The French entrepreneur turned philanthropist makes a point of his foundation to visit donors, charities and the communities affected by the donations.
- Alexandre Mars is a serial entrepreneur who has been dubbed the “French Bill Gates.”
- Since he started his first company at the age of 17, he says his goal has been to create a movement around charitable giving.
- Mars now runs Epic Foundation, a non-profit that aims to ensure 100% of philanthropists’ money reaches their charity of choice. Now it wants to encourage businesses to donate 1% of their profits to charity and launch a new platform to encourage non-wealthy donors to give to good causes.
Ever since he was a teenager, Alexandre Mars has always wanted to create something for social good. The French serial entrepreneur turned philanthropist said he always pictured his life as a quest to fulfill that goal.
“You know you will have to battle hard and fight. But you will be successful. That’s epic for me,” the serial entrepreneur Alexandre Mars told Business Insider.
Mars is the founder of Epic Foundation, a non-profit aiming to improve charitable giving by ensuring that 100% of a donation actually reaches the people it is meant to reach.
Until now, it has targeted only wealthy people and companies. But in March, the foundation will launch a new platform called Epic Generation, to enable anybody to donate even small amounts to charity.
Mars fronts all the operational costs for Epic. The foundation was started in 2014 and now has 25 employees across five global offices.
Mars wants to create a global movement of social good
41-year-old Mars, made much of his wealth as a serial entrepreneur, creating over five online and mobile marketing companies. One of those he sold to Publicis Groupe and another to Blackberry.
His goal has always been to create a social good company, something he kept in mind when he was creating and selling companies. This led to French media referring to him as the country’s Bill Gates, but Mars says he isn’t as wealthy – although he doesn’t disclose his net worth – and has always wanted to create a way to empower everybody to give to charity.
With the new platform, Mars wants to reach a younger millennial audience that he believes is one of the most socially engaged generations to have existed.
“We want to democratize giving. Maybe you don’t have 50 grand for me, but you want to give 25 bucks,” he said.
Epic goes through a careful process to select NGOs and social enterprises, all focusing on helping young people from the age of zero to 25-years-old, that will make up the shortlist from which donors can choose. Last year, 1,900 organizations applied to be a part of the foundation. Of those, Mars and his team selected only 10. At the time of the interview, he was in the middle of the selection for the 2017 batch.
“We behave like a venture capitalist. We have 45 data points to help us decide which organizations we’ll select and we spend seven months vetting every social organization presented to us,” he explained.
Epic doesn’t disclose its donor sheet, but, according Fast Company, it includes executives from tech companies Vice, Facebook, and Giphy, as well as firms like L’Oreal and the supermarket chain Carrefour.
As a larger share of younger people come into the workforce, Mars explained it’s also important not just for the wealthy to give to social causes but for companies to participate in the movement.
“An organization can become the new Nokia or Kodak, not because they didn’t see the wave of technology coming, but because they didn’t see the wave of social disruption coming,” he said.
Companies that are part of the Epic Foundation pledge 1% of their profits to social causes.
“The French Bill Gates”
Originally from the south of France, Mars grew up living in the United States and his home country. He attributes much of his success to his parents and multicultural background. Mars’ father was a consultant and entrepreneur, something Mars said drove him to start over five companies. His mom, a former airline stewardess, was the one who instilled in him a social consciousness, Mars said. It’s something he wants to pass on to his own children.
When Mars spoke to Business Insider in New York – his adopted home – the city was experiencing a blizzard, and he was returning from a homeless shelter with his kids.
In his home country of France, Mars was given the label of the “French Bill Gates” by Le Monde. Unlike the American one, Mars said he doesn’t have the power to change laws in developing countries. His goal is to change the mindset of people and drive more social good.
Mars said he always knew he wanted to create something that would have a social impact: “When I was 20, I was sure that it would take me three years to become the next Bill Gates. It would be easy and fast.”
He laughed at his own naivety: “As we all know, it’s super hard to be successful. You work really hard, it takes amazing team and cunningness to get there.”
It took him 21 years, somewhat longer than the three years he had envisioned.
Mars started his first company, a concert promotions agency, at the age of 17, after his parents had returned to France. Four years later, he started one of the first online marketing agencies in France, called A2X, while simultaneously launching his own venture capital firm, Mars Capital, in the United States.
“It was very hard at the beginning, I was 20 with a ponytail and a beard trying to explain to the decision makers that the internet will be the next big thing,” he said.
His fourth startup would turn out to be the one to really put Mars on the map. He founded Phonevalley, which he built into the largest mobile marketing agency in Europe before selling it to the French advertising group Publicis, where it became the agency’s mobile marketing division with him at the head.
In 2013, after his earnout finished, Mars left the holding company, and turned his focus to another startup he had started in parallel to Phonevalley. Called ScrOOn, it was a social media marketing service that allowed brands to manage their social media, at a time when social networks were still emerging.
“I’m bad at many, many things but what I’m good at is seeing the wave coming and being able to interpret that wave,” Mars said. He sold ScrOOn to Blackberry in 2013 for an undisclosed amount.
After selling two of his companies, Mars decided to take a step away from tech startups.
For him, starting and selling companies was always a means to an end, with the goal to create something philanthropic.
“I had the skills from being an entrepreneur, I had the network from traveling the world to meet people, and now I finally had the money,” Mars said.
Combining entrepreneurship and philanthropy
Mars and his wife then took their children out of school for a year and traveled the world, on what he called a “market research” journey. They visited both social organizations and met with donors to find the best approach.
Mars found people held back from giving to charities because of a lack of trust in them, an inability to track what happened with a donation, and donors’ lack of knowledge when it came to choosing the right organization. With Epic Foundation, Mars set out to right that. The foundation puts a number of apps and tools at the disposal of donors through which they choose the charity they want to give to and track what’s happening with their money.
For Mars, this allows him to do everything he would do as an entrepreneur.
“I still work a lot, even more than I used to,” he said.
Alongside Epic Foundation he runs his family office, called blisce/, through which he has invested in a number of large tech companies, including Spotify, Pinterest, and Alibaba prior to its IPO. He was also named the chair of the committee for the 2024 Paris Olympics bid, which he said, in an editorial for the Huffington Post France, was the first Olympic Games candidacy placing social issues at its heart.
Creating more social good is fundamentally at the core of everything he does. 85% of his time is dedicated to Epic Foundation.
“We’re in this new era where purpose is everywhere. We’re building a social good movement, it’s why we didn’t want to have a business model attached to it,” Mars said.
“Epic is a startup, the goal for the future is to keep building new tools and open new offices, the only difference is we change lives and we don’t make money.”