PhD story: Marjorie Meunier, from anthropologist to entrepreneur


As a daughter of fairground workers, amongst whom higher education graduates are not that common, Marjorie Meunier has led a very unusual career path. She evolved from a PhD in anthropology to business consulting. In this article, she shares with us her journey that led her to create her own company.


Interview by Ouissame Benfaida (communication) and Bérénice Kimpe (international)

The origins and motives of my career path

My doctoral project: understanding how to restore a balance between "values and economic stability"

From doctorate to consulting: a continuity of ideas and values

The creation of my company Alterna R&D


The origins and motives of my career path

Indeed, until I started primary school, we travelled everywhere in France with the rides: it is the daily life of fairgrounds, we are nomads. In fact, my schooling only started in primary school, which was not always obvious. So, a doctorate is particularly rare in my field, and when I was younger, the other fairground workers generally stopped their studies earlier to work on the fairground.

School has always been important to my parents. In the first grade, I happened to go to an application school, where I learned English. At the time, this was not common. I quickly developed an interest in languages and travel. This European class has also given me a taste for effort and a desire to learn. All this has played a major role in my future as an anthropologist.

During my schooling, I had special experiences that opened my eyes and pushed me to grow. As the daughter of a fairground worker, I was very badly accepted by my classmates. They saw a difference that I didn't fully understand myself. At that age, how could I understand that by speaking the same language, living in the same city, I was not like them? This form of exclusion led me to ask myself many questions, about others, about their behaviours, about their group system but also more broadly about the social world.

I then tried to understand "why?". Why, for them, I didn't belong to the same world. It was the social sciences that provided the first answers to my questions, starting in high school. I learned that there are different standards in different cultures: it was for me a real discovery. I could finally understand the world, with a new perspective, but that didn't make it any fairer.

After my baccalauréat (French examination qualifying for higher education), I entered the preparatory class (prestigious curriculum after a national competitive examination), the royal way that I had been advised. It was very stimulating but I quickly realized that I didn't want to go to business school. I wanted to understand in depth in order to be able to act. When I decided to go to university, I didn't want to give up the excellence I had been taught throughout my education. I wanted to follow my father's advice to go further in my studies. He had stopped school too soon after graduation despite an acceptance in a math preparatory school, because he was attracted by working in the fairground. So I decided that if I went to university, it would be to do a doctorate, and that's what I did.

I was tempted to stop after the master's degree but I wanted above all to develop my thinking. For me, better action means first of all understanding, thinking things really, studying what is really going on. I felt that I had not yet discovered the most important thing, the essential mechanisms that would allow me to approach the society differently. The doctorate has allowed me to build my own thought and now to share it.


My doctoral project: understanding how to restore a balance between "values and economic stability"

When I started my doctorate, I was thinking more of doing action research in an international association. This seemed to me to be the most likely if you consider my background. I had found meaning in the associations where I volunteered. I started at Aides, an association fighting AIDS: I learned a lot about collective action, how to adapt to the needs of the field in order to really have an impact. Then I took over the Humanities Students' Association at my university. I liked the values of service to others, I wanted to have a positive impact on society: so for me, it involved a commitment to associations.

I have studied different forms of organization and have found a gap between values and economic stability. I have indeed observed associations that had very laudable goals but were not financially independent and, conversely, companies with strong economic stability but whose goals were purely lucrative. I then wondered whether it was possible to restore a balance between fundamental values and economic stability.

During the thesis, on my field in China, I found answers. By starting to study the economy of the Taoist communities, those minorities that manage millions of yuan without any problem around strong values, I understood that I could do things differently: ensure the economic viability of my activity while remaining consistent with my values and my desire to make things change. I have indeed studied the mechanisms underlying Taoist management to answer the following questions: how can these communities be both very prosperous and very altruistic? Why are they more innovative, flexible and resilient than others? In short, issues that are of particular interest to companies.

The Taoist communities are because they are based on principles that are different from those of the current economy, with which I have felt very much in tune. For example, the observation of the environment, in depth and over the long term, is one of these principles. A deep understanding of what surrounds us is a crucial prerequisite for being able to act correctly in our very complex context. This is in line with the tools I already had in anthropology, which are largely based on observation. As I was looking to take action to 'change the world', I realized that I already had the best tools available. Now I train my clients in these tools so that they too can understand more deeply and therefore act better. They are also simple principles such as experimentation, authenticity, being at the service of others and a certain harmony in social relationships. It may sound really simple, but it's not so simple: being able to observe and analyze it is exciting! I extracted the essence of these principles so that I could adapt them to the Western world.

In our western context, we talk a lot about transformation, that is very often restricted to the digital dimension. The transformation or rather the perpetual transformations of the world have been at the centre of Taoist thinking for 2000 years and they have nothing to do with digital tools. It is certain that an in-depth look at these approaches to business transformation would be beneficial to them, because what must be transformed is above all the people who constitute its organization. We are also beginning to talk about efficiency in France because François Jullien praised it in his Treaty on Effectiveness. This reflects our quest for ever-increasing productivity.

Efficiency means doing more with less, it is a fundamental basis of this philosophy. It is not at all the race for productivity that is taking place here. Rather, it would be a work on the sobriety of resources, real choices regarding actions centred on values and a search for authenticity that drives a coherent strategy over the long term.

All these principles are often counter-intuitive to our society. They are currently arriving in the West to solve individual rather than collective problems. At the organisational level, however, these few major principles, if really applied, can already make a real difference to an organization, the well-being of its employees, its productivity, its relationship with its customers, its development...

When I came back to France to write my thesis, I started to test my services as a volunteer in an association. I was very happy with the result I got, the impact was real. After my intervention, a group got back in motion, structured itself, started discussing the real issues to move forward.... I felt very fulfilled. Shortly afterwards, an association called me for a paid service and that's how my business started!


From doctorate to consulting: a continuity of ideas and values

My activity today is a direct result of all this. I use observation directly to promote transformation. I train my clients in observation so that I can take them to see and understand for themselves. The fact of meeting their customers, directly at their workplace, where they spontaneously behave, already transforms my clients a little.

At the same time, we are also studying together the company's culture and the determinants of the current customer culture, which has shaped my clients’ representations. Based on this knowledge acquired through experience, we can thus drive a transformation of the customer culture based on the reality of the field, the real needs that have been collected, and the deep understanding of the obstacles, all this in a collective construction.

I also use the diagnostic methods learned during my PhD in anthropology but also the principles of Chinese medicine. The doctorate was an opportunity to learn how to do research, to analyze and understand in depth the essence of a problem. Today, it is the same process that allows me to diagnose, with the added benefit of a diagnosis from Chinese medicine.

When a client explains his request to me, I don't know at the beginning what the most appropriate solution will be. Before I start processing a request, which will often be just a symptom and will only solve a tiny part of the problem, I diagnose the real need. What interests me when I study the organization, the clients, the employees, is to find the root of the problem and recommend an efficient long-term solution. This diagnostic system uses the principles of Chinese medicine to go beyond symptoms to understand the root cause of the imbalance and act over the long term.

So it was very clearly everything I learned during my PhD that allowed me to create my own method and business. Without these discoveries, I would not have known how to act. This life experience with the Taoist masters has completely transformed my life. I wouldn't be the person I am without my PhD. I would certainly have become an employee in the associative world, very critical of the economic world and a little disappointed not to have enough impact. I don't think you can come out of an anthropological experience the same: by learning about others, you learn about yourself first.

What I experienced there gave me confidence in a different approach, in my ability to bring about what I believed in.  By following these principles first of all myself, I have also become more authentic, more focused on my values, more efficient.

When I returned to France, I also adopted these principles on a professional level by creating my company in a rather particular way, at my own pace: my experience in China made me understand that wanting to go too fast makes the plan backfire, whatever it may be.  How many entrepreneurs have given up because of exhaustion, despair or because of customers, suppliers or investors who created difficulties for them because they were not on the same page? On the contrary, I have the chance to meet wonderful clients and extraordinary coworkers. It took me a little while to find them, but we are building now for the long term.

One could say that by doing my PhD, I really found my way, which is not always easy but so fulfilling! I found what I had been looking for for a long time and I went to the end of my deep research, not only academic but also of myself.

I love to invent, find solutions, get to the bottom of things to really address the difficulties and solve them. Seeing things move forward in an organization is the most positive reward for me. When I see a client who suddenly has a better understanding of what concerns his own customers, how his organization works, or who sees all the potential of his company, then I know that I have won. He has understood, he will be able to transform himself, to move forward: I have been useful.

We may think that organizations know each other well, but reports and figures only give a very unrepresentative picture of the human aspect of the organization. This is, however, its most complex and fundamental aspect. It is at this level that we can understand the successes to duplicate them and the obstacles to overcome them. This is also where lie the deep needs, the motivations of each person, the reasons why a group of employees is very committed or not at all. Everything that is complicated today in organizations can only be understood at this level of analysis.


The creation of my company Alterna R&D

I love the diversity of my job. I go to different types of companies, associations, large organizations, smaller ones and I do what I have always preferred as an anthropologist: do field work and analysis.

 As a company manager, I can also choose my clients and projects, those that are closest to my values. It must also be said that, voluntarily, I do not do cold calls. When I meet people with the same values, we understand each other and we can easily create new projects, imagine new services.

An activity like mine is not very well known. Those who want to work with me are on the same page. This may imply a slower growth, although for the moment I'm not complaining! But it is also a choice towards stronger work relationships, real partnerships that make sense, a motivation renewed every day for me and finally a more stable development.

I really like creating something that didn't exist, making it grow, creating a team, offering a service that is different from what we are used to. This difference, which is part of my DNA, is also what makes the process complicated. I had to move from know-how to a service, then from a service to an accessible speech, and finally to a packaged service. It had to be not only adapted to the needs but above all it had to appeal companies in their own language.

This commercial approach was the most difficult. I was an academic who observed and wrote her analyses in her corner. Moving from this attitude to selling services has been a long and difficult learning process. I had to overcome many fears and overcome my prejudices. When I started my company, I was afraid of falling into the mistakes that sociologists denounce in companies. Like many people in the academic and associative world, I also had my prejudices about sales and marketing. This made the journey difficult on a personal level. Now I take marketing as an exercise in adapting to the needs of the other, sales as an exercise in understanding the other and pedagogy to explain what I do. I feel much better about it.

In fact, what I like the least now is management and in particular accounting. It's not complicated but it's a long, tedious job, to classify the papers, to record them... It's completely the opposite of creation, the discovery and understanding of the world that motivates me. But I know that each task has its own interest and I try to learn from it every time.

First of all, I met a friend who was a serial entrepreneur. He helped me a lot with his advice. I find it very important, in order to create your business, to know someone who has already done so and who can advise you on small things, attitudes that change the situation.

The entrepreneur's posture is particular: learning to set objectives without putting too much pressure on yourself is a subtle balance to be found. Usually, when I have a goal, I go for it. There, I learned that starting a business is a marathon, not a sprint. An entrepreneur friend can also refer you to local meetings not to be missed to meet the local economic stakeholders according to your values and services.

Then, I entered a Hubhouse (regional "university" house of entrepreneurship) for young graduates, at the incubator of the Catholic University of Lille called Hémisf4ire. There are them in all universities.

This is very useful to move from the attitude of a "doctoral candidate" to that of an entrepreneur. When I was a doctoral candidate, I wrote my thesis in my own corner, with my books, I only had to interact with my supervisor and in some important events. Most of my work was solitary, I had my own rhythm, which didn't bother anyone. Today, I have to organize my writing, reporting, or communication work, for example, in the time slots that remain available after all my appointments with my clients, service providers, partners, mentors... The fact of landing at your desk, of being in this entrepreneurial atmosphere where neighbours run everywhere and make dozens of phone calls every day, it has brought about a real change. But some similarities helped me: an entrepreneur and a doctoral candidate manage their own agenda. In both cases, it is up to them to push, to choose what is to be done, how to do it and put it into practice. They have a great freedom of movement and take full responsibility for the project from A to Z. For me, this represents a development of what I was doing as a doctoral candidate rather than a radical change. Today, I have recreated a rhythm by simply integrating the new constraints. I must say that I particularly appreciate the moments of meeting my clients and new people, it is often the moment when I create to best adapt to the demand. It's much less lonely than during the doctorate.

The incubator advises on financing, management, first recruitments, etc. It allows you to meet consultants, people who are used to accompanying project leaders, or to discuss with other entrepreneurs. It allows you to move forward, I really took a leap forward.

Finally, I am supported by Initiative France. They helped me a lot with my funding plan, especially through mentoring. My mentor was a consultant, who knew the steps I had to take to succeed. He made me make a business presentation, work on feedback from my client missions. He taught me to talk about what I do and to present it to managers in companies. He also advised me to give courses in academia, it is an activity that allows me to reflect on my methods. Passing on has always been rewarding for me. I have just been offered the opportunity to teach at the Catholic University of Lille as well as at the Ecole Centrale de Lille and Skema. The mentor is there to prepare us when an opportunity arises.



Here are some tips for doctoral students and young doctors wondering about their career pursuit and/or entrepreneurship:

Marjorie MEUNIER : She holds a doctorate in anthropology and uses knowledge and methods from research in the social sciences and humanities to bring about change. Thus, through her company Alterna R&D, she helps organizations stimulate community dynamics towards innovative practices, and develop new solutions to their daily challenges.