Interview with Stéphane Lévin, scientific explorer, speaker and author

David Kassar and Stéphane Lévin

Published at 25/09/2018

Q1. Stéphane Lévin, you have been exploring the planet and its most hostile places for over twenty years. Why open up to the world?

I had another life before I became an explorer. At the beginning of my professional career, I worked in the luxury travel industry. I was responsible for the organization of exceptional adventure tours. The ”Tintin” that I was then was in charge of the choice of service providers, the qualification of the guides, the supply of food, water... It is thanks to this job that I discovered the sublime lands of the Arctic and the Amazon. Then, after ten years spent in this sector of activity, I wanted to give another meaning to my life by putting my skills to the benefit of medical, scientific and technical research. From my travels in hostile environments, I brought back the results of studies allowing me to better understand the adaptation factors of the organism in extreme conditions and to qualify materials and technological solutions. In a way, I have reinvented my life in the service of science.

Q2. You were an emblematic figure at COP21, bearing witness to the concrete effects of climate change. What do you think are the most important challenges we face and how can companies contribute to addressing them?

To be an explorer is to be a field worker on a daily basis of the changes impacting the environment. During my travels around the world, I see the devastating effects of climate change: melting ice floes, rising sea levels, advancing floods, deforestation, pollution... When I meet with managers of small and medium-sized companies, small and medium-sized enterprises and large corporations, I have the satisfaction of observing that environmental issues are generally taken into account in the company's policy. It seems to me that a large majority of business leaders feel concerned about climate change and that concrete actions are being implemented, from the very beginning; I am convinced that the climate change issue is of great concern to business leaders and that concrete actions are being implemented, from product life cycle analysis to short circuit waste management and the research and development of co-materials. I have the impression that the commitment to the ecological transition is becoming a double skin for companies.

Q3. How do you see the new lands of adventure, exploration and conquest for French companies?

I see two lines of response to your question. On the one hand, companies are interested in promoting their creativity and strengthening their capacity for innovation and research into new products, services and uses. On the other hand, the quest for new markets outside of France is a key factor in our success. I consider that entrepreneurs are explorers, and that in their own way, they discover new and unknown territories. We can be proud of the French flag that flies around the world, especially in the Francophonie. I would like to make a small remark in passing. It seems to me that French SMEs would be even more competitive if their managers mastered several languages. I would also add that the French business culture, dominated by administrative and protocol aspects, is sometimes a hindrance to effective progress in the global economic game. I think that simplicity is a good thing! It is necessary to be ready for action in order not to lose business opportunities.

Q4.To what extent can a company's international development help it strengthen its capacity for innovation?

The internationalization of a company is in itself a lever for innovation. If we take innovation in the broadest sense of the word, many French companies that are present in the international arena are participating in this movement to renew their products or their organizational methods. And this seems logical to me: to be exposed to other cultures, other contexts and business practices requires adapting to constraints, which is a generator of innovation and economic development. For example, when I wanted to finance my experiments in Namibia and Quebec, I met many companies in France and especially internationally. I have thus opened my horizons and identified motivated sponsor partners to accompany me.

Q5. Based on your own experience, what are the qualities that an entrepreneur or manager must have to succeed in a globalized economy?

As I said above, an entrepreneur is by definition an explorer. To succeed, you need curiosity, originality, creativity and a taste for adventure. An entrepreneur must be interested in what is happening elsewhere, in other sectors, in other worlds than his own. For disruption occurs by bringing two realities face to face, by calling into question established economic models. Let's take the example of FNAC. Historically known for the sale of books and computers, among others, the group has successfully positioned itself in the home, reading, swimming and DIY. This diversification was not intuitive at first. From my own experience, I was inspired by motorcycle jackets to create a jacket for cold weather. Without the courage to dare to brave new territories, a company can expose itself to serious dangers. Its sustainability can be called into question.

Q6. What messages would you like to convey to the 1,000 SME leaders who will be attending the Francophone Business Meetings on November 8?

I want to put forward four strong ideas. First of all, nothing great is done in a day. In other words, one must be patient, persistent and diligent. The long term is a perspective that allows you to structure and anchor your projects. Secondly, one should not be afraid to make one's ideas bear fruit and to put them into practice. In a word, it is essential to know how to take action. Three times, our societies are in full mutation and are confronted with unpredictable challenges. Companies are not immune to these economic and social upheavals. We can't just stand by the side of the road and watch the train go by. Companies have no other choice but to embrace the different transitions, whether they are ecological, social or digital. Finally, I am convinced that organizations and the men and women who make them up need to recirculate. An entrepreneur must know how to dare to re-circulate for himself and his teams.