Why One French Fe­male CEO Is Caus­ing Cor­po­ra­tions To Bud­get For Con­nec­tion

ForbesWeekly - - NEWS - BY LEAH HUNTER, FORBES CON­TRIB­U­TOR FOL­LOW LEAH HUNTER AT www.forbes.com/sites/leah­hunter

When 23-year-old Marie Sch­nee­gans be­gan a cor­po­rate in­tern­ship, she didn’t know her co-work­ers. Her so­lu­tion: knock on doors and in­vite peo­ple to lunch. Within 16 months, Sch­nee­gans had com­pleted her in­tern­ship, hired her own staff of 15 peo­ple, and trans­formed her de­sire for con­nec­tion into a com­pany.

Her co­founder Paul Dupuy de­scribes her as a vi­sion­ary. “It’s very rare in your life to en­counter peo­ple that have such pos­i­tiv­ity, such great ideas, and such an affin­ity of putting peo­ple to­gether. In terms of the vi­sion, I just fol­low Marie.”

Where did that vi­sion come from? And how has it cre­ated a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar busi­ness?

“When I was at UBS, the large Swiss bank, I didn’t know any­one, and I wanted to meet col­leagues. There was no easy way to meet peo­ple from dif­fer­ent de­part­ments. There were no mo­bile apps,” says Sch­nee­gans. “So I started knock­ing on doors and asked if they want to have lunch with me. They were very sur­prised, but more and more I had lunch with em­ploy­ees from dif­fer­ent de­part­ments. I [had more suc­cess with] my projects, and I loved to go to work for these lunches. And I ended up hav­ing lunch with the CEO. More and more em­ploy­ees came to me and said ’Marie, how do you do it? I would love to come with you! I would love to meet new col­leagues!’” It gave her an idea. Sch­nee­gans had never worked in a startup or built an app, but she knew peo­ple who had. She got in touch with her now co-founder, Dupuy, and asked him to help her cre­ate a so­lu­tion. “We were think­ing: Let’s make tools so that em­ploy­ees can meet in­side big com­pa­nies so that they are more con­nected and hap­pier at work,” says Sch­nee­gans. That’s what they did. To­gether, Sch­nee­gans and Dupuy built Never Eat Alone, an app with a b-to-b and b-to-c busi­ness model. That means that it’s owned by the com­pany who sub­scribes to it and they li­cense copies for each of their em­ploy­ees. (Never Eat Alone makes money by sell­ing soft­ware as ser­vice.) Within the app, each em­ployee has a pro­file for their depart­ment and within the com­pany, list­ing a few hash­tags about the ac­tiv­i­ties they love and wish to learn about. For in­stance, Sch­nee­gans ex­plains “I like tennis, and I would love to know more about big data. We have a match­ing al­go­rithm. If some­one else also likes tennis in your com­pany, your pro­file will ap­pear at the be­gin­ning of the main screen, and then you can click on ‘let’s have lunch’ or ‘let’s have a cof­fee.’”

Be­side the chat win­dow, there is a sched­ul­ing sys­tem that en­ables users to send and re­ceive lunch in­vi­ta­tions—mak­ing the whole process of con­nect­ing with and invit­ing co­work­ers sim­ple. It is de­signed so both dig­i­tal na­tives and peo­ple less fa­mil­iar with tech­nol­ogy can eas­ily use it. And quite of­ten, as Dupuy ex­plains, the app is most ben­e­fi­cial to more se­nior em­ploy­ees. Many of the re­la­tion­ships be­ing formed are fo­cused on “re­verse-men­tor­ing where older peo­ple can be con­nected with younger peo­ple to re­ceive ad­vice about how to be more in­no­va­tive.

That said: get­ting com­pa­nies to adopt this wasn’t easy at first. His­tor­i­cally, cor­po­rate HR de­part­ments haven’t had a bud­get line-item for “con­nec­tion.” Sch­nee­gans is help­ing to change that, and she is do­ing so us­ing un­con­ven­tional sales tech­niques—one of which is both old-fash­ioned and bril­liant in this world of email. When Sch­nee­gans finds a com­pany she be­lieves she can help, af­ter reach­ing out to var­i­ous em­ploy­ees if she doesn’t get a re­sponse, she takes a more di­rect and per­sonal ap­proach. She hand­writes a let­ter to the CEO ex­press­ing how im­por­tant it is to have more con­nected em­ploy­ees.

“There is a big phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany, Sanofi. We’re in the process of launch­ing with them be­cause Marie sent a let­ter to the CEO, who sent it to the CIO, who called us and asked to make it hap­pen,” says Dupuy. “We’ll re­ally do what­ever it takes be­cause we’re driven by a mis­sion.”

The early suc­cess of Never Eat Alone points to the fact that there is de­mand for hap­pier, more con­nected work­places. On an an­nu­al­ized ba­sis, the com­pany is al­ready billing more than a mil­lion dol­lars. By the end of 2017, they’re pro­jected to be at $3M.

Sch­nee­gans signed her first two cor­po­rate clients in 2015—she now has 60, in­clud­ing most of the For­tune 500 in France. “We have com­pa­nies in Switzer­land like Philip Mor­ris. We have Lloyd’s Bank in the UK. We have half of the French stock ex­change index. We’re go­ing to start work­ing soon in New York with L’Oreal,” Dupuy says.

“At this rate, we’ll be at 200 [cor­po­rate clients] by the end of the year. We al­ways hear what makes a com­pany is not its ideas, it’s its peo­ple. We go fur­ther than that. We say it’s not even the peo­ple, it’s the con­nec­tions be­tween the peo­ple.”

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