[Women in Tech] Meet Corinne Vigreux, the first European founder of the tech unicorn

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technology entrepreneur Corinne Vigreux — who co-founded the global shipping company TomTom 30 years ago — listed among the world’s 50 best women in technology (Forbes). She is also one of the most inspiring women in the European tech market (Inspiring Fifty).

Interestingly, Corinne’s tech journey started thanks to a friend who worked at a computer game company, who inspired her to work at another similar company.

“In those days, computers meant anything that had to do with games. It was at the end of the 80s, I was 21 and I was discovering my bearings. And, the company sent me to the UK. With fluent French and German, and broken English, I landed in the UK,” Corinne recalls.

Since then, there has been no turning back. Corinne defends women in the labor force and advocates for better social mobility through education – the main objective of the “Sofronie Foundation” which she created in 2006.

What’s more, she founded Codam – a non-profit coding school within the Ecole 42 network – to groom the next generation of tech talent by providing high-quality software engineering education.

Currently, Corinne is Vice-Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Just Eat Takeaway.com NV and Chairman of the Supervisory Board of TechLeap.

TechLeap – a publicly funded non-profit organization – is focused on accelerating the Dutch tech ecosystem. She is also a member of the Supervisory Board of the Dutch National Opera and Ballet.

In 2012, for her contributions to society, Corinne was made Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur de France. She was also ennobled into the Royal Order of Orange-Nassau in 2016 in the Netherlands.

Corinne Vigreux

Handheld Games

In the 90s, after working with a video game company, Corinne moved to Siam, a technology company in Europe, which built small handheld computers.

“They were the predecessors to the phone, with data. It was a fascinating time. Computers were coming to market and the speed of innovation just fascinated me,” she adds.

Early on, she knew that technology would transform the world as we knew it. And processes were becoming automated as technology advanced.

“I went to Holland to work as a marketer to learn more, but I hated it. I missed the buzz of technology and the speed and innovation it got. gave the impression that I was doing something that could make a difference in the world, so with three people I knew, I started making software and building computers,” Corinne recalls.

That’s when they decided to put maps on these computers.

“Looking back, I realize that it wasn’t until 2000 that the first satellite navigation came on the market, and we changed it forever,” says Corinne, adding that they started with four people in 1991, and it took them 10 years to build the business.

Initiated until 2005, the valuation of TomTom went from $40 million to $1 billion. Corinne believes her energy and innovation helped her become Europe’s first founding unicorn. In 2005, TomTom went public in Amsterdam.

“I focused on creating something that had never been done before,” she adds.

After her MBA, Corinne had the chance to do marketing for several major cosmetics giants, but according to her, it would not have created an impact.

“These companies could sell their products without me. But by doing tech, you are taking risks and doing things that have never been done before,” Corinne explains.

Dealing with slowdowns

During her career, Corinne has witnessed several economic crises, including the one in 2001 when no one paid attention to technology companies.

At the time, no one saw that navigation could work. As a tech builder, you can see the product working, but others can’t, she says. Therefore, you need to create a market for it.

A few years later, the financial crisis of 2008 came knocking on our doors. At the same time, the consumer market had begun to mature. “Google had started offering free navigation on phones,” Corinne explains.

So TomTom decided to buy a mapping company that would map the world in real time.

“If we could put all the information needed by people who drive on navigation systems on a map in real time, we could map the world in real time. Although it was a good idea, the technology was not yet ready at the time. But we continued to invest and diversify and went into the automotive industry,” explains Corinne.

Today, Uber, iPhone, Verizon and Azure use TomTom maps. “The idea is to continue to innovate. We are a great map making engine, chasing the dream of mapping the world in real time. In times of crisis, it is important to innovate and stay tuned to our customers,” explains Corinne.

Never give up

Corinne’s experience has taught her that for a business to grow and grow, people are key. Software engineers, especially female engineers, are hard to find.

Speaking of Codam, Corinne says, “If you ride on technology, you can ride on the future. All the algorithms that govern our daily lives are written by people. And they’re full of bias – intentional or design bias – just by the way we are. Prejudices are everywhere. That’s why I wanted to build a school that gives access to education. We test people once a month, where we give them access. It’s about your willingness to learn. And I wanted more women.

She advises all female leaders, saying they should build diverse teams.

She says, “Don’t give up. I was the first female entrepreneur in a technology company, and then many women followed. You don’t have to be perfect, don’t try to do everything. Focus on a few things you’re good at and go with what you’re passionate about. If you love what you do and are passionate about it, life will be much easier.

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