But we are French

It’s imperative that we learn lessons from one another and from other countries and cultures, and learn them fast. If we wait for personal experience, progress will be too slow.

But we are French by Nancy Knowlton

A number of years ago we were introducing our products in France and had organized a press lunch for our coming-out party. We were beginning to enjoy a good level of adoption in the United Kingdom, and we thought that the natural development would be to jump over the English Channel and begin the introduction process in France. Our distributor chose a lovely spot in the heart of Paris, and all invitees graciously accepted our invitation.

Making a splash

We had hosted this type of event many times, and the program was largely established: Brief introduction, 30-minute presentation on the products and the adoption experiences in other countries and a short Q&A. As soon as I started the presentation part I knew that things were going to play out a little differently than normal – people didn’t stop talking as I stood up to speak. Animated conversations continued through my entire presentation, perhaps fueled by the wine that was being served prior to and throughout my presentation. The conversation got louder as time progressed, but I persisted and got everything out that I had planned, even the small part that I delivered in French.

The proof of the pudding

As I regained my seat at my table, a female journalist holding a cigarette at shoulder-height in a very dramatic way asked me if we had any research about the use of our products in France. I thought that this was a terrific indicator that not only did she hear what I had to say, she was interested enough to ask a question. I explained that we were just now introducing our products in France so there was not yet any research, but that there was research from the United States, Canada and Australia that would indicate similar things that we would expect in France.

With a look of great disdain and a dismissive wave of the hand holding the cigarette, she almost snarled her response, “But we are French, and we have to learn these things for ourselves.” Perhaps I was tired or just tired of the disrespect for the perspective that I had to share, and my comeback was “Did you have to learn about gravity for yourself or did you learn that from someone else’s experience?” (Not my best moment for considered self-restraint, I’ll admit.)

Waiting for results

For me, this was a disappointing conversation on several levels. Of course, it was immediately disappointing because research and results only occur after some period of time. Based on what we had seen and learned in other countries, our products could have had an immediate and positive impact in French classrooms. On another level, I was so surprised about the attitude about learning and the portability of learnings from one country to another.

Heeding directions

To always have to have direct experience before understanding something strikes me as limiting and slow. Imagine if children would choose to ignore the warning against touching a hot item and would have to learn a painful lesson from experience only. So quite the opposite, we see many situations in our daily lives where experience is not required for directions to be heeded and lessons learned from the experience of others.

To not be able to consider circumstances in two different environments and extrapolate outcomes from one to another based on the application of good judgment seems equally irrelevant and archaic. Scientists, inventors, problem-solvers and others exercise this very skill daily to positive effect.

I appreciate that there are differences the world over and that we must never just assume them away. My attitude is one of learning from the lessons of others and constant iteration. Today business moves at an accelerated speed. Having a mindset to keep up with that acceleration is the only way to keep from being bypassed.


Having grown up in Quebec, side by side with French Canadians, and having Paris as one of my top 3 favorite cities in the world, I have a high regard for the French – their language, culture, food and perspectives on life. The story that I recounted at the start of this piece is not about a whole group of people or a nationality, but rather the narrow-minded perspective of an individual.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.