Once a prolific car thief who did time in prison, Tally Fofana now has a billionaire’s backing as he seeks to turn knowledge gained from his criminal past into a vehicle anti-theft device.
Fofana, 39, is just one of the unconventional rookie entrepreneurs Xavier Niel, the founder of phone company Iliad SA, has made a habit of supporting. People who, in fact, are a lot like Niel himself when he first started out.
“We believe in people who haven’t been formatted,” Niel said in an interview around a marble table at Iliad’s Paris headquarters. “People who haven’t been in the same business forever are able to have a fresh take on an industry that can then be disrupted.” It’s these kinds of people who need to succeed for President Emmanuel Macron to convince voters that his plan for a more dynamic “start-up nation” is working and reverse tumbling popularity ratings. French politics and business are still dominated by a narrow elite that graduated from a handful of prestigious universities.
Niel, 51, was once a teenage programming whizz who set up electronic sex-chats on France’s proto-internet Minitel service. He later invested in sex shops and had a run-in with the law. The big money started rolling in when he launched a set-top box for home internet, TV and phone calls that undercut France’s established telecom companies.
Today he is partner to luxury goods executive Delphine Arnault (daughter of France’s richest man, Bernard Arnault), co-owns newspaper Le Monde and backed Macron’s presidential bid.