[Women in Tech] Meet Corinne Vigreux, Europe’s first woman tech unicorn founder
In a conversation with HerStory, Corinne Vigreux, Co-founder of TomTom, an Amsterdam-based navigation giant, talks about her journey in the tech world.
Tech entrepreneur Corinne Vigreux — who co-founded global navigation company TomTom 30 years ago — is among the world’s top 50 women in tech (Forbes). She is also one of the most inspirational women in the European tech market (Inspiring Fifty).
Interestingly, Corinne’s tech journey started because of a friend who was working at a computer gaming company, who inspired her to work at another similar firm.
“In those days, computers meant anything to do with games. This was the late 80s, and I was 21 and 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 recollects.
Since then, there has been no looking back. Corinne champions women in the workforce and advocates for improved social mobility through education — the main objective of the “Sofronie Foundation” she set up in 2006.
Moreover, she founded Codam — a not-for-profit coding college within the Ecole 42 network — to prepare the next generation of tech talent by offering high-quality software engineering education.
At present, Corinne is the vice chairwoman of the supervisory board of Just Eat Takeaway.com N.V. and chairwoman of the supervisory board of TechLeap.
TechLeap — a non-profit publicly funded organisation — focuses on accelerating the tech ecosystem of The Netherlands. She is also a supervisory board member of the Dutch National Opera and Ballet.
In 2012, for her contributions to society, Corinne was made France’s Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. She was also knighted in the Royal Order of Orange-Nassau in 2016 in The Netherlands.
Gaming to handheld computers
In the 90s, after working with a computer gaming company, Corinne moved to Siam, a tech company in Europe, which was building small handheld computers.
“These were predecessors of the phone, with data. It was a fascinating time. Computers were coming to the market, and the speed of innovation simply fascinated me,” she adds.
Early on, she knew that technology will transform the world as we knew it. And, processes were getting automated as technology evolved.
“I went to Holland to work as a marketer to understand more, but I hated it. I missed the buzz of technology and the speed and innovation it got. Technology gave me the impression that I was doing something that could make a difference in the world. Thus, with three people I knew, I started making software and building computers,” recalls Corinne.
It was then they decided to put maps on those computers.
“Looking back, I realise it was only in 2000 the first satellite navigation came in the market, and we changed it forever,” says Corinne, adding they started with four people in 1991, and it took them 10 years to build the company.
Bootstrapped until 2005, TomTom’s valuation went from $40 million to $1 billion. Corinne believes sheer energy and innovation helped her become the first unicorn female founder of Europe. In 2005, TomTom went public in Amsterdam.
“I focused on creating something that wasn’t done before,” she adds.
After her MBA, Corinne had the chance to do marketing for several large cosmetic giants, but according to her, it would not have created an impact.
“Those companies could sell their products without me. But in doing technology, you take risks and do things that are never done before,” says Corinne.
Dealing with downturns
During her journey, Corinne witnessed several economic crises, especially the 2001 crisis when no one paid attention to tech companies.
At the time, nobody could see that navigation could work. As a tech builder, you can see the product work, but others cannot, she says. Hence, you need to create a market for it.
A few years later, the 2008 financial crisis came knocking on our doors. At the same time, the consumer market had started to mature. “Google had started giving navigation for free on phones,” says Corinne.
Thus, TomTom decided to buy a map-making company that would map the world in real-time.
“If we could put all the information needed by people driving on the navigation systems on a map in real-time, we can map the world in real-time. While a good idea, the technology wasn’t ready then. But we kept ourselves invested and diversified ourselves and went to the automotive industry,” says Corinne.
Today, Uber, iPhone, Verizon, and Azure use maps from TomTom. “The idea is to keep innovating. We are a big map making engine, pursuing the dream of mapping the world in real-time. In a crisis, it is important to innovate and keep listening to your customers,” says Corinne.
Never give up
Corinne’s experience taught her that for any company to grow and scale, people are the key. Software engineers, especially women engineers, are tough to find.
Talking about Codam, Corinne says, “If you ride technology, you can ride the future. All the algorithms that govern our daily life are written by people. And they're full of biases — biases by intention or design — just by the way we are. Biases are everywhere. This is why I wanted to build a school that gave access to education. We test people once a month, where we give people access. It is about how willing you are to learn. And, I wanted more women.”
She advises all women leaders, saying that they should build diverse teams.
She says, “Don’t give up. I was the first woman entrepreneur in a tech company, and then many women followed. You don’t have to be perfect, don’t try to do everything. Focus on a few topics you are good at and just go for what you are passionate about. If you enjoy what you do and are passionate about it, life will be a lot easier.”
Edited by Suman Singh