The world’s largest start-up campus is located at a former train station in the heart of Paris. With a thousand budding entrepreneurs on 34,000 m2 of floor space, France is putting itself on the map as one of the most innovative countries in the world. A prestigious project where everything revolves around entrepreneurship. IO catches up with entrepreneur Yama from the Netherlands.

The first thing you notice when entering the ‘Share Zone’ at Station F, is the gigantic Play Doh sculpture by Jeff Koons. It took Koons twenty years to perfect this pile of brightly colored lumps of clay into an icon of contemporary visual art. Start-ups underneath the former railway platform roof can only dream of that kind of long-term venture.

Play Doh by Jeff Koons

Fighters Program

Like those such as Yama Saraj from Eindhoven, who at 33 years of age claims to be a veteran when it comes to start-ups. Last year he swapped the Dutch city of light for a French city in order to take his exercise and coaching app ‘Sensai’ to the next level on the campus. He has been given one year to do this with a scholarship from the Fighters Program, which is aimed at entrepreneurs with an ‘underprivileged background’.

Yama came to the Netherlands as a refugee from Afghanistan at the age of eleven. A visit to his war-torn country in 2011 turned out to be an eye-opener for the former business administration student. ”I want to bring technology to my homeland. Call it social activism, but IT provides me with the means to do something.” The plan is to eventually launch his app in Afghanistan and be able to do something for people with PTSD this way. However, money must first be raised for any further development. And that can be done in Paris.

Station F offers two distinct formulas for start-ups. The Founders program focuses on establishing start-ups ‘with major ambitions’. You have the opportunity to rent a workplace in the concrete station hall which is 310 metres long – the same length as the Eiffel Tower on its side – for 195 euros per month. For that price, you get 24/7 access to a magnificent building with lounge sofas and pool tables in every corner, meeting rooms, a ‘create zone’, an indoor sports field and an industrial-looking Italian restaurant full of Persian carpets. However, what this is essentially about is that you learn from real entrepreneurs and not from professors,” Yama says.

Yama Saraj with partners from his start-up, Jan de Bruijn (28) and Philippe Gnansounou (21)

Killer entrepreneurs

In order to ensure that knowledge is shared efficiently, start-ups are divided into ‘guilds’, a social structure based on the gaming industry’s perspective which rewards collaboration. A guild consists of an average of ten start-ups from various backgrounds. This results in interesting cross-pollinations between, for example, food, fashion, blockchain, e-commerce and cybersecurity,” Yama explains.

He and thirteen others are participating in the Fighters program, which offers exactly the same services as the Founders Program, but for which he doesn’t have to pay anything. It focuses on ‘killer entrepreneurs’ who have not been given equal opportunities, such as immigrants or refugees. Founder of Station F is French billionaire Xavier Niel, who came from a poverty-stricken environment himself,” says Yama. “I am also a street fighter. This mentality can come in handy, because as an entrepreneur you get a lot thrown at you.”

In his opinion, this is the kind of mindset that is hard to find in ‘the village’ of Eindhoven. If you have ambitions, you’ll get asked ‘what’s wrong with you?’ They tend to look at what’s already there, not at what you could create. Established companies like ASML and Philips literally just get in the way. The ecosystem is built around all of those major players. Sometimes it seems as if nothing else exists outside of these companies. In Paris, I can see that the world is way bigger than that.”

The fact that Station F, with partners such as Google, Amazon and Facebook, is also thinking big, was already clear when President Emmanuel Macron opened the complex two years ago. The programs explicitly target young entrepreneurs from all over the world, the working language is English and even the French bureaucracy is circumvented so that the lives of the start-ups are made easier. Needless to say, a touch of joie de vivre is indispensable. Most people start here between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., and in between all the work there is a lot of chilling out and good food,” laughs Yama.

Not a refugee anymore

He commutes daily with his e-scooter between the campus and Flatmates, a housing complex 10 minutes away which is a part of Station F. He rents a room there for 400 euros a month, a pittance in Paris. For the first time in his life, Yama no longer feels like a refugee – he feels as if he is an expat and a knowledge worker. Here in France I am a typical Dutchman. I am direct, punctual and sometimes even a bit blunt. When I am at home I deliberately don’t present myself in this way. Because everyone always ends up asking me where I actually come from.”