From Korean Orphan to French Minister
 
Jan 01, 2017
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Fleur Pellerin has overcome both racism and sexism to find success in con-servative French political and business circles. At the invitation of Common-Wealth Magazine, she will make her first visit to Taiwan in January to take part in the 2017 CommonWealth Economic Forum.

Fleur Pellerin, a prominent figure whose life spans two nations, one the land of her birth she has barely known, the other the country in which she was raised, is the highest-ranking female of Asian descent to have served in the French government, as well as the head of a 100-million euro tech venture fund.

Yet people are invariably more interested in hearing about her background than her talents and capabilities.

Born in Seoul, South Korea in 1973, Pellerin was abandoned as an infant. At the age of six months, she was adopted by a French couple. A graduate of the prestigious École nationale d'administration (ENA), she handled society and digital economy policy issues for François Hollande during his successful run for the French presidency in 2012.

That same year, Pellerin became a junior government minister for small and medium-sized enterprises, innovation and the digital economy at the age of 39, making her France’s first Cabinet-level minister of Asian descent.

“Do you really know why you were appointed? Because you’re a minority? Because of your looks? Because yours is a successful adoptive family story? Because France wants to make a nice gesture towards Asia? Or because of your abilities?” Such was the barrage of questions posed by a male host at the start of an interview with Pellerin. Clearly, the conservative-leaning, predominantly white male French political scene was unprepared to embrace diversity.

In early 2014 she initiated La French Tech, a program aimed at turning France into fertile ground for startup enterprises. With 200 million euros in French government funding, it designated 13 technology clusters in and around cities such as Paris, Marseille, and Lyon, and assisted startup businesses with overseas marketing and promotion.

“The next Google will emerge in France,” she asserted. “As the digital wave rises, startup enterprises can help stimulate the French economy and society’s digital transformation, making us not just consumers but creators.”

The program has so far reaped modest results. According to market research firm CB Insights, La French Tech ecosystem grew by 1.39 billion euros of new investment in 2016, second in all of Europe after only the United Kingdom at 3.13 billion euros, and exceeding Germany at 1.26 billion euros.

Pellerin became Minister of Culture later in 2014, most notably playing an instrumental role in the amendment of the country’s labor law regarding the regulation of professionals in the performing arts. As a result, the French treasury now saves around 90 million euros per year.

French labor laws include a special article concerning performing arts extras (intermittent du spectacle) that allows for out-of-work cinema, television and theater workers to collect unemployment payments. The regulations governing these workers are seen as generally more lenient.

France has around 200,000 professionals in the performing arts. In recent years, squeezed by financial deficits and budget cuts, the government progressively raised the unemployment qualification threshold for performing arts professionals, sparking protests by workers in the field.

In late 2015, Pellerin was tasked with communicating this difficult issue to facilitate positive dialogue between the performing arts union and the government. Although she had left her position as minister of culture by the time an agreement was finalized in late April, a French government insider close to the talks says Pellerin’s contribution was in fact the key to its success.

From Politics to Entrepreneurship

In July of 2016, Pellerin left public service to found Korelya Capital, a venture fund established to promote Korean investment in emerging French tech startups and in turn assist their entry into the Asian market. In September, she secured 100 million euros in seed funding from the Naver Group, Korea’s largest Internet portal and parent company of co-investor Line, a popular messaging application.

Following is our exclusive interview with Pellerin:

CommonWealth (CW): France is known for its extensive out-reach of culture. How should the way we approach culture and cultural policies evolve with time?

Pellerin: In my opinion, a good cultural policy should tackle two main issues these days.

First, the issue of access to culture, or in other words, of the “democratization” of culture. In many countries, access to culture remains the privilege of select social classes because children inherit and replicate the habits and practices of their parents. When I was Minister of Culture in the French government, it was unacceptable to me. I consider that access to culture and education has a huge impact on the quality of democracy in modern societies. To become enlightened citizens, people need to develop a critical mindset as well as analysis abilities that can be enhanced by the knowledge of past history and the understanding of present challenges. I think that cultural policies should aim at providing all citizens, whatever their social background, equal access to that sort of skills. I am also convinced that culture is the cement of a secular society. In times of religious revival, reaffirming that the social contract is based on a common historical heritage (our “culture”) as well as on a common political destiny is critical to maintain social cohesion.

Second, the issue of digitalization is also key. With the revolution of the internet, access to culture and knowledge is dramatically different from what it was twenty years ago. On one hand, it allows for a broader and more massive access, but on the other hand, it also induces a mainstreaming of culture. In that context, how can we promote cultural diversity? How can we make sure to maintain the expression of local and original creativity?

These are, I think, the main challenges cultural policies are faced with today.

CW: What contributed to the "La French Tech" initiative in 2014? What changes have you witnessed as a result of it and what makes you most proud?

Pellerin: When I was appointed Minister for SME’s and innovation and the digital economy, I realized that the French tech scene was highly vibrant but lacked consistency and international visibility. Lots of actors were working on interesting projects, without talking to each other and with little acknowledgment from Government. We needed to gather them under the same banner. We called this movement the French Tech, to position France on the map of innovation and technology. Also, I was convinced that it was urgent to apprehend the tech scene as an ecosystem, and to tackle many different issues in a holistic manner in order to really boost digital economy. Among these issues were: promoting entrepreneurial spirit in education and training, deal with the “death valley” of financing (not enough late stage funds), work on a European Nasdaq to have better exit perspectives, create a better tax environment for entrepreneurs, angels, investors etc… Today, I am very proud that this initiative is known throughout the world and helps French companies to expand abroad but also that the general mindset of the political and administrative personnel is more open and positive about digital economy.

CW: What or who motivated you to run Korelya Capital and how does it choose which kind of startups to support? Why does Naver invest in Europe?

Pellerin: I met Hae-Jin Lee, founder and chairman of Naver, in 2015. We both share the same long-term vision of the digital transformation of the world and of such matters as international tax, digital sovereignty and level playing field issues. When I left Government in 2016, I had more time to think and to travel. I went back to Korea. It became clear to me that I wanted to launch a Venture Capital fund that would bring more than just money to startups. By joining forces with Naver and its subsidiary Line, we provide entrepreneurs with the invaluable experience of a global success story, key technologies and market access in Asia. At that same time, Naver and Line were seeking for new opportunities for global market expansion. With my partners at Korelya Capital in Paris, we aim at identifying and developing high-potential French and European start-ups in key Internet fields such as: Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Machine Learning, Deep Learning, Mapping and E-services.

CW: How can culture and technology complement one another?

Pellerin: One should not oppose culture and technology. On the contrary, digitalization is an unprecedented opportunity for artists and creators to gain access to a huge public, or for people to have an easier access to knowledge and culture. Now, as I said before, digitalization also brings about some threats: mainstreaming, uniformization, and also a dramatic change in the value chain of creative industries (with less revenues for creators and more for platforms). For political leaders, a big challenge is therefore to make sure that technology doesn’t kill cultural diversity.

CW: What do you know about Korea's startups/cultural/tech communities? What interests you about Korea?

Pellerin: I left Korea 6 months after I was born, to be adopted by a French family. I returned to Seoul for the first time in 2013, as a Minister. It was a very powerful and emotional experience. I became fascinated by this country, its people, its culture and I now want to learn the language. After a dozen trips, I think France and Korea have a lot in common, even if it’s not very intuitive in the first place.
Then Korea’s IT companies are among the most innovative in the world. Naver and Line are two unique success stories that prove it and I am sure we can build very strong cross border synergies.
I must also confess that I love Korean Norebang 

CW: What do you know about Taiwan's startups/cultural/tech communities? What interests you about Taiwan?

Pellerin: Everybody is telling me about the dynamism and potential of the Taiwanese tech scene, so I am very excited to see it by myself !

Introduction translated from the Chinese by David Toman