Alisée, can you introduce yourself? Tell us more about your background.
My name is Alisée de Tonnac. I’m the co-founder of Seedstars, a Swiss organization on a mission to impact people’s lives in emerging and frontier markets through technology and entrepreneurship.
I was born in France, but grew up in many different parts of the world – most of my childhood I lived in Singapore, then moved to the United States and studied in Switzerland and Italy.
Seedstars is my first entrepreneurial experience. After a short-lived corporate experience, I was extremely fortunate to meet with my co-founders and get it right the first time in terms of finding the right founding team. 10 years later, we are still together and just “signed” for another 10 years together.
Your career background to date is certainly interesting. How did you end up as the co-founded of Seedstars?
My career started in the corporate world actually. I was working in marketing in the luxury department at L’Oréal. At that time, I came into my “professional life” with the wrong mindset and wrong beliefs about what was important in a career. When I started I thought that the status (title, income, etc.) and company name, for example, were the important elements to consider when making a career choice. Many things then eventually led to the realization that what was most important to me was to be driven by a meaningful mission and to work with a great team from diverse backgrounds, who would “fill me” with energy and purpose. Basically, do stuff that matters with cool people. I actually do not talk about “career” anymore as I do feel that it is linked to my past understanding about how to choose your work. The reality is that there is no clear boundary between my professional work and personal life. It is quite aligned and makes up one life in which I want and am the same person that strives for the same things.
But more concretely, during my time at L’Oréal, I came across Eleonor Roosevelt’s famous quote “Do one thing every day that scares you” and so I decided to quit my corporate job and start building the concept of Seedstars World with my co-founders. It was probably the first time that I listened to my “gut feeling” as not many were aligned with my decision at that time. With my partners, we envisioned a global startup competition, which would be a vehicle to build a quality global network of entrepreneurs in emerging markets. We indebted ourselves and bought flight tickets to 20 countries to launch the first startup competition focusing on emerging markets. That was in March 2013, and now almost ten years later, Seedstars has not only organized the biggest startup competition in emerging markets but has also built a vast network of ecosystem players where we’ve invested in over 100 companies across 32 countries, and hosted hundreds of entrepreneurial education programs all over the world for thousands of beneficiaries.
How is seedstars organized and who is the team composed of?
Seedstars employs more than 100 people in 40 countries. On one side, we have around 100+ people supporting entrepreneurs, through programs we are operating and executing to enhance the development of local tech ecosystems. And on the other side, we have dedicated investment managers, each working for very specific funds with a unique investment thesis, which can invest in the top-performing companies in emerging and frontier markets. Together with my co-founders we are heading Seedstars with a core team of people who have been instrumental in the development of the company.
In which countries do you operate?
Seedstars is currently active across 5 regions in emerging markets: Asia, Africa, LATAM, MENA, and CEE. Our presence spans over 94 countries.
Tell us more about Seedstars.
Seedstars is an organization with a mission to impact people’s lives in emerging markets through technology and entrepreneurship. We built one of the world’s largest communities of changemakers in over 90 emerging ecosystems, creating a valuable platform to support innovators across the globe in numerous ways.
Working with private and public sectors, Seedstars implements entrepreneurial capacity-building programs, with a particular focus on the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. Our goal is to help create jobs and fuel economic growth and we’re proud to see the scale of our programs run bigger and bigger, addressing different sectors and providing more opportunities to entrepreneurs and to their communities. One of our biggest programs right now is Women Entrepreneurship for Africa, through which we are supporting nearly 100 women entrepreneurs and their respective SMEs. Through these entrepreneurship educational programs, we have also been able to support over 3 million individual beneficiaries that are doing amazing work to support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
On top of that, Seedstars invests in technology companies through sectorial or regional venture capital funds dedicated to emerging and frontier markets. We recently announced the first close of a fund, which would allow us to hit our investment target of investing in 100 pre-seed and seed-stage companies across Asia, Africa, MENA, and LATAM in the next 3 years. In addition to our current portfolio of 80+ investments.
Creating a positive and lasting impact is definitely at the core of Seedstars, so through different impact frameworks such as the Theory of Change, we consciously aim to thrive as an organization in a responsible and valuable way. Seedstars’ social impact can be seen in the high-growth companies we have funded and supported. With 81 investments across 32 countries, we have supported our portfolio to raise >$250M in additional funding.
Why focusing on emerging markets?
When we were conceptualizing Seedstars, our partners and I believed that we would have a bigger impact by focusing on emerging markets. By creating more opportunities there, we knew we could make more of a difference than we would in the more mature ecosystems.
Looking at the numbers, developing regions are home to 85% of the world’s population, with almost 90% of all young people living in developing countries. . It was clear that there was so much potential in these markets. And thanks to the democratization of technology, the rise of an entrepreneurial generation, and the large talent pool that is still largely untapped, we believe Seedstars can create a massive impact in emerging markets as we try to bridge educational and infrastructural gaps that hindered growth.
What are your strategic partners?
Over the years, Seedstars has worked with numerous partners, amongst which are private-sector companies such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon. On the public sector side, beyond its collaboration with national governmental entities, Seedstars partnered up with the World Bank, IFC, GIZ, the African Development Bank, and various UN agencies. Seedstars also collaborates with foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or the Jacobs Foundation.
The launch of our second emerging market seed stage fund, Seedstars International Ventures II also garnered support and commitments from notable limited partners such as IFC, Visa Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and Symbiotics.
What would make you invest in a startup?
Typically, our investment decisions rely on criteria such as team, model, traction, market, etc. Our entry point is at a seed stage with startups that have product/market fit and are ready to focus on growth. Through our Seedstars International Ventures fund, we invest in promising startups on a case-by-case basis, given the diversity of solutions and scenarios existing in each country we operate in.
Seedstars also offers grant opportunities to early-stage startups through our programs and also has other funds tackling different markets such as our Seedstars Africa Ventures fund which is on the lookout for innovative startups in the African region. In all cases, the startups we support have a resilient team, impactful problems to solve, and a promising business model to scale.
Can you tell us some successful startup stories?
It’s difficult to choose from all the success stories we’ve come across but some inspirational founders Seedstars has had the opportunity to support in the past years include NaTakallam founder Aline Sara, who created her startup to connect refugees to remote language opportunities such as tutoring and translation. Her goal was to give income opportunities to the displaced people who have crossed borders and are in countries where they don’t have a work permit. It was amazing to see NaTakallam’s user base steadily grow, leveraging technology to provide a better life to migrants while reducing the cultural gaps.
Another great story that we actually had the opportunity to film in our Seedstars Documentary is that of Alima Bawah and Peter Awin of Cowtribe. After a chance meeting and conversation about wanting to improve people’s quality of life in rural areas, Alima and Peter set off on a journey to create CowTribe, a solution that would help farmers vaccinate their animals, preventing stock loss and supporting the Ghanaian economy. From their home place in Ghana to the pitching competition in Lausanne, we were able to follow their footsteps, capturing their path as entrepreneurs and actors of change in their community. Alima and Peter’s story became the theme of the first Seedstars Documentary about entrepreneurs from emerging markets.
What are your future plans for the company?
Overall, we just want to continue our mission to support entrepreneurs and startup ecosystems through our programs, investments, and network. In terms of new projects, we do have some exciting things lined up such as our Seedstars Academy, an on-campus talent incubator set to train thousands of locals with digital and entrepreneurial skills that can help them either launch their own startups or become software engineers. We’ve already run our first campus in Ivory Coast with promising results, so we’re gearing up to launch another campus in India by next year. On the investment front, we’re extending our support not only to startups but also to emerging venture capital fund managers through an investment platform we’re set to debut soon. More details to come.
What can we learn from entrepreneurs in emerging markets?
Resilience and grit are key ingredients that make great entrepreneurs. In emerging markets where opportunities might sometimes be scarce, I find that entrepreneurs who are determined to solve a problem and make a difference are fueled by two things: a strong vision and tough resilience to see it through. The path of entrepreneurship is not without challenges and I’ve seen how emerging market entrepreneurs use resourcefulness and grit to continue to find ways despite all things.
What advice would you give to women who want to succeed professionally?
Since becoming a mother, I’ve become more aware about the challenges of balancing family and career. I suppose my advice for women would be to first understand what really drives you. To find your “why”. Motherhood has led me to my true priorities: my children and the impact I’m making for their future generation. This is my “why”. I would also say, figuring that out and choosing a company that values you and allows you to grow is a must. You need to find the right fit where you have both guidance but also the opportunity to make decisions and learn without necessarily always having to apologize for who you are.
Talk to us about your biggest success story so far?
I have been fortunate enough to have had a lot of big successes in my career. I would say a couple of my biggest achievements so far are the following:
- The personal growth and high performance of talents that have started out their careers at Seedstars and continue the adventure with us or in another like-minded organization.
- Our capability to have jumped back swiftly during the COVID period by reinventing certain business units and transferring more resources to what aligns us with our mission. It is at such times that you can see if your culture and values are embedded within each member of the organization.
- The number of beneficiaries directly or indirectly impacted by the entrepreneurial education programs or direct investments made in over 67 countries worldwide.
- Our initiatives that help empower women entrepreneurs such as DigiFemmes in Ivory Coast, which would empower 600 women with data and digital skills to help grow existing or new businesses; Women Entrepreneurship for Africa, which selected 120 ventures in the region to take part in a high impact acceleration program; and many more.
- Finally, the overwhelmingly positive feedback from our beneficiaries (aspiring entrepreneurs and existing founders) that believe we have participated in their personal growth and the sustainable development of their impact businesses. One of our portfolio companies Skyworker’s CEO Lidiya Terpel comments, “Seedstars helped us in all areas of our business: revenue growth, increasing the number of customers, increasing the number of technical specialists onboard and a boosting of our company’s awareness on the Global stage. Seedstars is the push that helps us with acceleration.”
What is Alisée de Tonnac human and entrepreneurial vision?
Personally, after becoming a mother, I feel my motivations have been slightly redirected. 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 the Seedstars level, we hope to further work on our current mission and vision which is to support more entrepreneurs and get them to build more impactful businesses. We want to participate in life-changing innovations with great people from around the world. We’ve already achieved a lot but this will definitely be a life project and there is still a lot to be done.