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Social Disruption, with Alexandre Mars

Social Disruption, with Alexandre Mars

Episode 70: Social Disruption, with Alexandre Mars

Alexandre Mars, CEO and founder of Epic Foundation, has been a disruptor in tech for many years. He advocated for tech and the internet before it was popular and made waves in venture capitalism at a young age. Now, he's taking on a new wave: social disruption. He has turned his success into philanthropy, using his entrepreneurship to advocate for charities and organizations. In this week's podcast, Alexandre discusses the importance of social disruption and how technology helps his philanthropy. He gives solutions for bringing social good into organizations and discusses the steps we can take towards becoming disruptors in our everyday lives.

Episode Transcript

00:00 Rachel Griesinger: Welcome to the Ellevate Podcast: Conversations With Women Changing the Face of Business. And now your hosts, Kristy Wallace and Maricella Herrera.

00:13 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate podcast. This is Kristy Wallace.

00:16 Maricella Herrera: Hey, Kristy.

00:18 KW: Hi, Maricella. Maricella and I are excited for you to get to know our podcast guest today, Alexandre Mars, who is the founder and CEO of Epic Foundation. You're gonna hear a lot about this great organization. This podcast actually was started as a Facebook Live that we did in the Ellevate office. And then it was so great that we wanted to share it with you via the podcast as well. So you're gonna hear about some amazing work being done around philanthropy and around giving and how we as individuals, as business leaders, as societies can become more deliberate and more aware of the opportunities to invest in others and to do good things. You're excited Maricella?

01:03 MH: I'm excited. I'm excited. I know he's a big deal. [chuckle] He has quite the background, has been successful in several ventures and really now focusing on this more philanthropic side, which is something... It's always great to see. For example, we had at our summit Craig Newmark and I keep thinking back to how he also was very successful and now, really just focusing on how to give back. It's always great to hear those stories.

01:36 KW: Yeah, absolutely. And what's interesting about what Alexandre and Epic Foundation are doing is leveraging his tech know-how and background, but his passion for doing good. And so, how can you really disrupt philanthropy using technology as a disruptor, as a connector, as a way to find causes and companies that are relevant to you, that really align with your values and how can we take away any of the barriers to funneling capital towards good causes.

02:14 MH: Which is important and funneling capital, huge, but then as consumers how do we actually also make those choices? And do you choose to spend your money on causes that you care about? Do you Kristy?

02:27 KW: I do. I do. I should do it more. There's many situations that's in your face and it's easy to be a conscious consumer, but I always think that I need to work a little bit harder at doing that.

02:44 MH: Yeah. I give myself a hard time every time I end up having to use Uber. [chuckle] But, sometimes, you don't really have a choice if there are not options. And not in New York. Not in New York, but in other places, if you're traveling, it's a little harder.

03:03 KW: Yeah, but there's many options that are happening and that's the beauty of disruption and the beauty of competition is there's never just one winner. And there's much opportunity for companies to come in and to define business in their own terms and their own values. And it's excited to see what is happening because that space is really being disrupted quite a bit these days.

03:31 MH: Oh yeah. That's gonna be great. So we did ask our members if a company's philanthropic and/or socially responsible policies matter to them when they're making purchasing or investing decisions. And I'm not surprised, 45% of the Ellevate members said, "Yes, absolutely." 44% said, "Somewhat." Almost 90% in some way. 8% said, "Not really," and only 1% said, "Not at all." "Not at all."

04:01 KW: Well, that makes sense. So let's get to my conversation with Alexandre and hear all about Epic and the work that they're doing.


04:21 KW: Hello, and welcome to Ellevate Network's Facebook Live. We're excited that you are joining us today. I am Kristy Wallace, I'm the CEO of Ellevate Network. And I am honored and excited to be joined by Alexandre Mars, who is a serial entrepreneur and we're gonna hear all about that. But more importantly, the founder and CEO of Epic Foundation which is an unbelievable organization doing some great things to drive social good and raise awareness about the impact that we can all have in our world. I've read all about you and am incredibly impressed, but I would love it if you could share a little bit about how you got to Epic Foundation. What was that path... What's that path look like?

05:01 Alexandre Mars: The good thing is... Hello, everyone. Thank you Kristy inviting me. If we have more than two hours maybe I can just explain everything. [laughter] So we're trying to do this in 2-5 minutes. So I'm an entrepreneur, as you said. I started this pretty early in my entrepreneurial journey. I was 17 at that time and I was super lucky. I was in a right place, right age, working hard, that for sure. That's what I'm trying to explain to my kids as well, whatever you can have you need to work super hard. But after luck plays a big role. At least it was for me, as you know. So I started in the music industry. When you are 17, that's something pretty easy. I was promoting concerts, pretty... 2,000 people and then with the money of those concerts, I started buying computers. Was in the mid '90s, long time ago. Long hair, I can tell you. [laughter] You cannot find any pictures but I was with a ponytail, the baggy [06:06] ____ everything. It was hard because I was trying to sell the internet. So it was just in that time where we were trying to explain to people that the next wave will be the wave of technology. It could work, but when you are 20 with this kind of ponytail, the beard and the baggy jeans, it's super, super hard. So I learned a lot because you need to convince people.

06:33 KW: Yeah, and develop that brand, right?

06:34 AM: That's what we still do now. And the resilience. Because a lot of people tell you, "Thank you, but no." So we tried...

06:34 KW: Then you get to say, "Thank you, but how about yes." Just trying. [chuckle]

06:45 AM: Yeah, yeah, so I'm trying the door and the window and the door again and the window again. So no was not the answer, it was not my answer. So we did this and then luck appeared, the internet really popped up. We were just in the '99, the '98, you remember, when it was the first bubble and the first really just internet era. And then, I sold this and I switched to venture capitalism, so I was between Europe and the US, and at the time suddenly being 23, 24 was maybe my biggest chance because people were believing I was smart, but not because I was or was not, because I was young. And that was the time where a lot of people didn't understand well the internet, but they were believing because you were just 24, 25, you will better understand the internet. So, went well, super funny to really believe that you were building a world of tomorrow when you was that young, and the bubble burst. And when the bubble burst...

07:53 KW: I was there. [chuckle]

07:54 AM: You remember this, even if you are way younger than me, it was something. And then suddenly it was the B2C and B2B eras [08:05] ____, because now it's business-to-business or business-to-consumer. At that time it was back to banking and back to consumer. [laughter] So it's people were just going back trying to find job because that was the thing. And then, I started my... So I moved to Europe and I started my fourth startup at that time, the mobile space. Same as usual, super hard because I was able to see something before most people, this was the wave of mobile internet. But when you see stuff too early, it's also super hard because you need to say, "Please trust me, it will be the next big thing."

08:40 KW: At least you had a few successes behind you.

08:42 AM: It was true, but still, it was hard. And in the end I did well. Same, very hard, the usual rollercoaster of entrepreneurship. At the end, someone named Steve Jobs, you remember his name?

09:00 KW: I think I've heard of him.

09:01 AM: Yeah. [chuckle] So this guy just announced the iPhone and it was in '07. And then suddenly mobile were the next big thing. And then we received zillion of offers to acquire us because we were the largest mobile agency in Europe, Europe was seen as the place to be. So then people said, "We want to buy you," so then I switched to my next venture, next journey was in the social media space. Again, in '07, '08, was pretty early on and, again, super hard and I decided to...

09:35 KW: MySpace.

09:36 AM: I'm repeating myself so it's a story for everyone. But it was the same, just hard in convincing people but then, Facebook and many other network just popped up and Twitter, that sort of thing. Twitter just then went public. And when Twitter went public, another organization, a big organization called Blackberry, realized that they had something called BBM and BBM, the Blackberry Messenger, maybe not a lot of people remember this, but it was pretty large with many million users, still now they have a pretty large user base. And then they said, "How Twitter can go public with this kind of valuation when we're not using this network?" And then they acquired my fifth startup to build the backbone of this monetization for BBM. Super nice, super smart people and that was three years ago. So that's barely how I started different startups, always trying to see what will be the next wave, working [chuckle] super hard and being lucky.

10:41 KW: Alright, so you have been on the emerging, the beginning side of all of these great technologies, innovations, and now you're doing something else that's important...

10:52 AM: More meaningful, maybe. [chuckle]

10:55 KW: But I think, and I hope, shepherding in a new era of how we think about the world and our impact on the world and really at the forefront of a much larger movement that you and others will continue to grow. So can you share what Epic is doing?

11:11 AM: Sure. So Epic is the current startup and very similarly, we see a network I've been seeing for the last few years is what will be the next wave? And for sure you have, I don't know, AI, you have drones, you have everything in terms of technology, but we're talking about a different wave. This is what we call the social disruption. We're all talking about the tech disruption and something I'm sure most of the people watching today, and it's all about this. It's how can we disrupt this industry or this industry and how technology can help us? There's something even as powerful as the tech disruption is social disruption. What we see now is more and more people, they are looking for something different than just having the paycheck and getting more money.

11:57 KW: Sure.

11:58 AM: They want the purpose, they want to understand their impact. And that barely just a few years back, I started... I knew for years that my sixth startup would be a social one. I knew that, but at the time I didn't know exactly what would be this social startup. So, I had to do my market research, and as an entrepreneur, you know this, when you don't know well, in any industries, you sort of just understand it. And to understand you need to do the market research. I did this, I met a lot of people, I asked a lot of questions, and at the end I realized something interesting. I realized that wherever you are, just not only New York or Los Angeles, or Paris, or Geneva, or Singapore or Dubai, I'm asking you guys two questions, the first one is, "Have you given money to any social organizations last year?" I'm almost sure that all of you will answer yes. But then I'm asking you a different question, "Do you think you have given enough?" And that was interesting discussion and question to ask, because 95% I'm sure of the viewer and the people I was meeting with were answering no.

13:07 AM: Whatever the amount of money they had on the bank account was more, "No, but you know what, I want to do more." Literally, I can see this, I can see that the world is in danger, is collapsing in so many just fronts. I will try to help, but I can't. So I said, "What's wrong? What's holding you back? Tell me more." And they were answering three reasons: One, "We don't trust. We don't trust social organizations. We don't know what they do with our money," and every year you have one scandal or two and then, trust is back, or trust is away. Two, "We don't have time." It's hard to find the time to do this good. And the third reason is, "We don't have the knowledge." So, we are in New York City here, if you talk about breast cancer and if we talk about women we know how important it is to find a cure and to fight this disease. But breast cancer in New York City, you have 160 organizations tackling this disease. So for you, for me, with little knowledge, which one you will pick? The truth is, what most people will do in that case, when you have more than seven choices, Kristy, you know what you do? You start...

14:22 KW: You don't do anything.

14:23 AM: Exactly. You start procrastinating, you said, "You know what? I will start doing next year," or in two years, or in five years. The truth is, you cannot wait.

14:31 KW: So how are you using technology to change this?

14:36 AM: So, we're using technology, not for the sake of using technology, but when we are talking on how can you just report the impact of your donation. Let's say tomorrow...

14:46 KW: That goes back to the trust you were talking about, is not knowing, feeling like you're putting money away and what happens?

14:51 AM: Exactly, so what we're saying is, first, you should have a great selection. So, even in the selection that we are doing, we are partnering with 150 large, very trustworthy organizations from the... Some we know well here in the US or in New York City, the Robin Hood, the [15:10] ____, the Echoing Green, the Gates Foundation, the Omidyar Network, all these people will go after them and say, "Can you share with us?" Every year, your top five, top 10, top 20 organizations tackling those issues around the world, they do this. Last year we have received 1,900 applications and how we started using technology in that case, we're using Salesforce. Salesforce as a platform to receive all those applications in an effort to work, because the goal is when we have 1,900 applications, it's at some point way too many. I cannot come to see you with 1,900, but then, we are spending like a PE firm, like a VC firm, we are spending seven months to vet less than 1% of them. So, it is seven months of work, including two month on the road, that's what I'm currently do. So I'm back here, but I was in Africa last week, I'm flying to Europe next to visit organizations. And the goal is to have 10 new organizations every year.

16:09 AM: The use of technology is also how we track this. So, we have been building an app. It's a web app, so you can see on your mobile phone, just between two minutes or when you're taking the cab between point A and point B, you say, "Oh," maybe you have five minutes and you want to see how many kids got the shot in East Africa and you can see this. So you can relate this. Or during the snow storm, we had a pretty bad snow storm three months ago here in New York, and we have one organization building this shelter for LGBTQ youth and I want to know, because of my money or thanks to my money how many of those kids got to shelter? How many of those kids got a warm meal that night? And that's stuff that we can just give for you, so technology can be useful.

17:00 AM: And we're also using technology in the engagement. What we always say to donors, "Go and visit organizations. Bring your family, just try to understand why those organizations are doing so much good thing." But one thing that is great, is technology, those organizations in VR. I can bring you with me in India, in Brazil, interest in Holland as well, but that's because most people, they don't care, maybe they don't have time, maybe they're scared, maybe for many reasons they won't go there, but they want to see the impact. So it's not technology for the sake of using technology, but when we can use technology... Because in 2017, you know this, Kristy, we are in the world of solution. So, I can only say, "Please, join us." And say, "Okay, good luck." It's, "Join us, and help those moms and help those kids and change their lives," but then you can see what the impact of your money, like your money and my money, that's super important.

18:03 KW: And that speaks so much to me. I'm involved with the Girl Scouts in New York City. The majority of whom, the girls live under the poverty line, but I get to go to the events and we get to meet the girls and we get to really be tactile and fully immerse myself in what's happening. And so then giving that money feels much more attainable because I see what they're doing, I see the impact, I'm emotionally connected to it. And using technology to allow donors and philanthropists and those that really care about social good to touch and to feel and to experience and to find vetted organizations is huge. Because I think now we can all start to connect more with the opportunities around us and align with the things that we care about. So for everyone that's joined us today, and we really appreciate you spending the time with us, what are one, two things that everyone should do when they get off?

19:07 AM: So we're looking for activists. We are activists, my team, we didn't talk yet about gender and gender equality. But in a team 50/50, just in a woman and man working at Epic. But they're all passionate and they're all activists and I'm a activist. We cannot wait, we cannot stand to see what we see. So that's what we're always saying is, but to do something cash is king, so we need to find the money, where the money is. And the truth is, it's no longer with governments and I'm the pro-state, I think they are doing everything they can at the local level and national level. So it's hard to ask them more. The money is within businesses. So what we are trying to achieve is bring solutions to your organizations. So whoever you work for, big Fortune 500 to middle sized or little SME, how can we just bring social good in those organizations? So I will share with you couple of solutions, we are just pushing and we are asking you to go back to your HR and say, "What about us, what are we doing to change the world."

20:20 AM: One is super easy, is the payroll giving. The payroll giving, easy, you receive a new paycheck and whatever you have on your paycheck every other week is never rounded, you know this, it's always 23 cents, 65 cents. So what we do is easy, we say, "Give away whatever is after the dots." And if everyone is doing the same, A, it's systematic, it's painless and three, it's led by this new generation. So, for example, a week ago we have [20:50] ____ this with Christian Dior. So you all know this very iconic luxury brand, it's interesting that this kind of brand is doing it with the employees and why? Because this new generation, mostly women by the way, 80% women working there, it's super hard for them to recruit them, it's super hard for them to retain them. Because what they want now, you know this, and the same everywhere, you don't only want to know that your organization you're working with or for will make a 7.5% of growth. Okay, fine, but will you [21:28] ____ this? Seriously? But if you start understanding that they do this and they will use this to do something good in the world, you will say, "I will stay there." So we see this coming more and more and that's easy to implement.

21:43 AM: Second one is what we call the round up. The round up, you know when you buy a product online or in a store you can just round up the amount to the next dollar. So it's super easy, it's painless, it's systemic and systematic. We're also pushing the 1% and the 1% of the profit, it's harder but we believe CSR. We always talk about CSR, our organization are trying to use this to make the organization better. But we believe they should go a step further and the step is very clear. You have to engage yourself and your organization to give away 1%. When I say 1%, it's not to the state, it's not the tax, something you will decide. When Christian Dior is doing what they are doing, it's a vote, internal vote for deciding which organization they will give the money to. So it's no longer someone else will decide where to put the money, it'll be your decision as an employee to decide where to put it.

22:38 AM: And for entrepreneurs who are building their own startup and they come to see us, "I want to be part of the movement but we don't make profit just yet." We say, "Fine, pledge your shares." Because when you start a business tomorrow your share is worth almost zero so it's easy. So we have something called the Epic Founder's Pledge where you can pledge 2%, 1%, 5%, whatever you want to a social cause. And then, for sure, maybe one day you'll be acquired by Vice Media, Facebook, Google or [23:10] ____ acquires then this will rally something. So solutions exist. The money is real within this business world. So what we say to the viewers and to people just close to your network is, "Join us, it's not that hard, but try to find where it's painless, not painful and go back to your HR, go back to your CEO, go back to your COO and try to make them understand that it's totally normal." And what we are talking here with my team, we're working so hard to make this real it's a disruption coming but in two or three years from now, it will be the new norm. And like everything else you understand the norm before other people you will survive, if not, then you will be in real danger.

23:57 KW: So Ellevate, obviously, we're a global women's network, we care a lot about gender equality, it's something we fight for. And that's very aligned with the causes that you're focused on as well. We know that girls and women are just unfortunately impacted by economic disadvantages, like educational, lack of education and access to that. Why is that something that Epic is focused on personally?

24:24 AM: Yes. Because since I'm a teenager, let's say, even before, inequalities for me are just the worst thing on earth. And when I was 15, 16, for me, trying to see people using their power. I'm talking the physical power, to just be just above us, as a kid or as a woman just because they are just, they can do this, for me, was the worst thing. For me it was, when I was young, saying it's just so bad. Using what, that kind of power to trying to just force people to follow whatever decisions. And at first, the woman surrounded me, my mom, my wife, that's the kind of childhood I had was with my mom and after was my wife, and that experience shaped me. We are the product of one thing. And I was lucky to have those two amazing women just with me just for the last 40 years and for sure, they didn't just guide me, direct me there to a point, but it was dedication and after it's more than dedication, is what is my household now.

25:44 AM: It's a great point. And talking about this where I mentioned this badge earlier because it's something important, this, maybe you don't see, it's a Paris 2024. I want to mention this quickly, there's a big bid those days between Los Angeles and Paris to get the Olympic Games in 2024. Why I mention this here? We're not talking about sports here. But sports as we know, is one of the best tool to get a better social inclusion and to get what? Guess. A better... No, gender equality. I've joined the bid to chair [26:24] ____ Sport and Society. And with Paris 2024 I've been working on proposals, rule proposals about this gender equality and how can we just build this better world, but not only just, again, be judgmental when things are good but exactly what you do, let's build solutions. And what could better than the Olympic games? What could be just more powerful than the Olympic Games? So that's what we are doing at Paris 2024 is working six different just pillars under this Sport and Society where just it's important to see how we can use sports and how can we use those kinds of events to build this better world for the women of the world?

27:06 KW: Alright. Well, thank you. Thank you so much for joining us.

27:09 AM: Thank you for having me.