A new French (tech) revolution?

   < < Go Back
from Fortune Magazine,

Telecom entreprenuer XAVIER NIEL wants to shake up his home country’s education system.

Niel, one of France's richest men, bypassed its famous colleges.

Xavier Niel, one of the richest people in France (estimated net worth: $7.8 billion), who achieved his wealth by disrupting his country’s telecommunications industry. Now Niel, 46, wants to upend another French institution: its notoriously rigid education system.

In September he opened a programming school called 42, a name derived from the 1970s classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which the answer to life’s mysteries is always 42. The school, in northern Paris (where Fortune found Niel chatting with students), breaks almost every rule of French matriculation: Tuition is zero. So, too, are prerequisites. Of the 70,000 young French who took 42’s application test, about 40% were high school dropouts. To underscore the school’s edgy feel, Niel (pronounced “nee-el”) had a pirate flag hoisted outside the building.

Niel says he was inspired to start his school not only because French companies report a chronic shortage of high-tech talent to hire, but also because some 200,000 youths drop out of school each year. Many, including Niel, believe that is because French education focuses on formalized, nationally controlled testing that favors workhorses over creative geeks and maverick innovators. The country that once churned out geniuses such as painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir and composer Claude Debussy has struggled to create a Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs.

More From Fortune Magazine: