The View From Paris

I was recently invited to a full-blown VIP meeting hosted by Le Comptoir d l’Innovation at the Hotel de Ville in Paris. For those of you with a bit of French, this does not mean we met at “The hotel in the city of Paris.” It loosely means “City Hall”, but that is a term far too diminutive for such an edifice. And what an edifice it is. I won’t bore you with historical anecdotes or architectural lectures. Suffice it to say that the functions, if not the building, has occupied that square of Paris since the 14th century, and the structure itself was erected at the absolute height of the first French Empire, under Louis XIII. If you are curious Wikipedia provides a good summary.

But aside from the red carpet treatment rolled out by Le Comptoir (literally, a red carpet ran from the security cordon through the main door, down a echoing stone hall, took a right turn through a small door into an astonishing antechamber, down another lavish hallway into what I can only describe as a concubine’s entrance up a long marble staircase and, finally, to the room itself (see photos)), the heavy, machine-gun wielding security and the rather sumptuous interior decoration (not quite as nice as the Boise City Hall, mind you, but close), the meeting itself was totally fascinating… from a cultural perspective.

the entrepreneurs, hiding in the corner.Typically, impact investing meetings are stuffed with two groups of people: those with money (investors) and those seeking it (fund managers and entrepreneurs). The division is clear, and the rules of the game even clearer: the latter panders to the former, while the former tries not to lord it over the latter with too much pleasure. More to the point, expectations are aligned. Everyone in the room knows why they are there. Conversations tend to be quite focused and primarily business-oriented (with the occasional shout of “Let’s go save the world!” emerging from small groups of impassioned entrepreneurs).

Contrast that with my Parisian experience: so far as I could tell, I was the only red-blooded capitalist in the room. There were a handful of entrepreneurs, some consultants and non-profit wonks that I recognized from other meetings and maybe a half dozen fund managers. But so far as I could tell, the rest were all people who derived their raison d’etre from making, shaping, steering and implementing public policy. This was new to me. Even at meetings I’ve attended at the Federal Reserve or the State Deparement, the ratio of public to private actors tilted in favor of the private. To add to the surreality of the event, when I approached the tables of entrepreneurs – who had been invited, I presume, to lend an air of on-the-ground authenticity to the proceedings – and had a few odd conversations, I was told quietly that I should not let anyone know that I was an investor.

Excuse me?

I was not to tell anyone that I represented capital which might, if the winds blew favorably, be deployed to support their enterprise? Rather than being the tallest, smartest and best-looking guy in the room (because I had a check book, of course), for some reason I occupied the unenviable position of… pariah. Seriously. It was as if me and my capital were unwelcome. An unfamiliar and modestly unsettling experience.

My skepic’s buttons were well and truly pushed, and my natural suspicion of the government was triggered. “Who are these flunkies,” I muttered darkly to myself, “to think that government has any answers?”

Fortunately, my limited French forced me to really, really pay attention to the people I met and more importantly to what they had to say. If such concentration had not been required, I may have missed the simple fact that the other people at the meeting – although many were from government – sounded just like most of my peers and colleagues in the impact investing community in the US. They seek to harness the forces of the market to address the great challenges we all face. They believe that solutions can be identified. They are excited about exploring creative new ways to deploy capital, and to establish regulations to support the capital deployed. More to the point, they believe that the State has a role to play in the emerging impact investing discipline.

And even more interestingly to me was what I learned about our host. I know enough French to translate “Le Comptoir de L’Innovation” to know that it means, roughly, the innovation counter (as a noun, not a verb). But I also know that there is no such thing as a place where one can purchase innovation, so I knew my translation was off. Asking around, I learned that Le CdI is a consulting and investing platform that was seeded in 2010 with about $1,000,000, funded and consolidated several sustainable for-profit companies under its umbrella, and serves as an inspiration and support entity for a wide range of people related to impact investing. To my knowledge, there is nothing like it anywhere in the world.

Of course, one might cautiously argue, with nearly 60% of French GDP stemming directly from state spending, the attendees and our hosts could hardly be expected to argue that the state had no role. Self-interest is alive and well, even in the luxurious halls of Paris. Further, the French skepticism towards capitalism is well-known and was fully on display. But, at the end of the meeting, I was struck by how earnestly everyone seemed to want to find a way to put the state in the service of sustainable investing, particularly with a social agenda in mind. In the US we certainly have the capital, and the ground is thick with creative, passionate entrepreneurs. But the piece of the puzzle that is so often missing is the engagement of our government.

Particularly in this period of budgetary stalemates, mandatory sequestration, spiraling entitlements, a seemingly intractable deficit, looming national debt and a political process too sclerotic to even pass modest immigration reform… it was strangely comforting to hear a bunch of French career bureaucrats excitedly asking how they can help…

“Bonjour, nous sommes le government Français, et nous sommes ici pour vous aider.”

(Hello, we are from the French government, and we are here to help.)