For more than a year, Françoise Heilmann-Pascal has been working to make her dream of a French "environmental airship tourism industry" come true. She is setting up a business--called Zeppaqui--that will help people "gain some height and watch what’s happening on the Earth, with a lighter-than-air bubble and an airborne balcony," she says. The "lighter-than-air bubble" in question is a zeppelin, which, she says, "is not polluting, makes no noise," and takes the frantic pace of people's lives down a few gears.

Although such tourism activity is appreciated in Germany, it has yet to take off in France, her native country. But Heilmann-Pascal is determined--and well equipped--to make it happen. An aeronautics engineer and a former project leader on European space programmes for 15 years, she is, she says, "not only a nice dreamer; I am a scientist. This helps me make nice projects and speak about techniques, because it is the basis of the business as well."

Rational Dreamer

"Her strength is her competence," says Claire Dutertre, director of the Association Femmes d'Entreprises d'Europe et d'Avenir , but she also has intelligence and vision. "She wants to offer a form of tourism that is environmental; I believe that she has sussed out what the next 15 years are all going to be about. [Besides], she is proposing to make us discover what is the most beautiful and natural [about our planet]. This is an educational project." And just like in aeronautics, her new project requires much faith and patience. "When I entered the incubator, I was thinking that within 6 months I could create my own company, but it will take a longer time [2 years at least] because there are not many airships available today, the market has to be created step by step, and we have to invest a lot," says Heilmann-Pascal.

Getting Zeppaqui off the Ground

Heilmann-Pascal admits that when she started, she had no concrete business plan: "I didn’t know at all how to become an entrepreneur." She first spent a couple of months collecting data to flesh out a business plan, then presented her project to Bordeaux Technowest, the only incubator in France specialised in aeronautics and aerospace projects. "They accepted it even though it is a very ambitious project," she says. The incubator offers her office space, links with other companies, and advice. After that, Heilmann-Pascal did a market survey and established a partnership with Zeppelin leasing time on an airship. Heilmann-Pascal also did a financial study with Zeppelin's financial directors. Now, she says, all that stands between her and her dream is about 15 million euros.

A Woman in a Man’s World

Heilmann-Pascal's passion for transport extends back to her childhood. Growing up on a farm, she learned the mechanics of agricultural tractors alongside her father. Later, after 3 years of intense training in maths and physics in the classes préparatoires, she won entry into the prestigious engineering grandes écoles. "I decided to enter the only French school with a hydrodynamics and ship construction section the Ecole Centrale in Nantes because at this time I was very fond of wind surfing and sailing. I wanted to work in the sailing-ship industry."

But by the time she graduated from the Ecole Centrale with a master's degree in mechanics and hydrodynamic studies, in 1988, she had swapped her interest in sailing ships for space rockets after hearing an alumnus talk "with passion" about his work on Ariane 4 as Arianespace director. "He was so enthusiastic and fond of the Ariane 4 vehicles that I finally decided to work on the European launcher," she says. So she joined the Centre National d´Etudes Spatiales (CNES) as a propulsion engineer. "I was in charge of discussing the test plans with industrial builders for Ariane 4 and Ariane 5 engine and to study the test results," she says.

As a woman working in the male-dominated world of aeronautics, she felt that "you have to prove yourself more; this is more work and more stress." But soon she was asked to manage a larger project, becoming project manager for the vehicle equipment bay in 1995. In 1999, while pregnant with her first child, she took charge of the upper stage of the launcher, too.

In 2001, Heilmann-Pascal and her husband, accompanied by their two young children, left Paris for Bordeaux. She took a job at the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), working on Ariane again, as the EADS coordinator of the launcher’s vehicle equipment bay. But when EADS launched a redundancy scheme in 2004, she "took advantage of this opportunity to quit and try something else." She already had an idea for a new business, and the recent creation of the Aerospace Valley in Aquitaine and Midi-Pyrenees--one of the new French "poles of competitiveness" that aim to bring research and industry closer--had provided new incentives for entrepreneurship in the region. The decision was made easier by knowing she had a safety net: She is free to return to CNES until January 2007 if things don't work out.


Françoise Heilmann-Pascal (center) and partners from the Bordeaux Technowest incubator.

Heilmann-Pascal’s project is uncommon in many ways, says Dutertre. For one, it comes from a "woman scientist who has experience in everything that is related to aerospace"--a rare species. And it aims "for a development that is less scientific" than the work Heilmann-Pascal was doing before, yet still extremely innovative in France. "It is an industrial project that requires a very heavy financial investment; it is very rare for a woman. It is not in the bank culture to lend large sums to women." Success, Dutertre believes, will depend on whether "companies will follow a woman who has this type of ambition. Will they be able to give credit to a woman with experience and a highly specialised competence, and who knows exactly what she wants to achieve?"

"It is as difficult for a man as for a woman to launch a business. But there are some pullbacks that remain much stronger for women. For a bank loan, a woman is a priori less credible than a man.” The perception that a woman with children will not be able to commit 100% to her job prevails, Dutertre reckons. But "a mother is continually training in how to manage her time and organise her work. This is key [to success in entrepreneurship], beyond having guts and imagination," she says.

Another great strength in women, Dutertre believes, is that "beyond the ambition, women dare to speak of a dream. They have a desire that is predominant to make their dream come true." In the same way that a woman bearing a child is able to visualise it, a woman with a business project will plan it in great detail, says Dutertre.

The Need for Support

But it's one thing to have such a dream and another to communicate it, and often entrepreneurs only have a few minutes to convince prospective funders of their drive and passion. "Françoise is very scientific and rational; she doesn’t manage to let her emotions come through," says Dutertre. "She doesn’t communicate well her desire to succeed. … Perhaps there should be a partner with her to communicate the strength of the project and the passion that is behind it."

Heilmann-Pascal agrees that the lack of professional support is a challenge. "I have no structure behind me; I really have to be inspired and find some energy to carry on with this research and contact people to open doors without the name of a big company," she says. Still, Heilmann-Pascal has done what she could. In addition to joining an incubator, she has kept close ties with EADS Development, a department of EADS France that helps ex-employees create new companies. She interacts with other entrepreneurs and professionals, and gets much encouragement from other people's enthusiasm about the idea of flying aboard a zeppelin, like during the June 2005 Bourget Airshow when she helped 30 people fly. The support she receives from her family is also very important, so she advises people to first "check with their family and husband that they are willing to follow them," because taking a business off the ground will be demanding for them too.

Dutertre's best advice for entrepreneurs like Heilmann-Pascal is "to never get discouraged by a no. It is only a way to feel your motivation. There are more people who pull you back than people who support you. You have to surpass this and use this as a motor."

L'Association Femmes d'Entreprises d'Europe et d'Avenir organises a day of conferences, workshops, and networking opportunities for women entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs every year. See the association's Web site for more details.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South and West Europe .

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.