Philanthropy Podcasts: Emma Turner speaks to Alexandre Mars
In this episode, Emma Turner speaks to Alexandre Mars, an entrepreneur, author and philanthropist who has been called the Bill Gates of Europe. Alexandre has launched and sold several start-ups across the world and harnessed his success to found Epic, a global charity that fights to change the lives of disadvantaged youth.
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Emma Turner (ET): Welcome to the Barclays' Private Bank Philanthropy podcasts, a series that tries to understand what drives leading philanthropists and what they've learnt along the way.
My name is Emma Turner and I run the philanthropy service. And today I'm joined by Alexandra Mars, an entrepreneur and a philanthropist who's been called the Bill Gates of Europe.
He's among Town and Country's 50 philanthropists of 2019 and Vanity Fair's 50 most influential French people. He's written recent 'Love revolution to potage' and 'Giving: Purpose is the New Currency'. His latest book on entrepreneurship entitled OSE!, which means 'dare' in English, was published in France in January 2020.
He has launched and sold several start-ups in Europe and North America and was an early investor in Spotify, Pinterest, Headspace and Bruit", and in 2014 he harnessed all of his success and experience to fund Epic, a global charity that fights to change the lives of disadvantage youth all around the world.
Bonjour Alexandre, how are you today?
Alexandre Mars (AM): I'm doing well, hey Emma.
ET: Nice to see you. Nice to hear you. You and have had a number of conversations over the years and I'm going to start off today by combining two questions in one, because I know that it's easy for you to roll from one to the other because you do this a lot.
But I'd love to hear a little bit about your family and your upbringing and your early career, but then also including do you think it was nature or nurture that led you along this amazing path that you've taken with your philanthropy and what role has your family played in that journey?
AM: Wow. It's - I think we're going to spend forty-five minutes just on this question Emma. I do think we are the results of our shouting. So, for me, I think to answer quickly, it's a combination of those two.
My dad, was an entrepreneur, even my granddad was an entrepreneur and on the other side, my mum is very, very sensitive to any social causes. So, I do think I'm a good mix between those two. So, I will say this first. But after I realised very quickly that if you want to do things on your own, if you really want to have choices in your lives, you need to have some money. Sorry, saying it this way. But that's what I realised very, very early on.
And I love sports. I love music. But I had no skills or average skills, I should say. So no, no, for me, no target to be these professional athletes was impossible, to be this lead singer was impossible. So, at 17, I said to myself, if I really want to protect first was my family and my mum. And after I realised that it would be more people, I would need to be common entrepreneur was not that hard.
The barrier to entry was not that high. And I said as an entrepreneur, it to answer your question Emma, it's really a mix between those two.
ET: So just I'm going to ask you to retell the story if you can remember it, because it made it brought the audience as they were absolutely astounded, about when you went home once to Paris and you arrived home and you rang the doorbell and a stranger opened the door and you didn't know who he was. And I think he was a taxi driver that your mother she was going to...
AM: Yeah, that's a great story. So, yeah, when. So, my parents and I both love them, but they got divorced when I was three. So, my mum did raise me and she was always, always about helping the needed. And when I left home a few years after I went back, it's usually as the nice son. And that day was very fine. I rang the bell and suddenly just had - I went there to my mum up in the door.
But someone, a stranger to me at least, was in the living room with my mum. So, I asked my mum and I know where we are. So, I said, can you just tell me who is this guy? And then my mum very naturally explained the situation. She told me, "my dear boy, I grabbed a taxi two weeks ago and during the commutes in the taxi I started talking to the cab driver and the cab driver, I start telling the story that he's from China and is equally has very poor French."
And my mum at the end of the ride, told this cab driver, if you want, I'm more than happy to give you free French courses and then this cab driver came every week or every other week.
And then my mum starts, you know, teaching French. So that's basically the kind of mum I have. And for sure, when you are raised by someone like her, you have definitely a different vision of the world. So, what's the mission of all of us? While we are here? Why are so many people are suffering? What can we do to help them at their own level?
I'm not saying that we can change everyone’s lives, but my mum was such a great role model in the Faggots. She was doing local things. And, you know, Emma what we're doing at Epic. It's more global. It's more international. But, you know, they have the two angles work well.
ET: So she sounds like she was an amazing role model, which actually leads me very nice into my next question. So, it's clear to me that you knew that you were always going to do something.
Maybe you just weren't sure when you were going to do it. So was there a particular financial moment when you saw this is the time now for me to start doing something and then that led you to Epic. Was there a life event that drove you? So, what was that moment or that period of time before you actually set up Epic?
AM: There is no single event. For me, it was first when I was fifteen, sixteen, being able to protect my mum. Let's be clear. For me, it was such a booster. Mum, I want you to have everything you deserve. And when you are a teenager, this pushes you to do things or to work harder to have a different destination also of success.
But I'm also very transparent with you, Emma. I knew that money was necessary. So, I was not in the mood to say, oh, I will save the world, I will change. now, I knew I didn't have the tools. I knew I did have the ammunition to succeed. So, my first goal was really, let's make money. So, I'm sorry. It's not usual, but it's what it was. I need to make money. Then I will be able to pick up. What you choose as the direction.
So, if you want to write the next chapters, I knew that the first two or three chapters will be the ones I need to follow. And to be very, very honest, I was hoping and I was thinking that he would take me five years at 17, started my first venture and I was more than sure. That in five years’ time, I will have enough, so we can discuss what is enough but enough to stop everything.
And to commit the rest of my life to help the needy for me, but to help other people. That was the goal. But sometimes. No. The goal is not what you what you reached. And that's not what I reach.
At least I was able to reach that goal, but not in five years, in 15 years. But that's that was the that was the targets, really. So, no trigger events per say, but so full of a full of small actions of small events. And those events made me understand that I need to use all my skills, and I realised very early on that I was able to lead people.
I was able to be a good entrepreneur, to understand the direction of the wind. So, and that status after years and years and maybe will be another of your question Emma, and that's that’s a very important moment for me, was eight years ago.
I was in the US because I moved to the US more than 10 years ago. And eight years ago, I was building Epic. And after 15 years of running tech businesses, I knew the time was right to switch and then I did market research and then I started meeting a lot of people and I met this guy in the US, Max met Beneke is the guy, I'm sure you know him, he was running Omidyar Networks the philanthropy arm of Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay.
And I remember a conversation with Max. I was green eight years ago about philanthropy and all this world. So, I had to go after people with great knowledge, deep knowledge, and after hours of walking together, he asked me a very simple question, "Alex, what do you want to do?" And I was surprised by the question.
I said "I've just explained to you, Max, I want to do the work. I want to serve food. I want to build wells and tools" and Max stopped me and asked me this question, he said, "do you think this is your uniqueness?"
And that is important to me, because you know so well Emma. But I do believe everyone has something unique. And if our goal is to change something, I'm not saying the world could be something they love. How can we use the things we're good at? And then the question - I was so mad at him. Why? Because one of my dreams Emma was to be a social worker, not a social entrepreneur.
I'm a social entrepreneur now. But that wasn't my goal. That wasn't my dream. My dream was being a social worker. Being in the trenches not once every other day, every minutes of my life. Be with the people who are suffering.
And then the guy told me, Alex. Do you think it's where you're good at? Do you think you can bring something different somewhere else? Do you think other people can build schools? Do you think all the people can just serve food? And you know the answer Emma, the answer is yes. But building a Start-Up, running it, thinking globally, ringing people, changing mindsets. It's something that I'm good at.
So, eight years ago, there were days of trigger events. I think this is more trigger events. I use things, as a teenager, that all my life, all my life is built to change intrude of the people who were suffering. Whatever I'm doing, I could be running my venture fund, could be running Epic, could be just doing podcasts, is to see how can we just change? How can we change people's lives? How can we change trajectories of those lives? That's the aim of my life and the mission I am.
ET: That's a great answer. Thank you. I mean, I think for those people listening, who don't know about Epic and they should definitely look at the website. It is extraordinary because it is like this fund of funds. But the best possible fund of funds where you have a rigorous selection process of finding the non-profit.
So it's really, you can drill down and into and have the greatest impact with, which I think, what's so brilliant about it is it means that people who really don't have the time to do this, but they certainly have the money, know that if they join you on your journey, that you've done all the heavy lifting for them, because that's really, you know, these days trying to find out about, you know, a school in Thailand or a water well in India.
Yes, you have the Internet. But actually, the great thing is that they come to Epic, you've done all that work for them and all they've got to do is pick the project that they like.
And also, being able to demonstrate the impact, which you and I have talked about many times, which is really increasingly important because people don't want to waste their money anymore. I think the days of giving like that are kind of done. People really want to know that if you're fixing this problem, how you fixing it and how's my money going to help you fix it?
So, sitting here today in 2020. Looking back since, over the last eight years. Is there anything that you would have done differently do you think? Or are you pretty happy with how things are? And what have you learnt along the way? Both positive and possibly negative, because there are negative lessons to be learnt in this world in philanthropy. It's not all mom and pop and ice cream. So how about that for question?
AM: Well, let me pause for a minute and re explain quickly how I started Epic. When Epic first, I knew that I would do something. So, after this, those conversations with the Max Beneke of the world, I knew that I would just run a new venture. But then with the new venture, and I realised quickly when I was asking people, you need to do well before running and starting any of my businesses in the past, I always start with the market research, going after people, your targets.
And asking questions to them. So that's what I did. So, I travelled to many, many, many countries. Tell me more about your giving, tell me more about your philanthropy, and I was always asking the same questions.
Two questions. One: have you given money to any social causes last year, wherever I was, Emma you know this, I was in London and New York, Hong Kong and Paris. Everyone, almost everyone was answering yes. Then I was asking a slightly different question. Do you think you have given enough? What was interesting, I will say 95 percent of the people were answering no and it wasn't a no, I don't care. It was more. I know and it makes me suffer. I want to do more.
And then I said so why not? So, you have the money. So why are you not giving more? I would say we are not here to judge you, but tell us how maybe how we can help because that will be Epic. So, we need to understand what is missing in this beautiful world of philanthropy. And then we realise that people are telling us we don't trust organisations. And you know this so well, Emma. The donors don't trust the translation's NGOs. They they always have, you know, some questions about how they deploy the money.
So that's the first one. Two - they don't have the time. So, a lot of people were telling me, Alex, I will do it, but when I will be retired, in the meantime, I keep making money, and in 20 years, in five years, in 30 years, I will do the work.
And the third reason was the knowledge. People were telling me, I want to do and I want to fight cancer, but I have no clue where to start. So, for all those reasons people were doing, but they were doing basic philanthropy. It means they were giving to their schools, their kids schools.
They were giving, and mostly after 50, 55 years old, they were starting to give to hospitals. It's very rare to see people 20, 25 giving to hospitals. But it's come on when you're, you know, within 50 and for sure, religion as well. So, when, and that's how I started Epic I said, okay, we understand everything you do already. It's great. So, keep doing it. But maybe we can bring and build tools.
And you said this Emma, when more and more people are asking where my money goes, what is the impact of the money, where it can be sure that the money is well deployed? And so, you know what? In 20, and we started Epic in 2015. In 2015, we have the tools. We will build those tools and we'll give those tools away for free.
And that's also a big part of what we do. We don't charge people. We don't take any cuts. If tomorrow Emma, you want to join us, you know, that's one pound or million-pound dollars, euros will go to the trenches, will go to the organisations and others paying everything else.
So, all be the up in costs are paid by me. How? Thanks to the money I made before and also the money I keep making. Running and leading a venture fund was being very successful.
ET: Good answer. Thank you so much. And the great thing about talking to you is that we do speak the same language, which is, I don't speak French and you speak English just as well as I do. I speak - I'm petit petit pour, the problem is I say it so well people think I speak it very well.
Thinking about the kind of current times that we're in, has COVID changed anything about your philanthropy? Did you respond differently during COVID, did it make you think differently or were you just able to carry on doing business as usual, which was just as important to those organisations as may be doing something different was?
AM: Yeah. So maybe because I didn't fully answer to one of your questions earlier, what I've realised. But it's okay because I want to, I think, use part of this to answer this question - you asked me earlier what I did realise after five years, positive or negative, and it's very connected to this question.
What I realise is how hard it is to convince people to give money away. And you know this well Emma, because you're also one of those key people in the UK explained to a lot of people that's you know, it's maybe time, boys.
We have all the good reasons to allow people to donate more. Even when we have all the good reasons, there's sometimes reason, something rocking the shoe, something that was, tomorrow, next year, we'll do something and whisk hobbies. It's even worse and it's normal.
Again, we are not pushing people. We're trying to explain how people with money can help people with less money. How can we just build a world where we share more? And when people, and that's what is covered when people even with money, believe. That's the day after tomorrow. Well, less, they're not sure that they will steal the business or the business they are the supporting will still survive. Or their kids or. It's even harder.
And the issue we have is the people and the people will be suffering even more. The people were always suffering before. So, it's a kind of double dip for them.
So, because they are always less on the sideline. It's harder for them to for the kids to get to school, to get all the detailed tools for getting to the to the digital classrooms and everything.
But the NGOs or the social entrepreneurs were taking care of this, or suffering even more to raise money. So that's for sure. So, what we see now, it's we need to do even more if it's possible. Because those amazing social entrepreneurs, the ones you love, like I love them, they are in big trouble and it won't stop. It will be harder for them to raise the money will be harder for them to convince people because everyone, I'm sure, calling you Emma for you, for your kids.
Same with me. We don't know. We don't know what's coming. A third wave. A second wave is coming. It could be COVID-3, COVID-19, 21. It's seems hard. So, it sounds. So that's a big part of what I think COVID has changed.
If we are more a bit more technical in terms of donations, what we have said over the years it has to be unrestricted funding. When people give money, maybe am I, Emma you know this as well, so maybe you can explain. I'm sure a lot of people are listening know this, but maybe it would be good if you if you want to explain that restricted versus unrestricted money.
ET: So unrestricted funding is when the charity can do whatever it wants with your money, it can spend it on anything. Whereas a restricted donation or restricted gift means that if the donor says I only want it to go on that particular project, it can only be spent on that project. You can't move that money to spend it on something else. Unrestrictive funding is always the thing that charities long for because it allows them to spend the money where its most needed.
AM: So, when COVID hit, the hits of COVID-19, just hit a lot of these organisations with money. But they were unable to use the money because it was restricted to something else. And when they are, we're in big trouble, which is to do something different. They weren't able to do it.
So, at the very start at Epic, we have decided to do only unrestricted funding. So when people are coming over, we say trust the organisations, trust these social entrepreneur. If you put money in a tech start-up, you won't say, oh, I only want you to use my money to do X, Y and Z. You would trust the tech entrepreneur to do whatever you believe is the best for the firm since it should be the same.
So that's I think it's a big impact through COVID. And a lot of people I think, I'm not sure if you share this vision. But what we have seen on their side is this unrestrictive makes it even more sense now. On the on the personal level with COVID, what we saw in the UK, but almost everywhere. A lot of people start to build what you ought to think of ways to help.
So, we have seen restaurants opening just to deliver pizza to nurses in hospitals. We have seen a lot of different businesses building mass for jail. So, what we have seen after COVID is how can we use skills with back to the skills to maybe view this differently, but for good reason. So, we have seen more and more. What we see everywhere, this, no new generation is us as citizens. We want something different. We want to buy products from good businesses. More and more, I think. Stuff that's you and me, Emma.
We maybe care less. Twenty years ago or even 10 years ago, the generations are us now. That's even more this generation X and Y. The Y and Z are the Gen X. It's no, it can be different. So, this helps us a lot and could be the I thing, it's another big wave making everyone understand. It's on us. It's on you Emma and it's on me.
We have something important in our pockets. You know, wallets is a credit card. And if we stop buying products from not the best businesses, if we start buying product from the good ones, the ones that care about the society, that care about just the earth. Then I think we're pushing everything toward the right direction. And that's true, us as consumers is true us as employees.
When we work for business, I think we want to work for business with pride and businesses and we've seen more and more businesses change, maybe more and more, because they understand if they don't change. I do think and I deeply think it. I think they will be in new trouble, even if they are very successful now in five to 10 years, they won't.
Remember 10 years ago is not here, it was not for social reasons, it was just that reason. But they believe they were owning the space. They had 50 percent market share one, seven, ten years after they have disappeared. It could be the same for businesses who don't understand that the world has changed. The customers have changed. The opolis have changed. And we want something different.
So, yes, I'm positive. And I'm trying to be positive because for once, I think it's very important, Emma, for once decisions are on us as a collective, a collective group of people, and we have very, very similar. It's also very interesting Emma and there were stories but the answer is too long, but I will stop there. You and me. Why do we grew up we grew up in a kind of silent world in Paris, in London, in New York. What happened in London at the time? Wasn't it here in France or wasn't came to us?
Well, that's clear now, what ever, ever happens on the planets. The minutes after everyone is aware. So, we've built and it's a good thing. I think one of the good things of social media, we can talk one day of all of the bad things. But one of the good things is. If we want something, we can collectively work to build this. So. Let's be optimistic a bit.
ET: OK? So, I'm running out of time talking to combine my last two questions into one, which is what has been your proudest moment to date, apart from Paris getting the Olympics whenever it is? Because I know that was a big thing for you. And what's next for Alexandre Mars? I mean, is there another book? Is there a movie? But what's your proudest moment today? And then what's next and then we're done.
AM: A movie, I like this idea. So, it's a book. The first book was giving. I was really about everything we just discussed today, but just this new way of thinking. The new book will be more about entrepreneurship. I realise that so many people, they want to start the business and only a tech business, any kind of businesses, and they don't always have the tools.
So, I've wrote a book giving all those tools. I've interviewed a lot of entrepreneurs asking, what do you think? How you doing it? And so, it's really is that the kind of book that I would have loved having with me 20 years ago. So, I wrote it and now it would be it would be released in 2021.
I will answer about the best moment in my life was the world trip with my family. I think it's five years ago, six years ago now we have decided with my stunning wife to travel the world and to showcase something different for our kids, but also for us. It was just during the, within the, [I mentioned this earlier] this market research we said is great to do the market by phone, but let's visit the world and go and meet people.
So, we took off. I became the teacher of my kids and we spend the most amazing year. The bad thing was because, oh, you always have the flip side of things. The bad thing is now we all want to go back. And we know it's in the past and it's the beauty of it. It was unique. So that's the best moment in our life. And it's not only me or for my wife. It's very it's the whole family.
And what's next? Maybe I would say next. Next. I think we have many, as you remember, Epic has built this bridge between those really good NGOs and the people who want to do more and sometimes differently. And we can always think of new ways on both sides. We have pushed hard the pledge. So, any entrepreneurs can pledge the site up where they have to Epic or to social organisations. We are so willing in new models. We keep thinking, how can we change ourselves to keep doing good things for the people who are suffering.
I mention also Blisce, Blisce is the venture fund that I run and I'm running this venture fund, I give an example for you. It's also very, very normal, but for the people are listening, we are the first growth fund in Europe to be B Corp, so we are B Corp fund. It's safe. It's B corp for the people who don't know, B Corp it's a label. It's a label that we'll say that in term of CSR, you will just match a lot of important points. And in finance it's different.
So, with this we are able to showcase again that you can invest. You can be an investor. You can back entrepreneurs and be successful, even being a B Corp, even asking, we are asking to all those entrepreneurs. Diversity closes in H.R. So, we are pushing things high in terms of it. How can we implement this kind of vision? And with this for the last seven years, Emma, we have more than 40 percent, 40 percent return of our investments on that.
So, you can do that kind of things and it works. So, it's very, it's very key. So that's another direction where finance, which is very important in their world, can also be such an important tool to do good. So that's, and many, I know we're running out of time. So many other projects in the 90s. But next time Emma, next time.
ET: So I'm looking forward to 20, 25 when we will interview you again. I will look back on the last five years and see what has happened next. Alexandre Mars, as always, an absolute joy to talk to you. Interview you, laugh with you. Have fun with you. And I just I look forward to seeing, you know, what happens next. Thank you very much.
AM: You know, Emma, please. You are the one to thank. And again, you people know this, but you are one of the first person I'd met in London. And you were so kind, with such massive knowledge. And you shared it with me.
And with Nerem, with my amazing UK team and you've been there since day one and I have to thank you for, you know, for the team for me to be such a good friend and thank you for this and second for you have done it for so many years, whether people were where we need us. Thank you for this Emma.
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