Founder-CEO Interview Series

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Alisée de Tonnac

Alisee de Tonnac is the co-founder and co-CEO of Seedstars, a Swiss-based group with the mission to impact people’s lives in emerging markets through technology and entrepreneurship.

Present in over 90 countries, Seedstars works in partnership with governments, development agencies, corporate partners, and private donors to develop emerging market entrepreneurship ecosystems. Seedstars also invests in high-growth technology companies in impactful sectors as well as supports fund managers across emerging markets.

Alisee sits on several boards of companies and foundations and is also a member of the Swiss Innovation Council. She was nominated Social Entrepreneur Forbes 30 under 30, Innovation Fellow of Wired UK, Europe’s most influential women in the startup and venture capital space, and one of the 29 Powerful Women by Refinery29.

Founder-CEO Interview Series

with Alisée de Tonnac

Tell us about yourself. What’s the catalyst for starting Seedstars?

I started my professional journey in the corporate world working in marketing for a global cosmetic company. At the time, I held a limited understanding of what was truly important in a career. I believed that status, income, and company name were the key factors to consider when making a career choice. However, through my experience, I quickly realized that what was most important to me was to be driven by a meaningful mission – I wanted to do work that mattered with people who inspired me.

With this newfound understanding, I came across Eleonor Roosevelt’s famous quote “Do one thing every day that scares you” and decided to quit my corporate job and start Seedstars World with my co-founders. We envisioned a global startup competition that would be a way to build a quality network of entrepreneurs in emerging markets.

We bought flight tickets to 20 countries and launched our first startup competition in March 2013. Ten years later, Seedstars has not only organized the largest startup competition in emerging markets, but we’ve also invested in over 100 companies across 32 countries and hosted hundreds of entrepreneurial education programs for thousands of beneficiaries, building a vast network of ecosystem players.

Scaling a product is easy, but scaling an ecosystem is a different story. How have you managed to grow so quickly?

Not sure scaling a product is easy either… However, I believe, some of the key ingredients of our success in scaling an ecosystem are:

  • Thinking global from day 1. I suppose we’ve been able to grow so quickly simply because we wanted, from day 1, to represent, support, and invest at a global level. It was never an option for us to start just in one ecosystem and so in many ways “just doing it” helped us scale effectively the community.
  • Choosing the right founding team. We chose each other based on the set of values that we live by and this has allowed us to stick together during the good and tough times. Ten years later we are still working together, which I believe has allowed us to scale sustainably. 
  • Double down on culture. And because we wanted to be a global player from the beginning, contrary to other startups, we had to think of culture very early on in order to be able to manage at scale. We accepted the challenges of remote and fostered the advantages of being a global team representing a global ecosystem. Indeed, we carefully select individuals who share our values and are passionate about what we do. And so we extended this concept to how we selected our founders, our ambassadors and our community of other stakeholders such as investors and mentors.
  • Mission first. Last, I believe the strength of our mission has played a big role in our expansion efforts. As the mission resonated with others, we were able to connect with local startup communities and build a strong global network, enabling us to further extend our reach. We found a shared enthusiasm among folks around the world who wanted to join forces with us.

What drives you?

After becoming a mother, I do feel that my main driver is my children. More and more my actions are consciously made knowing that my children will have to live with the consequences. I want an exciting, loving, and safe environment for them on this earth. 

On a day to day, the team, the mission, and the interactions with our community are what keep me motivated.

Outside of work, you are also a mother of 3. What is your secret to doing it all?

There is no secret. You can’t do it all….

…at least you can’t do it all in the same way. 

When I became a mother for the first time it was impossible for me to deliver the way I had been delivering in the past at Seedstars. I had to rethink my “value proposition” and define what I needed to do in order to get there. From becoming an operational machine I had to become a strategic player and train those “muscles”. It was a painful journey, but three kids later and a ton of different activities, mentors, and a very supportive family I feel like I can really deliver at Seedstars and at home. 

How important is it to have a diverse and inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem? At Seedstars, are you able to help drive the entrepreneurship gender balance in the work you do?

I firmly believe in the importance of a diverse and inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem. Diversity brings unique perspectives and approaches, leading to more innovative solutions and a stronger overall ecosystem. 

To help drive the entrepreneurship gender balance, we first started by re-working and experimenting within our own organization first to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for women. This involved training our managers to be more aware of biases, changing our communication and promotion processes, and updating our job descriptions to be more inclusive.

As we continued to make progress, we decided to share our learnings with our community and take on new challenges such as building a fully equitable team with 50% representation of men and women at all levels in our latest fund and signing up to the 2X Challenge with a target of women-led investments within our portfolio.

We are also committed to empowering women entrepreneurs through our programs. One such program is the UN WOMEN CARE, which focuses on supporting founders in the Asia-Pacific region to build innovative solutions that turn the unequal care burden placed on women into opportunities for families, communities, and women in the care industry. Another program, Women Entrepreneurship for Africa, is helping nearly 100 women entrepreneurs and their SMEs to become investment-ready and scale their solutions into more impactful businesses.

We believe that a diverse and inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem is essential for driving innovation and growth, and at Seedstars, we are dedicated to playing our part in making that a reality.

How do you pick winners from a sea of founders looking for funding?

When it comes to investment decisions, we consider various factors such as the team, business model, traction, and market potential. We typically enter at the seed stage, backing startups that have a product-market fit and are ready to focus on growth. 

Through our Seedstars International Ventures fund, we invest in startups that demonstrate potential, taking a case-by-case approach due to the diversity of each country we operate in. Our Africa Ventures fund is another example of our focus on specific markets, as we look for innovative startups in the African region. 

In addition to investing, we also offer grants through our programs to help early-stage startups get off the ground. Regardless of the specific fund, the startups we support all have strong teams, meaningful problems to solve, and scalable business models.

Where do you envision Seedstars to be 3-5 years from now?

In the next few years, I see Seedstars continuing its mission to support entrepreneurs and startup ecosystems through our programs, investments, and network. We have some exciting projects lined up, such as our Seedstars Academy, an on-campus talent incubator, which will train thousands of locals with digital and entrepreneurial skills.

We’re also extending our support not only to startups but also to emerging venture capital fund managers through an investment platform we recently launched called Seedstars Capital. We plan to focus on being more impactful in the regions where we operate, launching more programs and workshops to support entrepreneurs. 

How did your time within a Corporate shape you?

During my time within L’Oréal, I of course had a lot of business learnings, and intellectually stimulating conversations with brilliant people but it really taught me to understand what I did not want to do. I am thankful that I was able to identify, early on, what environment and the type of people I needed to be with in order for me to thrive and learn how to be helpful to others.

Are there 1 or 2 investment decisions or projects that you are particularly proud of over the years?

I am incredibly proud of the work we do here at Seedstars and the impact we have had so it’s difficult to pick just a few projects from all the amazing initiatives we’ve done in the past 10 years. I suppose some highlights include our growing track record and community.

Seedstars has grown its community to over 1.5K mentors and has launched 500+ incubation programs, 270 launchpads, 1000+ hackathons, and 1.2K+ acceleration programs. These programs focus on a variety of important themes, including financial inclusion, women entrepreneurship, migration, and climate action, and have been executed in Asia, Africa, LATAM, MENA, and CEE. Seedstars has also established partnerships with major organizations and development agencies, including Microsoft, UNDP, UN Women, and GIZ, among others.

In addition to its entrepreneurial capacity-building programs, Seedstars has also made numerous investments through its funds. Our portfolio currently includes 100+ companies across 32 countries. As mentioned, we have also just launched our Seedstars Capital platform with the goal of supporting new fund managers around the world. This initiative is expected to drive over $500 million in new funding to emerging and diverse managers.

Finally, Seedstars has launched Seedstars Academy, a talent incubator that provides coding skills and entrepreneurial-based education. This innovative initiative was launched in Cote d’Ivoire and is set to launch in Bangalore, India this year.

If you want to get a sense of it all I recommend watching our documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0GxPFuClic.

Any final advice to share?

Funnily enough, today, a student-wannabe entrepreneur asked me if I had one piece of advice to share with her on how to navigate her career choices. Even though it is maybe not the most eloquent phrase, I shared with her the following:

“Just do something that matters with cool people”

I am a true believer that you are the sum of the people that surround you. When I am asked what my biggest achievements are, it is difficult to share anything without thinking of the people by me, my partner, my family, and my friends which include of course what we call Seedstars, the Seedstars family. You are the sum of the people surrounding you, so choose them wisely as they are the biggest contributor to your growth or your demise.

Doing something that matters with people you admire by their set of values, not their status, will actually make you feel great. There is no better feeling than putting something out there that you take pride in and touching someone else in a positive way. If anything, I believe it is the closest definition to living a purpose-driven life: doing meaningful things, with meaningful people.

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