By becoming a Benefit Corporation, EPITA steps up its ambitions!
This summer, EPITA changed its legal status to become a Benefit Corporation, reinforcing its commitment to making a positive impact on society and the environment. Philippe Dewost, the school’s new Managing Director, and Claire Lecocq, Assistant Managing Director of EPITA Paris, speak about this essential move to reinforce the school’s mission to train engineers who are as competent as they are responsible in a world on a quest for meaning.
Claire Lecocq and Philippe Dewost
EPITA modified its status on July 1st. Does this change anything for its future engineers?
Claire Lecocq: Basically, it doesn’t change anything, in the sense that we had already made commitments to ensure the success of as many people as possible as well as equal opportunities, the minimization of our ecological impact on the environment, etc. What this new status does change is that now, we put these commitments down in writing and share them with our stakeholders, whether they are internal (students, professors, staff, industrialists who participate in our school’s activities…) or external (parents, partners…). By becoming a benefit corporation, EPITA accepts to be audited in regard to its commitments and the measures put in place. We are equipped with “thermometers” that help monitor the actions we implement as objectively as possible.
Philippe Dewost: Maintaining higher standards of purpose is an approach that we have seen in many companies, particularly in the industrial world, but it is still rare in the field of higher education. Seeing a school like EPITA follow suit and make this commitment is particularly interesting and meaningful because it is schools that educate those who will shape the world of tomorrow. We have an immense responsibility towards our students: we must give them all the tools they will need to change the world in the next 20-25 years. This means that we play a decisive role in their future professional careers, especially in the first few years! Keeping these commitments to them, as a school, together with the faculty and our industrial partners, is also a way of showing our full support and desire to see them flourish. At the end of the day, a benefit corporation clearly states its commitments and ensures that a certain number of principles, based on wisdom and not simply common sense, may be measured and audited. We remind ourselves and others that we are committed to behaving with humanity and decency, protecting our environment and others, while taking care of the world around us and beyond. What is new is that we have now put it down on paper. And it is really meaningful to commit to this in a school with several generations working side by side.
Claire Lecocq: Becoming a benefit corporation has allowed us to really examine the way in which we train our students in sustainable development issues and CSR as well as closely look at the mechanisms already in place. This has led us to expand our program by creating four new minors dedicated to these subjects: “Tech for good”, “Digital ethics”, “Creating a responsible business” and “Intercultural management”. Explaining what is implicit always helps individuals and organizations alike!
To assess its actions, EPITA has created a mission committee. Who are its members?
Claire Lecocq: This committee is essential in terms of monitoring, as well as the internal and external auditing of what we do. It is made up of the school’s stakeholders, including the staff – teachers-researchers, members of the administrative team – and students from the preparatory cycle and engineering cycle as well as economic and social players. All of these individuals will work together to observe what we are doing, follow indicators, examine areas requiring improvement and thus help us to advance in this approach.
Do you also see this as a good way to give EPITA students an additional taste of how a company operates?
Philippe Dewost: This is not the primary vocation, in the sense that when EPITA students finish their studies, they are ready and operational, which is why they are so highly appreciated and sought after by the digital industry. Before becoming a benefit corporation, our school was already known for having no difficulty whatsoever “placing” its graduates in companies! However, there is a continuity: embarking on this benefit corporation adventure will only reinforce this vision. The fact remains that EPITA is a separate entity – I was struck by this when I began working there on October 1st. First of all, it is a school where students enter and graduates leave, with enhanced knowledge and talent. It is also a company, with a profit and loss report, and obligations towards its shareholders and stakeholders… And finally, it is an environment where people live and work. Our role as a benefit corporation is expressed through these three facets, with certain measures initiated that are connected to one or more of them at the same time.
Claire Lecocq: When Philippe arrived at EPITA with his business culture and numerous past experiences, he brought two key values which, I believe, will enable the school to further advance and highlight its actions: trust and a results-oriented culture. Let’s take an example: by choosing the right equipment, we have managed to reduce the electricity consumption of our computer rooms fourfold. This is one example among many, except that, as we did not have a dashboard until now, we were unable to share this progress with our stakeholders to reassure them of our commitment. This information will help build greater confidence in our choices. A results-oriented culture will teach us to collectively assess and observe our actions, and then define production margins for our various projects.
A few days before becoming a benefit corporation, EPITA signed the student COP2 agreement. Will this also bolster the school’s new ambitions in terms of sustainable and societal development?
Claire Lecocq: Of course! The Student COP2 association is a tremendous reservoir of ideas! It is the fruit of a collective association in which we participate, led by thousands of participants and fueled by proposals based on each individual’s ecosystem and territory. This collaborative approach is very rich and allows us to use many initiatives. We must draw inspiration from it and encourage our students to do the same in order to devise new benefactions that may be made by the school. We can draw a parallel with our historical contribution to free software: collective intelligence is an extraordinary lever for advancing our institutions.
In light of the climate crisis, certain sectors of the economy are being singled out for their particularly energy-intensive nature, and the digital sector has not been spared. There have been articles covering, for example, the carbon footprint of e-mails or presenting Data Centers as energy barges. Doesn’t this make the challenge of reinventing tomorrow’s engineers even more exciting?
Philippe Dewost: In fact, we often ask the wrong question. Of course, there is a huge focus on digital sobriety, which must also be associated with the psychological issue of usage, but energy is an integral part of the debate. Where does this energy come from? What are its sources and what is the energy mix? Does it come from nuclear power plants? These questions are necessary and, as the debate re-launched by the government and the recent RTE report on nuclear energy show it is impossible to ignore them, just as it is not logical to rapidly sum up digital technology as a simple source of pollution. This would mean forgetting the essential advances that are made daily, very often thanks to engineers. Let’s take the example of Data Center computing infrastructures: a great deal of progress has been made in the last few years, particularly in terms of preventing electricity waste! I was very surprised to see that EPITA was at the forefront of this field, with a selection of Data Center infrastructures that are designed to be very energy-efficient. Basically, we must never lose sight of what we are doing and why, and that is the point of a benefit corporation: we know what the company is doing and in what context.
Claire Lecocq: Once we understand that there cannot be infinite growth in a finite world like ours, it becomes obvious that we must have reasonable and reasoned energy consumption. There are two available blueprints for society: one advocating degrowth and a return to nature, and the other continuing to support modernity. And for this second option, digital technology represents one, and perhaps the best solution, on both a collective and individual level. Today, for example, digital technology allows us to measure and control electricity consumption in our homes in an extremely precise and efficient way. In the near future, digital technology will also be at the forefront of facilitating collective transportation solutions and enabling the shift away from traveling in individual cars. Digital technology tends to make society more responsible and ensure higher living standards. During the health crisis, digital technology allowed us to stay connected, continue to work together as a society and keep the economy running.
We must absolutely see it as the solution and not the problem!
Another important challenge is that of gender diversity in the IT world, a battle that EPITA has been fighting for a long time with the creation of the Excellencia Trophy, the Amazon Future Engineer program and the activities of its student associations. Will this allow you to boost the desire for change?
Claire Lecocq: As a woman, I feel particularly concerned by this issue. However, I still find it hard to understand. It is absurd that there are so few women in this field. It’s even more illogical given that computer science historically owes a lot to women! Indeed, at the beginning of 20th century computing, everything that was considered complicated and difficult – low-level systems software, components… – was meant for men, hence the word “hard” in “hardware”. And what was considered easy – and therefore “soft”, i.e., automatic computations – was intended for women. Software was therefore, first and foremost, an IT field made for women! Since that time, we have witnessed a rather extraordinary reversal of the situation… It is quite incomprehensible, especially when we know that this lack of diversity mainly affects Western societies and that we are sorely lacking in women scientists and computer scientists. So, yes, EPITA will continue to focus its actions and support associations that are working to change mentalities. I’m thinking about Prologin in particular, which, with its GirlsCanCode! workshops, is doing a wonderful job of showing young girls what software development is all about, so that they may consider a career in this field. And it works: some of our current students participated in GirlsCanCode! programs when they were still in junior high or high school. From an institutional point of view, we want to showcase even more inspirational women and role models, with new conferences, a series of events dedicated to women in the digital sector, etc. And we also would like to expand our scholarship and support systems to encourage young women to apply to our school.
Philippe Dewost: I agree with Claire on the subject. And since we are talking about inspiring women, I have two in mind that all engineers, both men and women, should know about! The first is Margaret Hamilton: without her, man would never have set foot on the Moon. We owe her the success of all the manned Apollo missions. And it is incredible to think that her programs did not have any bugs – even today, this remains a major achievement and I challenge any engineer to try and do the same! The second woman is much more recent, as I had the pleasure of meeting her at the EPITA Class of 2020 graduation ceremony. Thanks to her exceptional results, Victoria Guehennec was valedictorian of her class! Victoria Guehennec and Margaret Hamilton have shown young girls that computer science is a field in which they can excel if they dare to take the plunge. Because the first barrier to overcome is oneself. But this is not the only area that needs to be worked on. There is also the question of ensuring a safe environment in which gender diversity and parity can be achieved. As long as female students only represent 10 to 15% of their class, they will inevitably feel very much like a minority and will need an increasingly safe environment. This is why we want to boost initiatives that are focused on awareness, prevention and assistance based on all aspects of sexual and gender-based violence. Of course, this violence does not only affect girls, but it requires special vigilance for all numerical minority groups. When you are the minority, you definitely feel more oppressed. It is vital that young girls who wish to work in the field of computer science and have a future career as an engineer be able to do so safely.
Claire Lecocq: Beyond gender diversity, all forms of diversity must be supported, especially in higher education. A school should be a place where all cultures, trends, and social classes can come together… And we are striving to ensure that EPITA is even more open to social and cultural diversity. Diversity is a real opportunity: several studies and reports have shown that a diverse team generates 30% more value than a team without diversity. The Amazon Future Engineer program allows us to do just that, and we will continue our efforts in this area.
For example, why not draw inspiration from GirlsCanCode! and offer free coding classes to middle school students from low-income neighborhoods in the cities where our campuses are located? When you grow up in a difficult environment where people don’t speak about digital technology or engineering, you can’t imagine studying at EPITA. This has to change.
Victoria Guehennec, valedictorian of the class of 2020, at the award ceremony
This notion of diversity is all the more important in computer science because it also influences the creation of algorithms and their use for the population. Future artificial intelligence should not reproduce gender stereotypes, among others.
Philippe Dewost: We come back to the reasons that drive us to act. Why? For whom? What is the goal? What is the purpose? This makes me think of an example of artificial intelligence related to food, a simple need shared by the entire world population. Today, thanks to AI, a company like Sun’Agri is able to control the degree of shade required for certain plants based on their maturity, temperature, hydrometry, stress levels, etc. According to initial estimates, this can save between 20 and 30% of water or accelerate the growth of the plant by a factor that is more or less equivalent. The quest for purpose is perceptible here! And the field of application chosen at the outset makes it possible, in fact, to limit the number of biases!
Claire Lecocq: Diversity is richness! This is the message that we have always tried to convey at EPITA. That is why we are one of the first schools to have pushed our students to experience culture shock early on, thanks to the mandatory semester abroad, during the second year of the program. Living in another country for six months means understanding that there are many other cultures in the world, and that you must learn to interact and work with these diversities. And when you are an engineer, you have to be able to take into account points of view that are sometimes radically different from your own. It is a very enriching experience.
Finally, what will EPITA engineers look like in 2030?
Claire Lecocq: They will be very open, both in terms of others and the international scene. Tomorrow’s engineers will be creative and agile: they will constantly question their ways of working and their techniques, and apply this diversity to the projects they develop, consolidating human societal issues and sustainable development.
Philippe Dewost: As for me, I don’t yet know what they will do, but I do know that they will understand why they are doing it!