and what makes a difference. One tough piece of advice I give to women is not to give up on their work or career when they’re at the beginning of building their family. It’s difficult, and I see a lot of friends giving up on their work or career, but later, they regret it. It doesn’t mean they can’t build or continue their careers but gathering the momentum will be even harder. 

However, we need to keep in mind that this is a very privileged perspective because not everyone can do what they love and build their family the way they hope.  

What are some of the big milestones that you’re looking forward to? 

We have two main pillars, investments, and education. On the education part, we created Seedstars Academy, a two-year program where we teach hard skills like coding and even English, and also focus on an entrepreneurial curriculum to build the next generation of impact-driven leaders, whether or not they become entrepreneurs. We’ve built it to be the kind of school we would want our children to go to. We’ve launched our first academy in Ivory Coast and plan to launch one in Bangalore by the end of the year. Our vision is to scale it and create a pipeline of strong high-growth ventures we can invest in. 

On the investment side, we currently have a portfolio of 90 companies, and we plan to double that number by the end of next year. We’ve been successful in supporting founder entrepreneurs to scale on the education side, and now we want to do it on the fund side by funding and supporting emerging fund managers. Our goal is to become a platform that represents a community of fund managers focused on impact investing in emerging markets. 

How do you define wealth beyond money? 

It’s funny. The first thing that comes to mind is Seedstars. When we were building Seedstars, it was always envisioned as our lifetime journey, and we ensured that it aligned with our personal dreams. Wealth and money are important, but they should serve a bigger purpose. Seedstars was always about embodying a purpose-driven life with people who share our values. In the end, it’s all about living authentically and staying true to our values. 

This project is something I care deeply about. And now, when I talk about doing meaningful work with great people, it’s also because I want my children to see me as a cool person! Having kids changes your perspective on things. When they’re young, you’re their hero, and you want to live up to that role. So, it’s important for me to succeed and make a positive impact, not just for myself but for them as well. 

Thank you, Alisée! 


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