As “La French Tech” accompanies a curious group of American venture capitalists on a tour of Ecole 42, an innovative information and technology University on the outskirts of Paris, it is hard not to be immediately impressed. As the VCs quickly learned, Ecole 42 is a completely free university with an unique teaching style that focuses on problem solving and project-based learning which allows the students to grow without being “encumbered by the system”. Fortunately, this school is not only free but open to anyone between the age of 18 and 30 regardless of their financial ability or educational background. In fact, 40% of the school’s students have never even graduated high school and many of them had never coded before becoming students.
The selection process is, however, quite rigorous. Out of 70 thousand original applicants, less than 1000 are chosen after a four-hour online test and month long trial period consisting of more than 100 work hours per week. Instead of looking for students with previous knowledge of computer programming, the school focuses on finding students with innate talent that are motivated and willing to put in the long hours the school requires.
The long hours, however, do not come without their perks: A nap room, cafeteria, BBQ, game room, showers, Jacuzzi and even a movie room (which we learned is mostly used for watching the latest Game of Thrones episode).
The Man behind it all
One might now be wondering how it’s possible to make a school like this completely free to students and the answer to that question is quite simple: Xavier Niel. Niel is a French billionaire and influential entrepreneur who created France’s first internet service provider at the ripe age of 25. After selling it seven years later, he went on to start Free, a telecommunications company that was the world’s first company to offer a bundle package of phone, internet, and television.
Niel uses money from his own pocket to completely finance the school and makes absolutely no profit. When one curious VC asked why, Niel’s simple response was that he wants to help people:
“I made a lot of money and now I want to give back and do what I can to improve the startup ecosystem in France … hopefully one day one of them will be successful and do the same … and you know the name of my company is Free so it seems fitting to create a free school.”
One thing is for sure, Niel’s dedication to helping the French start-up environment cannot be questioned. Not only did he use his own money to create this school but he is also one of the biggest investors in France’s new business incubator that is scheduled to open in 2016. At 30,000 m², this new space is set to become the largest business incubator in the world.
Impact of Ecole 42
Throughout the tour, it was hard to miss the shocked and impressed faces in the crowd. Doug Carlisle, a SF-based venture capitalist, believes the company could have a real positive impact on the French start-up industry:
“In the three days I’ve been in Paris, this is by far the most promising thing I’ve seen. I think France’s challenge is that when a start-up company begins to take off, they need to hire hundreds of computer engineers in a short amount of time and that’s hard to do in France. But this school could really solve that problem”
Xavier Niel furthered Carlisle’s argument by pointing out that this school is producing computer engineers that are even less expensive than those in America:
“How much does a developer cost in California? 120K? Well for half that price you can now get the same talent in France.”
After this tour, it’s not hard to be optimistic about the future of France’s start-up industry and we are all excited to see what the future holds for Ecole 42. For more information on the school, please visit their webpage at http://www.42.fr/ or follow them on twitter @42born2code.