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The founder of Epic Foundation on Mark Zuckerberg, being called the French Bill Gates, and how technology can boost philanthropy
Alexandre Mars: States don’t have the money to do good. Business does
Tech entrepreneur Alexandre Mars is known in his native France as the French Bill Gates. Having made his fortune creating and selling tech startups, Mars, 41, founded Epic Foundation two years ago. It aims to encourage tech-savvy investors to donate to children’s and young people’s charities it has selected.
“We change the act of giving … Either I can go out and build schools myself. Or I can invest my money … leverage my skills, my network,” he explains. He is putting $2m into Epic, which uses technology to allow wealthy donors to fund and track a charity’s impact. Donors swipe an app to follow beneficiaries’ progress.
Mars says he aims to “change mindsets”, and describes himself as a “disruptive philanthropist”. It is the reason he funds Epic, rather than directly funding projects himself. The foundation, which has staff in London, New York, Paris and Bangkok, has exceeded its 2016 target to raise $1m. As a result, each of the 20 charities it has selected will receive at least $50,000. Charities apply online from all over the world and a selection team headed by a former United Nations head of policy analyses their impact, leadership and finances. In the UK, it supports education charity – and one of last year’s Guardian charity awards winners – The Brilliant Club.
Next year, a further 10 charities have been selected for support (from 2,000 applications), including two more UK charities, sport-based not-for-profit Street League and east London employment project ThinkForward.
Mars is also launching a series of virtual reality films enabling donors to “experience” the charities, and a new online donation function encouraging gifts of $25 upwards from anyone.
The UK was recently ranked eighth in an annual global league table for individual giving. Figures from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations suggest we donated £19.4bn to the UK voluntary sector in 2013-14. This is 44% of the voluntary sectors’ income.
Mars believes a debate is needed “to explore opportunities and strategies for increasing giving”. At at time when trust in charities is at an all-time low following criticism of some traditional fundraising practices, new ways of engaging donors through technology is surely needed. Such challenges are expected to feature in next year’s House of Lords select committee report on charities, with its focus on digital innovation and financial sustainability.
Mars says he always planned to “do good” with money: “I wasn’t clear that the end would be Epic or to change the act of giving … but I knew the day would come when I’d switch, and just do good.” . He decided to develop Epic after fellow wealthy entrepreneurs told him of the problems they have with charitable giving. They said: “We don’t trust [how to give], we don’t have the time, we don’t have the knowledge [of what to fund] … let’s say you want to do something for cancer, which one to pick if you have 25 different charities? The biggest? The newest?”
So he set up a philanthropy middleman. “When you’re an entrepreneur, it’s about finding a place where people are, and a place where people want to be ... If the gap is wide, you can build a business,” he explains.
Born in Paris and based in New York, Mars says his combination of enterprise and philanthropy comes from the dual influence of his businessman father and “humanitarian” mother. He recalls a recent visit to Paris, where he found his mother volunteering to teach French to a Chinese immigrant. The specific interest in youth inequality stems from visiting a Delhi orphanage in his 20s where his girlfriend, now wife, was volunteering.
He spends 90% of his time on Epic, with the remainder split between his tech investment company Blisce and chairing the sport and society committee of the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic bid. He laughs off the French media’s comparison with Gates, but is clearly proud – and he has sought advice from the Gates Foundation.
What about criticisms that tech entrepreneurs’ charitable aspirations are over-ambitious, such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $3bn initiative to cure all disease? Mars blames perception of ambition: “It is something different in UK than in the US. In the US, being successful is something good, something that no one has to be shy or ashamed of. In the UK it’s ‘don’t be too loud about it’ … It’s ambitious, I agree, to believe that we can change systems, but the good thing is, [this ambition] it’s needed,” he says.
Silicon Valley philanthropists are also reproached for being unsympathetic to social problems on their doorstep and failing to help community-based organisations. Surely Epic’s philanthropic radar fails to pick up smaller, community-based groups that, for example, lack capacity for its rigorous selection process? He replies saying Epic cannot “fix everything”, but that charities might indirectly benefit from its pro-giving mantra: “We have two impacts, one is very tangible [donations] the other is the mindset … so if you give through us or do whatever you do [volunteering or donating elsewhere], I’m happy.” He believes philanthropy is increasingly crucial as public finances shrink (“states and cities – they’re under huge debt”). So, how does he define the role of philanthropists versus the state? “We need policymakers, we need strong leaders … [but] they don’t have enough money, so where is it [the money]? It’s with the corporate world most of the time, so how can we [business] just step up?”
Then, sensing his wealthy peers might need a snappier rallying cry, he adds: “Switch on the television, watch the news – it’s our role to do something.”
Lives Brooklyn, New York
Family Married, three children
Education Florent Schmitt high school, HEC Paris [European business school – Hautes Etudes Commerciales de Paris] and Paris Dauphine University
Career 2014-present: chief executive and founder, Epic Foundation; 2013-present: chief executive and founder, Blisce; 2007-13: head of mobile, Publicis Group; 2006-13: chief executive and founder, Scoon; 2001-07, chief executive and founder, Phonevalley; 1998-2002: chief executive and founder, Mars Capital (venture fund); 1997-99: co-founder and chief executive, A2X web agency.
Public life chair of the sport and society committee, part of the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games bid
Interests practitioner of mixed martial arts; fan of the Brooklyn Nets, New Orleans Saints and New York Yankees; marathon runner; listening to jazz