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The gift is in the giving

09/01/2020

There is an art to giving and, if you need it explained, all you need to do is spare a moment for Alexandre Mars, chief executive officer and founder of Epic and blisce, who revealed all at a Kleinwort Hambros client breakfast at The Conduit in London on Thursday 5 December.

Alexandre Mars is an inspiration and he has just made it a little easier to join him on his philanthropic mission by revealing all in his book ‘Giving: Purpose is the new currency’

But it was not always that way. As a teenager, school lost its early lustre, easily trumped by the newfound distraction of young love. “I was not the best student, but my wife was! I’m still with her and I am very lucky to have met her,” said Alexandre.

Inspired by his mother, Alexandre set up his first venture when he was 17 years’ old and the entrepreneurial bug has remained a fixture ever since. “I have been successful not because I’m cleverer than others, but because I put in the hours and outwork them,” said Alexandre. “I would work until 4am, sleep for three or four hours, get up and start again at 7.30am. I have been doing that for the past 20 years." 

“Entrepreneurs only think they will be successful,” he said. “We have no doubts. For me, if I want something, I get it.

“All of my start-ups end up looking very different from the initial idea…. Entrepreneurs are always looking for the weak signals, the stuff that very few people will see before you,” said Alexandre.” And timing is of the essence. Being a fraction of a second ahead of the rest of the world is how you become successful.”

A pony tail, lengthy beard and baggy jeans were not sufficient to put off those willing to invest in his journey through the early days of the internet (1996, when he was 20), mobile phone technology and social media. “I thought it would take me five years in the for-profit world, but it took 20 years to get to the point where I could decide on the next chapter of my life,” said Alexandre.

Now, 80% of his life is devoted to helping the needy and the underprivileged; the remaining 20% of his working life is dedicated to continuing to support mission-driven entrepreneurs and start-ups through a family office and blisce, an investment fund he started five years ago, which is invested in direct-to-consumer in the US and Europe. The venture has also been a success, investing in the early days of Spotify and Pinterest. “We can have a positive view through finance, which is what we do when we invest,” said Alexandre. “We are very clear about the importance of ESG and diversity. I want to know who you are and what kind of business you are running and how you are running it.”

The Epic journey

Once Epic was established, more patterns started emerging in Alexandre’s mind. “What we started noticing with private banks and multi-family offices, for example, is that they would come to us and say, ‘I don’t want to just invest in hedge funds anymore and short positions, because that’s not how I want to deal with this world’... I want a sense of purpose,” he said. “That’s very new. Our kids are far more activist than our generation was.”

The upshot was the creation of a not-for-profit start-up designed to offer support to youths from birth to the age of 25. “When we started Epic, I went to see the people I had worked with in the past. They were expecting to have a conversation about technology, artificial intelligence or virtual reality,” said Alexandre. “I said that’s not what I want to discuss.”

Alexandre’s recipe for the demise of businesses (Nokia being his prime example) has three ingredients: “unless they put purpose at the core of their identity, it will be almost impossible for businesses to recruit and retain staff; secondly, if you don’t connect with your customers on an emotional level, it will be hard to sell products and services; and, thirdly, if you do not have something that sets you apart in your company’s DNA, your kids won’t take an interest in what you do. You need to spend time asking people what they think and what they want, not what’s the best.”

His book opens with the same question he presented to the audience: “Have you given money to any social organisations in the last year; keep your hands up if you believe it’s enough. It’s always the same answer. We are all doing something, but we all think we could do more. Why? The answers are always the same, ‘I don’t trust social organisations and I don’t have enough time’; and third is the lack of knowledge.”

If the kids are united

“Where are people putting their money? First, their kids’ schools; second, religious institutions; and, third, hospitals. It’s only after people reach the age of 50 that they start giving to hospitals, I have never come across anyone in their twenties showing the same enthusiasm! That is normal, because human beings are selfish by nature,” said Alexandre. “I am not saying we need to be perfect, I am saying how can we help people to meet just two steps and get closer to where they want to be?”

When Christian Dior asked Epic how to solve a recruitment and retention problem, the advice was to invite employees to round down their pay check with that money going to worthy causes.

The company matched the donation and, more importantly, the decision of where to put the money was collective. After the first year, 24% of its employees signed up. 

On 9 September 2019, Dior stores across the US gave 10% of its top-line revenues to Epic.

“Charles Darwin understood this better than anyone, when explaining that the species that survive are not necessarily the strongest, but rather the ones that adapt to their environment,” said Alexandre. “The same logic applies to companies that want to survive and be successful. These recent initiatives made Dior employees and customers very happy.”

By way of another example in a completely different sector: a foreign-exchange trader from Societe Generale arranged to see Epic in 2018. “He said he loved his work trading currencies, but that he longed for a greater sense of purpose” said Alexandre. He then explained that, in exchange rates, there are “five digits after the comma, of which the fourth, the PIP, is the most important,” said Alexandre. “He asked, ‘what should I tell my kids when they ask, ‘dad, how was your day?’ when I have been working all day with five digits. So, together, we created ‘Hedge to Pledge’, whereby the bank’s clients give everything after the fourth digit to Epic. When you see initiatives like this, which can be easily integrated and adapted to any company’s business model, you know more are coming.

“Millennials - the ‘we’ generation - are inherently different from the ‘me’ generations of the past, pushing us to accept that we are not perfect,” said Alexandre. “We need to do something different. Sharing is the key to salvation. I am not saying that being wealthy isn’t a valid goal, but we also need to find mechanisms to give more and share more with those in need. Businesses will do this because we - citizens, consumers and employees - are pushing them to do this. If they fail to change, we won’t buy from them or work for them anymore. Again, it’s Darwinian: adapt, or go the way of the dinosaurs.”