Every month, BeAngels profiles one of the members who have joined its network. October’s profile focuses on one of our women members. We interviewed Cécile Cordier, Head of Innovation at Engie/Global Energy Management, who is a BeAngels member. She outlines her career path within the Engie group over the past 20 years, occupying a variety of different posts. As Cécile adores innovation and launching new projects, becoming a business angel over two years ago was a natural next step for her.
Hello Cécile, can you tell us more about your career?
I have had what you might call a relatively classic career. After my civil engineering studies at Louvain-la-Neuve in applied mathematics in the domain of artificial intelligence, I wrote a thesis on applied science. After completing my thesis, I joined Electrabel. At the time, the company was setting up a team to work on liberalising the energy market, which was a brand-new theme back then. I was keen to join a small team of 5 or 6 people, building everything from scratch. The team was in stark contrast with the giant Electrabel structure, we were even situated in a small location outside of the main office.
I joined Electrabel in 1999 and, to a certain extent, I’m still there. I still have the same employer, although I have changed role many times. Firstly, I focussed on the economic aspects of liberalised energy. Next, I was involved in strategy, blueprints and analyses used to assess the value of various investments, including fuels and CO2. After that, I moved to a more operational role in the trading and portfolio management department, where I held various posts. These roles included managing our assets in southern and eastern Europe, which involved a lot of travel, and managing the quant analysis and market research teams. Since 2017, still in the same department, I have been managing new business prospection and relations with startups.
How did you become a business angel?
When I began working on innovation at Engie, we initially supported teams developing in-house projects. Gradually however, I found it necessary to seek inspiration elsewhere, in order to innovate, and we decided to broaden our horizons and observe what was happening around us, outside of the company. I discussed this with my colleagues and asked them how to proceed and one of them told me about BeAngels.
That’s how I found out about training at the BeAngels Academy and the Business Angel Club (BAC) investment groups, which I signed up to initially… for my job! To work with startups, you need to understand them first. I thought that the easiest way to understand would be to dive straight in and learn by gaining direct experience myself. From the outset, I was hooked. By supporting entrepreneurs in this way, you learn a lot and it is highly stimulating and has now become one of my pastimes.
What attracted you to business angel investing?
I have always leapt into uncharted waters, in newly founded teams and in startups. I like the setting-up aspect and throwing myself into new activities. And then there’s my intellectual curiosity, I love discovering things. When I attend startup pitches, I often say to myself “what a great idea, I would never have thought of doing that”. It gives me confidence for the future, which is like a silver lining to the currently gloomy situation!
What criteria do you use for selecting projects?
I have to fall for the idea presented by the entrepreneur and be convinced. Innovation and team quality are also very important to me, knowing that these factors will contribute to the success of the project. As our collaboration will last several years, there also has to be a good match and I need to feel that the entrepreneur wants to be supported, in order to collaborate. In our investor group, we particularly target “active” investments, in which you have to imagine yourself, or one of the other group members potentially appointed to the board of the company and feel that we will be listened to. Otherwise, there is little point in supporting an entrepreneur.
For the time being, I have been chiefly carrying out due diligence, i.e. pre-investment analysis, without being particularly actively involved in the follow-up. And as I am in a group alongside other investors, we take turns, as several of us are able to do it.
I have to say however, that I am very keen on sustainable development, and I have therefore invested alone in projects in the domain of the circular economy, outside of the network. If an innovative project also has an ecological impact, it will significantly increase its chances of interesting me. This is without neglecting profitability as a key criterion, however. I have to believe in the business plan being presented.
I don’t prioritise any particular investment domain, my interest can range from bio-medical innovation to digital solutions. Ultimately, the only specific criterion I apply is to exclude projects which are not compatible with my values, such as in the military domain, in which case I don’t invest.
Do you consider your experience at Engie as being an advantage to investing in startups?
Absolutely. Being used to assessing valuations, testing different scenarios and working in the energy sector, which is a highly dynamic industry at the moment, that certainly helps.
I also really like discovering entrepreneurial teams and hearing their pitches. They provide the innovation aspect, as they have not been formatted by major companies. You have to strike a fine balance between innovative novelty and a certain pragmatism, in order to grow. A more pragmatic approach is developed by taking a broader perspective, through the experience of working in a large group.
« I also really like discovering entrepreneurial teams and hearing their pitches. They provide the innovation aspect, as they have not been formatted by major companies. »Cécile Cordier - Business angel
Do you gain anything from investing in startups on a personal level?
I find it intellectually stimulating, but that’s not all. It also involves open-mindedness, which enables me to reference startups at Engie or among my contacts. I often hear my contacts mention problems to me and I ask them if they know a particular startup. This creates both professional and private links.
You are involved in several investment groups. Can you tell us what pleases you about group dynamics?
It is highly instructive to work as a group on an investment. Some people have a more commercial approach, whereas others are more marketing-focused … while some are resolutely independent and therefore have other reflexes. Cross-referencing different views on a project is highly beneficial, both for me and the entrepreneurs themselves.
Group formulas enable collective investments. One of the group members is generally designated to climb onboard and represent the group in the ensuing strategic piloting of the company. The designated member can call on the other group members to help when the startup requires. Thanks to this approach, I learn a great deal from others.
The “group” aspect is also reassuring. If I am carrying out due diligence, I can always ask the group’s opinion. This is ideal to learn to start as a business angel.
« The “group” aspect is also reassuring. If I am carrying out due diligence, I can always ask the group’s opinion. This is ideal to learn to start as a business angel. »Cécile Cordier - Businesss angel
"Being a business angel takes time”. Do you agree with this statement?
Yes, it does take some time. I would not have got involved 10 years ago with 4 young children, but now they have grown up. Again, a group formula is practical, as it enables you to share time. Some members are sometimes more available at certain periods and others at other times. Being in an investment group enables you to level out the efforts required. For my part, I don’t think I spend more than 2 hours per week. Some people play tennis or golf, whereas my hobby is taking care of startups.
Women are always underrepresented among business angel, including at BeAngels. What would you say to someone who is hesitating over getting involved?
Personally, I have never questioned being a women business angel. I have asked myself rather how much time it was going to take up. I had estimated four days’ training and two to three hours per week. And this is indeed the case.
For anyone lacking confidence, you have to tell yourself that no one has trained to be a business angel. Investors all start from scratch, as it isn’t a topic we learn at school. And the fact that BeAngels organises training programmes and investor groups, to learn while investing, considerably helps boost confidence. Everyone has something to input. In my case, for example, I can help understand the corporate side and quantitative aspects, whereas an HR manager will contribute their recruitment skills, while others help with marketing etc. You have to recognise that everything is of use in a startup.
« For anyone lacking confidence, you have to tell yourself that no one has trained to be a business angel. Investors all start from scratch, as it isn’t a topic we learn at school. »Cécile Cordier - Business angel