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Interview with Anne-France Kennedy, head of the New Sparks UK
Interview with Anne-France Kennedy, founder of The New Sparks competition. Each year, this contest is organised in London and French and British entrepreneurs are invited to take part. All selected participants are then mentored by some of the most successful and highly skilled business leaders in the UK... The New Sparks award goes to the six best projects!
FranceInLondon: What is The New Sparks? How does the competition work?
Anne-France Kennedy:The New Sparks is the British version of a competition launched in France ten years ago called Graînes de Boss. The idea is simple: connect CEOs, successful entrepreneurs and business leaders with companies and young entrepreneurs that are just starting out. It is not easy for entrepreneurs to get in touch with experienced businessmen and women and therefore we provide a platform which brings together new ideas and strong experience.
FIL: There are many competitions for young entrepreneurs. How is The New Sparks different?
AFK: The New Sparks competition, there is the classic mentoring dimension: the experienced businessmen and women provide advice to the entrepreneurs, and they support them. But the concept goes further than the classic mentoring; a group of mentors connect with the start-up leaders, and they are opening doors for them, at different levels – commercial contracts, distribution assistance, marketing (even investments in the new projects). The business founder is in direct contact with a business leader, but also with nine or ten other mentors, thanks to the format. The idea is to help the entrepreneurs make their business grow and to help them avoid making mistakes.
FIL: Who are these entrepreneurs? Students, young professionals? Who can apply?
AFK: You have just put your finger on what makes the New Sparks different: the candidates come from all sectors and areas of life. We accept all types of entrepreneur profiles – and they are not all young – and they come from all over France, from Great Britain, and from the rest of Europe. The only prerequisite is for their business to be less than 5-years old.
FIL: You must have many applicants. How do you select the projects?
AFK: Our criteria are mostly related to the professionalism, the innovation and the commitment the entrepreneur shows and that we see coming through in his/her application. In France, out of one thousand applications, fifty are retained. With The new Sparks, we only receive about one hundred applications - but it’s only the second edition of the competition here! – and we select twenty out of them.
FIL: Why did you launch The New Sparks in the UK?
AFK: The unique selling proposition that the New Sparks has is that it is the only competition of its type with a Franco-British bicultural dynamic. People really like that. Initiatives that support new business projects tend to be either local or national. They do not help companies export, or they simply can’t. The New Sparks can give support French companies succeed in Great Britain and British businesses succeed in France. The mentors are familiar with both British and French cultures and both markets. They are able to give advice on the launch of a product or service based on this knowledge.
FIL: Who are the mentors?
AFK: The mentors are either French business executive who have lived in the UK for a long time and who are very familiar with the UK market, OR British business excutives who know France well and who are Francophiles. As far as their background is concerned, they are businessmen and women, coming from major companies or they have are successful entrepreneurs in their own right. They are from very different sectors of activity: finance, marketing, industry… Once again, this is what makes The New Sparks so interesting; we are not focussing on one economic sector of activity.
FIL: What do entrepreneurs gain out of their taking part?
AFK: First of all, you have to differentiate between the ones who win and the ones who don’t. For the ones that are not selected, it is important for them to know why they have not reached the second level. Very often, they re-apply the following year, once they have taken time to review their “business plan”. When they reach the second level and they do not win, it is often because the mentors identified some major weaknesses in their business plan. Then, the mentor tells them how to rework their project. In the end, it is made to be a very positive experience… even if they don't win they receive advice on how to avoid making mistakes.
FIL: What about the winners?
AFK: The winners are given extensive visibility and credibility. First of all, the media talk about them and about the award they have won. They become more credible in front of investors, thanks to The New Sparks tag. Investors know that their business has been analysed by ten to twelve highly qualified people, who have compared it to other projects. It is in some ways a kind of guarantee: the project is seen as more likely to succeed. It is a much more viable proposition.
FIL: Is The New Sparks’s award recognised?
AFK: The award makes it easier for the laureate to raise funds. It is a seal of quality, regarding the clients, the suppliers and the investors. Our ambition in England is to create a real quality label: if you passed through The New Sparks sieve then you are more likely to succeed.
FIL: What have the former winners become? Have they succeeded with their project?
AFK: All of the eighty laureates who have won the Graînes de Boss award in the past ten years, are still in business, their companies have grown and they have hired more people. Some of the businesses have raised as much as fourteen million euros last year! Each of the six March winners in the UK have recently described their progress: it took them less than six months to make their business more professional and implement parts of their business plan. They have found the mentoring dynamic to be a very positive element: they have all explained how their mentor contributed to improving their vision and their product or service, and their business as a whole. Mentors have also provided them with additional clients, suppliers, investors… There is a concrete professional dimension: The New Sparks is not only about personalised coaching, it is also about understanding a market and giving entrepreneurs a network.
FIL: This year, it is the second edition of The New Sparks. Is anything new or different? How many participants are you expecting?
AFK: Out of the twenty mentors who took part last year, twelve have renewed their involvement. We are looking at receiving more than a hundred applications. I am hoping we will reach as many as one hundred and twenty! Ultimately, it is not about quantity, it is about quality. The goal is to increase the number of British projects, and as we improve our visibility and credibility in London, the number of applications we receive should rise!