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Shaking Up The Mentoring Paradigm: Martine Liautaud

A French superstar gives women a push toward workplace equality with cross-company support

By Katie Weisman

On a beautiful Friday in September, a group of mostly women mingled in the BNP Paribas Innovation Lab in Manhattan’s midtown, a neighborhood brimming with buildings home to local, national, and multinational companies — the kind for which many of the guests worked. Everyone had gathered for the American launch of the Intercompany Mentoring Program developed by the Women Initiative Foundation (WIF), a nonprofit organization founded by French businesswoman, entrepreneur, and investor Martine Liautaud

Filling the Confidence Gap 

This program is a matchmaking mentor-mentee advisory whereby an executive — male or female — from one entity will mentor a female executive from a different, maybe even competing, organization. While the candidates are chosen by their respective employers, WIF determines the pairings and supports the relationship for a year with career development and leadership events. The hope is that the mentor-mentee relationship, if beneficial to both parties, will endure over time.

“There’s a need for mentoring,” says Liautaud, whose WIF is an outgrowth of a female entrepreneur mentoring program she started ten years ago. “After working with female entrepreneurs, I see that women lack confidence and that quells their ambition. As an investment banker, I also see that women often don’t know how to present their story. When they are seeking financing, they don’t pitch their ideas correctly. And many women feel discrimination in the workplace.” 

While structured mentoring programs are not new in the corporate world, developing and fostering a network of mentors and mentees from different companies is innovative.


The US launch of WIF’s Intercompany Mentoring Program

Breaking The Mentoring Paradigm

“Mentoring programs within the same company [are] not enough,” declares Liautaud, speaking with TheCovey at the end of the September launch of the US program. She notes that mentoring done internally quashes true honesty: there will always be things that the mentee will be afraid to say to their mentor for fear of recrimination. And there will always be things that the mentor hears from the mentee that will make them feel uneasy or could place them in an ethical bind. “If it’s inter-company, both parties are able to freely express themselves,” Liautaud explains, adding that each party in her program signs Non-Disclosure Agreements. “There’s more freedom, trust and confidence to express who you really are.”

Liautaud, who grew up in Paris and Versailles, is one of the first female investment bankers in France, and an accomplished businesswoman and entrepreneur. After a 16-year career at Banque Indosuez (where she was a founding partner of Financière Indosuez, the investment and M&A arm of the bank), she started her own investment bank, Liautaud & Cie. In addition to pursuing and managing investments and running WIF, Liautaud is C-suite advisor and paid member of many corporate boards. She founded The Women Initiative Foundation (WIF) in 2016 with the goal of “promoting the advancement of women in the workplace and in the economy by mentoring, training and organizing events in France, US, Canada and Singapore.” The nonprofit is funded mainly by French energy company Engie, French bank BNP Paribas, and Liautaud & Cie. WIF’s Intercompany Mentoring Program, launched in early 2019 in France for European executives, counted Engie, BNP, Oracle, PayPal, and L’Oréal among its corporate participants. The European program was followed by the US program last fall, which included mentors and mentees from AWS (Amazon Web Services), SalesForce, Ernst & Young, Bank of the West (part of BNP), AXA, Engie, and the United Nations. The program will launch in Asia later this year and Liautaud hopes to launch in Canada in 2021.

“There’s so much to learn! In the one and a half hours I’ve been here, I’ve been blessed to meet some pretty phenomenal people and learned how they [invest] in their careers and how they are excited to invest in the next generation,” exclaimed Melissa Perincheril, an account manager in technology sales at AWS, at the American launch in September.

“Women’s leadership is one of our key assets and we hope [the Mentoring program] will accelerate the amount of women who will become role models both internally and externally,” noted Margaret Johnston-Clark, the Head of Global Diversity and Inclusion at L’Oréal, in a testimonial for WIF’s tenth anniversary. To be effective, the Intercompany Mentoring Program is and will remain small. While Liautaud would clearly like to support many women around the world, mentoring is an intimate exercise and her program cannot be rolled out on a large scale. If a woman hears about it by word of mouth, she would have to get in touch with her Human Resources department which would then have to reach out to WIF. WIF would then evaluate whether the company and the employee are a good fit for her program’s philosophy.


A book celebrating 10 years of the Women Initiative Foundation mentoring female executives and entrepreneurs

Mentoring vs. Coaching: What You Need to Know

Mentoring and coaching are often thought of as the same, yet they are extremely different. Mentoring is unpaid; both parties come to the relationship as volunteers. By contrast, coaching services, sometimes offered by an external expert for employees, are often paid for by their companies, or by individuals who hire coaches for private support. Mentoring relationships are usually long term; coaching has an end date. Coaching is also often focused on correcting or developing behaviors or a specific skill set. Mentoring, on the other hand, is geared toward the overall personal and professional development of the mentee, as explained at the Intercompany Mentoring Program’s US launch by Claire Simier, an executive coach and founder of Simier Partners, a coaching and strategic consulting firm. 

Focusing on Entrepreneurs With Traction

WIF is the continuation and expansion of the Women’s Business Mentoring Initiative that Liautaud established in 2009. Her goal at the time was to help female business founders who had already reached year three and at least $1 million in revenues in their start-up with their next steps. Unlike many traditional VCs and advisors, Liautaud doesn’t want to get in at the launch stage of a business — her added-value is better used later. “Funding a start-up is easy. You can easily advise on the simple problems that require solving so that an idea can be launched,” she says. “After three years, there is nobody there to help you get to the next level and you don’t have the financial means to hire an advisor. This is the critical time where you need a good strategy to make your company grow.”

Mentoring is beneficial for female executives throughout their entire careers, Liautaud says, from their first years on the job through the C-suite experience. She notes that companies generally hire 50 percent women at entry- or lower-level positions, but points out that there is a huge attrition rate as women rise through the corporate hierarchy. At the vice-president level, Liautaud says the female population in most companies dwindles to roughly 20 percent. “Even at the best companies, there might be one woman out of ten board members,” Liautaud observes. 

The Other Critical Mentoring Moment: The First Years of Work

Liautaud also believes that mentoring young women in the first years of their careers is vital. Her thesis: gen Z and millennial women made it through school, college, and maybe higher degree programs with little if any friction or sexual discrimination due to their sex. Thus, they may not be prepared for or anticipate the resistance to diversity in the workplace that shows up in the real world. Once they enter the corporate world, they clearly see the glass ceiling, Liautaud notes. 

Liautaud says she is all too familiar with the glass ceiling: She spent much of her career at French bank Banque Indosuez banging cracks in that ceiling. She landed her first job out of college by networking with a family friend — who later became a mentor — but found herself  stuck on the sales side of the organization instead of in the lucrative investment banking operations she aspired to. Her job was to make cold-calls and bring new clients to the bank; once she hooked the clients, she had to pass them on to her male counterparts to reel them in. Thanks to her stellar skills in customer service, however, her clients began asking her to take over their financial operations. To accommodate the requests, she had to move into investment banking. Liautaud rose through the ranks, became a director of the bank, and is known for leading major deals such as the privatizing of TF1, France’s largest television network. Once her two children entered their teens, Liautaud wanted a different rhythm of life, and so set up her own investment bank, Liautaud & Cie, and created her own deals. These included selling Meccano (the beloved maker of erector sets), in which she held a majority stake, to investors in a private equity deal, and orchestrating the $1 billion service contract between IBM and French insurance giant AXA (now known as Equitable).

Today, Liautaud spends about 20 percent of her time on her business endeavors and 80 percent on WIF. WIF’s work with female entrepreneurs and executives includes weeklong executive education programs at top universities. At Stanford University, WIF launched the Women Entrepreneur Program, sponsored by BNP Paribas, where a select group of 40 women from four continents learn, bond, and take their businesses to the next level. A partnership program between France’s CentraleSupelec, a top science and engineering school, and the Haas School of Business at University of California, Berkeley, is also in place for entrepreneurship, innovation, and leadership for women in business at least 15 years. WIF hosts leadership programs for young executives with three to seven years of experience at Scripps College. In 2020, WIF will start a program for female entrepreneurs and executives at McGill in Montreal with CentraleSupelec.


The Stanford Women Entrepreneur Program 2018

 Scaling For the Future

Over the past ten years, Liautaud’s foundations have worked with over 400 female entrepreneurs. Today she is on track to support 200 female executives and entrepreneurs annually. 

“The business world is tough for women. If you want to change the corporate world you need to check in with women at each level,” says Liautaud. “If you want to help women grow professionally, you have to follow their entire career.”


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