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Alumni profile - Margaret Milan

Margaret Milan (BSc Engineering Science 1974-77) is an accomplished Paris-based businesswoman who, with her husband, founded the successful French educational toy mail order business Eveil & Jeux.

They sold their business to Fnac, the French retail chain in 2001, returned in 2006 to transform the company to a truly multichannel model. They went on to help Fnac sell the company to new owners, the French family-owned textile group, ID Group, owner of the Okaidi and Jacadi brands. The company has been rebranded Oxybul éveil & jeux in France – and Oxybul learn & play for international markets.

Margaret and her husband stepped from the business at the end of 2010 although they still work as consultants to the new owners. In 2009 Margaret was one of few non-French people to receive the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur for her services to entrepreneurship and women’s careers in France.

What are your memories of Warwick?

Lots of great meals in large part thanks to discovering the cuisine of international friends (US, Iceland, India, Greece…) and of course, cream teas in the Cotswolds!

Did you enjoy your time at the University?

Yes, a lot. I enjoyed my subject despite being the only girl in the class and there seemed to be plenty of time for socialising. The one thing I really hated was computer programming in Fortran with those stacks of perforated cards. I was always terrified I’d drop the stack and I hated the fastidiousness of the coding.

You studied Engineering Science, what was it like being on such a male-dominated course?

I don’t remember it being an issue. And the campus and dorms were mixed so I had loads of friends, male and female. The good thing was I always was offered the one and only stool in the lab demos – I loved that gallantry. Seriously, it has given me great confidence all my life to say I’m trained as an engineer and to know I had those good grades. I think women benefit hugely from that kind of boost in their early years of adulthood. Engineering is also a great discipline for whatever field you choose to work in later in life. I wish more girls would take that route.

How did you go from studying Engineering Science to creating France’s leading mail order toy business?

As the course progressed I realized that being a woman in the Engineering world back then was going to be tough. Despite graduation with first class honours I found it really hard to secure my internship and it was hard to be taken seriously (I was 20 and blonde). Remember that back then, women weren’t allowed on oil rigs, for example: in France, they weren’t even admitted to the top engineering schools until 1974!

I had never heard of business careers but some friends at Warwick were doing business studies and it looked interesting and more “mixed”. I had been to the US with my parents a couple of years earlier (thanks Dad!) and decided to apply for an MBA. It could only have been financially possible with the Fulbright scholarship fund so I am eternally grateful to that organization. At Harvard, I met my French husband to be. I think that deep down I’ve always had this love of France and fell into the language and culture with delight.

We came to France right after Harvard and I started out as a brand manager at Procter & Gamble, a good bilingual context for my beginner’s French. I loved my time there but when our first daughter was born, my entrepreneurial instincts started to surface and I began looking around for ideas. As a British mum living in France – and daughter of a primary one teacher to boot – I soon realized there was an opportunity for an educational toy retailer importing unusual toys from the UK and the US.

What were the early years of the business like?

Fun! I used to work till four, drop off the parcels at the Post office on the way to school, pick up my two daughters, then set to work again from 8pm till midnight once they were in bed.

My husband was a partner at Boston Consulting Group at the time, travelling or working late, so it worked out pretty well. As the business grew, we moved out of the garage to premises 500 yards from school and home, and began to hire a brilliant team (100% women to start with). We outsourced most of the functions: logistics, call service, IT... so headquarters was really a place for product selection, catalogue merchandising and marketing.

It wasn’t all easy sailing, and there were some tough days when I felt like throwing in the towel. But the great thing about being an entrepreneur is you just have to fight through the difficulties and it ends up making your stronger. The best thing was when my husband, Gilbert, quit BCG to join the company. It was a very brave move and I’m so thankful to him. We work well together despite – or because of? – our very different approaches to many business issues. We share out the roles clearly and each has total confidence in the other’s decisions.

The company you created, Eveil et Jeux (Awakening and Games), seems to have a distinct philosophy, how important was this to you?

This vision was absolutely fundamental to the success of the company. We wanted to offer toys which would help children learn early skills, and which parents would enjoy using with their children. We banned batteries in the first few years, and ensured there was no violence in the games. The aesthetics are also important: too many “toys” are garish, noisy and generally over stimulating for a small child. We were looking for simplicity and complicity.

When you started your business were you inspired by anyone else?

By my mother, my daughters and by specialist retailers in the UK and the US (ELC, Toys to Grow On, among others, by Cecile B. Loupan, a French lady who had started out a network of parents interested in early learning, by Edwige Antier, a French paediatrician and of course, by the work of Montessori.

Does the success of Eveil & Jeux show that there can be a viable alternative to toys which are spun off from films and marketed through fast food restaurants?

Absolutely! Children are attracted by characters seen on the screen but the play value of many of these toys is poor. Eveil & jeux’s role is to identify the products with great play value – through the experience of the product managers and also the network of 2000 “parents testers”. Customers trust the brand to offer toys which are fun for the kids AND for the parents.

More recently you have been working with the Fondation Eveil et Jeux, what have been your experiences here?

Eveil & jeux is frequently asked to provide support for various non-profit initiatives. We set up the Foundation to support activities around play, reading and music in underprivileged areas. I use the world “underprivileged” with caution: the projects we support have a core focus on developing early language skills, since a child with poor vocabulary will struggle in school from the start learning to read unknown words.

You have been very active in promoting women’s careers with the European Professional Women’s Network, do you think we have made progress in this area in recent years? What work still needs to be done?

When I became involved in these issues around 2001, much had been done in the US but there was little in the way of a European, and particularly continental, corpus of best practices. Things have moved on fast, particularly with the highly symbolic adoption of quotas for corporate boards in many countries. What remains to be done revolves around two areas:

  • Companies taking into account the necessity of organising business life and careers to be compatible with family responsibilities, both for women and men. Too many women still fall off the radar screen in their thirties.
  • Men and women learning to better understand each other’s mode of communication. Everyone should read Deborah Tannen’s excellent book: Talking from 9 to 5.

Do you have any advice for other Warwick graduates looking to set up their own business?

Try to set up an informal board of advisers in each of the key areas of business. Most people love to help. Develop your network through university, professional or sporting clubs. Focus on identifying and articulating the key elements of your business model to ensure it is tenable and competitive. And take the plunge when it makes sense for your partner: it’s very reassuring having one half of the couple earning a salary to pay the bills while the other learns the ropes of the new business!

Margaret Milan

“It has given me great confidence all my life to say I’m trained as an engineer and to know I had those good grades”