Martine Liautaud is an entrepreneur, an investor and a philanthropist.
She is founder and chairperson of Liautaud & Cie, a consultancy specializing in financial engineering as well as strategic and financial advice for large French companies.
As an entrepreneur in industry, Martine acquired majority and large minority stakes in several companies including two success stories: Meccano, world leader in metal construction toys and the publisher Groupe La Martinière.
Martine Liautaud is an alumna of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and together with several other Stanford alumni, she founded in 2010 the WBMI (Women Business Mentoring Initiative), a volunteer program for women CEOs with more than 3 years’ experience. She succeeded in gaining support for the program from a number of sponsors including Engie and BNP Paribas. At the end of 2015, she set up the Women Initiative Foundation to promote women in the economy and in business in France. Martine went on to create the US Women Initiative Foundation in California with the Bank of the West in July 2016.
Martine has published three books, drawing on her experience as an entrepreneur and a mentor: In 2014, she co-authored The Guide to Entrepreneurship for Woman. In 2015, Culture Mentoring, and in 2016, a book for the American market: “Breaking Through: Stories and Best Practices from Companies to Help Women Succeed”.
Martine Liautaud is a member of the entrepreneurship commission at the MEDEF, France’s largest employer federation. She is also a member of the board of directors at Centrale-Supélec and Savencia in France.
Martine has been decorated Knight of the Legion of Honor, she is married with two children.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Key factors explain that:
Firstly, my upbringing:
I often say that I was born with the right parents.
Although my father was not a business man but a scientific researcher, he inspired and encouraged all his children but was careful not to make life too easy; we were expected to make an effort, overcome obstacles, have goals and pursue them.
That environment and the resulting family dynamics that provided security and confidence as well as responsibilities and opportunities for leadership gave me the sense that everything was possible.
Secondly, the fact I was underestimated at the beginning of my career. I was one of the very few women bankers in France, so I discovered that my superiors had absolutely no expectations of me. So, it was a unique opportunity to take all the possible challenges without being afraid to fail, and to understand the difficulties faced by people.
Last but not least, I’ve had informal mentors throughout my life who helped me to succeed and understand the path to success. They opened up their networks for me and knowing how important these contacts were, I decided 10 years ago to set up free mentoring programs for women in business. Nobody succeeds alone.
How has your previous employment experience aided your current role?
I was partner of one of the most important European investment banks. I was very close to major customers and used to running large teams of very experienced people in complex deals and succeeding to make them work as a team.
And I often say, that as an investment banker, man or woman, if you can survive six months in that difficult environment, then you can survive anything life throws at you. It’s a joke but to tell the truth, when I became an entrepreneur 28 years ago, this experience was crucial to my success. Being resilient and demanding, working hard with strong ethical values with a team that you respect and encourage were essential in convincing major customers and in achieving my goals. When I developed my philanthropic activities for the promotion of women in business, I applied the same approach.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your current role?
My main challenge was when I decided to set up my own investment bank after sixteen years at the bank. I reflected on what I enjoyed the most about the work I had been doing and what I wanted to get from my job and from my life in the future.
I decided that to achieve what I wanted – to fulfill my vocation as an entrepreneur – I had to do two things: acquire my first industrial company, and create my own independent investment bank, Liautaud et Cie.
Many people in my field could not understand these goals and decisions. Why would I want to do this when I already had a successful career with a big bank? The bank’s president expected me to come back and knock on his door, asking to return like a prodigal child. But I didn’t. I was off and running. Even if sometimes, I felt lonely.
For nearly 28 years, my efforts were rewarded. Large companies trusted us and wanted to work with us. I was satisfied to have been one of the pioneers, a successful entrepreneur and business woman opening doors for other women – and also for men.
But in 2009, another big challenge arose when I discovered some startling figures on the situation of women in business, which were a call to action. Women entrepreneurs, for example, after three years of activity represent less than 15 per cent of all entrepreneurs and that’s true in France, in Europe, in Canada and in the US. And this fact is not only a question of fairness but it’s an economic issue. One billion women could contribute more to the worldwide economy. So, with Stanford alumni men and women like myself we took the important step, with the support of global corporations such as ENGIE, the energy company, BNP Paribas and my own company, to set up the Women Initiative Foundation to promote women in business in France, in Europe and in the US.
What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
It’s important to be innovative in this industry.
Being innovative means taking risks whether in our personal lives or in business; but it also brings great opportunities. So, I encourage women in particular to grab the opportunities and accept the risks that come with real innovation. For me, taking risks is normal and for an entrepreneur it is a daily activity. It can be strange to say, but the more risks you face, the better you can deal with them.
For example, after my first five years of entrepreneurship, I suffered a setback when my main business partner wanted to sell the company to a major bank whereas my strategy was to stay independent.
It was a very difficult moment and I was afraid of losing what I had built but I stuck to my goal to stay independent and I negotiated the split between the team and the clients.
Believe me, it was not easy, but at the end of the day, my company is stronger. We attract more customers and have a better team.
We live in a society where people are stressed by many problems. My solution is to think positively and have confidence in yourself. Don’t be afraid to try and to lose from time to time, share your challenges with other people, and help others along the way, and never stop believing in yourself!
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?
I have learnt that we keep on learning all along our lives on all kinds of issues. So, I strive to be more open to people and to differences, to benefit from other talents and initiatives.
And I’ve learnt that I need to give back, and so I’ve devoted a lot of time to philanthropic activities.
I’ve also learnt that to have more serenity and happiness you have to take care of people!
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Life is complex and everyone can have a different perspective on this matter.
For me, having a balanced life with work, family and children has been possible with the support of my family and my husband. I have been happy with my arrangement, but each of us has to find what works for their own family situation. One small example is that our children remember that my husband and I never took a vacation without them.
As a CEO, I believe that it’s a company’s responsibility to develop a company culture that allows women to create a balanced life with their families.
Most of the world’s major progressive companies have set up equality and diversity programs to eliminate inequalities in their workforces. For example, many major companies finance daycare centers or review their promotion criteria so as not to penalize women after maternity leave.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
It’s a particularly preoccupying problem as it’s insidious. It’s the way women unconsciously internalize stereotypes that society and companies propagate about them. The stereotypes date from patriarchal times and have been transposed – through gender-differentiated upbringing and education – to managerial culture and corporate organizational models. Women should above all look after the home and be responsible for bringing up children. A number of logical consequences follow. Since many women are primarily mothers and spouses, professional success is secondary, or even suspicious. Compensation becomes secondary too, as it’s “pin money”. Her priorities are outside the company; ambition, competition and self-confidence aren’t priorities, as the effort required detracts her from her main responsibilities. The concept of the recently theorized “mental load”, according to which women work harder each day, physically and psychologically, perfectly illustrates how such stereotypes have become incorporated into men’s as well as women’s mindsets.
It’s also important to remember that the management model in place in most companies across the world today is based on the logics of power, of confrontation and of individualization which most women don’t identify with. We have shown, in a recently conducted study by the Women Initiative Foundation (http://women-initiative-foundation.com/en/home-us/), that this is seriously hinders women’s careers in companies and in the majority of hierarchical environments.
How can we encourage more women to start their own business?
Well, by reacting to the lack of enthusiasm women show for the traditional model. Woman can and should prove that there are other ways to organize, give orders and quite simply behave – and that those ways give as much, if not better results, than classic methods. Women can significantly innovate in the science of management and that’s a beautiful, most rewarding challenge. Moreover, our experience after more than 10 years of mentoring (via our Women’s Business Mentoring Initiative) has shown us that women, once in the position of a being an inventor or business owner, succeed on average as well as, if not better, than men.
Of course, there are a lot of other measures that could be taken to encourage women to go into business. It’s a long-term undertaking that involves upbringing, education, new women role models, and public policies that aim to lighten part of the mental load women carry (with more childcare, paid leave for spouses for certain family events, etc.)
One particular priority in this all-digital era is to encourage women to study scientific disciplines in schools and universities where they are considerably under-represented.
But it’s the showcasing of women’s achievements that can be the most effective and the fastest. The press have a specific responsibility in this area and for those of us who fight for gender equality, it’s our role to convince you to devote more space to women in business who stand out by their character or their achievements.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I’ve been both a mentee and a mentor, so I’ve benefited from all aspects of mentoring. At the beginning of my career as an investment banker – I was very young and unlike most women my upbringing had boosted by self-confidence – I met powerful men in the organization who were kind to me (perhaps they liked my naturalness) and who gave me a chance, despite the hostility from most of my male colleagues. These men then supported me and entrusted me with responsibilities where I could do as I liked. They made sure that I wouldn’t become a victim of the sexist environment or be assigned with more “feminine” tasks. It was a kind of sponsorship even if it wasn’t called that then. I gradually became aware of how important it is to support women. It took time as thanks to my up-bringing I wasn’t aware of the gender stereotypes that hinder women’s careers. Once I became a mentor, I saw how positive, encouraging, trusting feedback can change everything in the image that women have of themselves, both as women and as business owners. Facilitating such awareness, such deliverance, is one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had. The success of my mentees only belongs to them, by mentoring triggered their success.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I particularly admire Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF. Not only because she’s French and leads a prestigious international institution, but because of her career as a lawyer and a politician, which she built in an especially competitive – or rather hostile – male world, and yet she never compromised or backed down. She stayed herself despite her public roles and I believe that her record is largely positive throughout her career. She has international stature, she’s open to the world and she’s very aware of the help women need. She wrote the forward to my book, “Breaking Through”, illustrating how the 3 L’s (Learning, Labor, Leadership) are powerful means to help transform the economy by giving women opportunities that they are still widely deprived of.
What do you want to professionally and personally accomplish in the next year?
My wish is to give the means and the time to the Women Initiative Foundation for it to play a greater role in highlighting the obstacles that prevent women from succeeding as well as men in the workplace. So, I am going to work on the new study on stereotypes that we are conducting in small European companies, following on from the one we just published, which was carried out in global companies. I’m also going devote time to our training projects, expanding on the program we developed with Stanford University (with a specific session for women entrepreneurs) that is a real success. Finally, I’ll spend more time in the United States, working from our offices in New York and San Francisco, with the support of our partner The Bank of the West, to promote our activities and bolster our US mentoring program. And last but not least, I’ll make sure I spend the time needed with my granddaughter Victoria and her brother who will be born in June 2018.
What are the top three tips you can offer to an entrepreneur starting out?
Here’re my 3 tips based on my experience:
Think big. Don’t be afraid of committing yourself. Don’t limit yourself by being over-caution. If you believe in your project, bankers will too.
You don’t succeed on your own. Men have networks; develop your own and join theirs.
Get support. Feedback from an experienced man or woman will reveal your true nature and not the one which your upbringing or culture imposed on you.