A business graduate’s bid to make banking greener
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Julia Ménayas followed a well-trodden path out of business school, becoming an associate in a venture capital firm. But in March 2020, just as she heard about “something called Covid”, she quit to set up a banking services company focusing on sustainability.
Launching Helios was an ambitious move by the 27-year-old Parisian, who only graduated from her masters in management (MiM) at HEC Paris in 2018. For the first four months, the business comprised just Ménayas and her co-founder, Maeva Courtois, working from Courtois’ kitchen, observed by the cat.
But Ménayas was driven by the desire to pursue a career that would be about creating social value, rather than simply making a profit — an outlook that came in part from her time at business school.
When she started at HEC Paris, she felt like one of the “lucky ones”, and the course taught her to turn that into a sense of social responsibility.
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Through her work experience — including at start-ups as well as in venture capital and consulting — she was drawn to the technology sector. But tech did not meet her desire to create social value. She describes the industry as “very weird”, and while there is significant social responsibility as an investor — choosing which industries and companies will thrive, what new jobs will be created and helping to shape the broader economic direction — “somehow we were not owning it at all”, she says.
So Ménayas returned to what she was taught on her MiM. “Leaving a VC — with very good life earnings — was tough,” she says. “But when it did not make sense in terms of [social] responsibility, I remembered what I had been taught on the MiM and how we had to think not about salary but the value we could bring,” she says.
Helios, which provides its services in partnership with German banking software company Solaris, is somewhere “between an NGO [non-governmental organisation] in terms of aspiration and purpose” and a business “because we have to be sustainable somehow”, says Ménayas.
Customers pay a fee to open an account and Helios pledges never to invest their deposits in industries that contribute to the climate crisis or harm biodiversity. “We do quite the opposite,” Ménayas says. “We only direct our funding towards industries related to the ecological transition.” Symbolically, the first bank cards are made of cherrywood sourced from sustainable forests in Europe.
Another aim of Helios is to raise awareness among consumers about where banks invest their deposits. When people consider global warming, Ménayas says, they tend to think of the impact of the automotive or aviation industries, but few look at which companies banks fund using customers’ money.
“The banking industry transforms people’s deposits into long-term investments in the real economy and, by choosing to finance industries like coal-fired power or fuel extraction, [banks] actually have a lot of responsibility in regards to our future,” she argues.
Ménayas credits business school with opening up opportunities and inspiring her to be bolder. Alongside access to a network of start-ups, VCs and entrepreneurs, HEC Paris promoted a “learn to dare” ethos that she says she appreciated. “The school opens up your mind to building something and not fearing the unknown,” Ménayas says. “That was a good starting point to leave conventional industry behind and start something more adventurous.”
Indeed, her advice to prospective MiM students — alongside being curious and open to taking courses in a variety of subjects beyond finance — is to spend a third of their time in the classroom and two-thirds talking to classmates, teachers and speakers.
Tapping into this network gave Ménayas the confidence and mindset to seek support when she needs it — something that is proving vital as an entrepreneur. “Being exposed to very different life stories was a good lesson because I felt it was OK for me to reach out to anyone,” she says. “At Helios we have to build something from scratch, so we have to gather a lot of talent, partners, investors and clients, and be able to reach out to anyone for help, advice or resources.”
The MiM provided a lesson in more everyday skills, such as listening. There are plenty of big egos at business school, says Ménayas — something that was given short shrift at the military camp to which students were sent to learn about teamwork. “The soldiers told us, ‘You are going to learn how to shut up’,” she recalls.
Ménayas says she learnt to listen to others in the group, as well as to leaders. “As a manager and co-founder now, I think I mostly listen. Starting to listen before actually leading was a very good career lesson.”
The experience of teamwork that the MiM provided has also been invaluable. “Today, our venture is all about building the best team, one that is 100 per cent aligned with our purpose but also competent to deliver tangible results,” she says. “The group work, which was very intense on the MiM, was very good training for that.”
Helios is off to a solid start. The first round of fundraising brought in €1.5m and its 3,500 users across France, Belgium and Luxembourg have so far deposited €8m in current accounts, which cost €6 per month to open. But the business is young and there are challenges ahead, such as recruitment, product, acquisition and raising awareness among consumers about how banks use their money.
But Ménayas remains characteristically ambitious: in five years she wants Helios to employ 100-200 people and “be much more political than we are now”. Like the new banks that started up during the industry’s digital revolution, Helios is on the “verge” of bringing a “sustainable revolution of banking”, Ménayas says, “proving that we can do things differently, that we can build a transparent and sustainable model and, hopefully, paving the way for the banking industry to shift more radically and faster”.
2020 Co-founder, Helios
2018-20 Associate, Alven (venture capital firm)
2017-18 Consultant, Boston Consulting Group (six-month internship)
2017 Analyst, Knife Capital (venture capital fund — six-month internship)
2014-18 Masters in management, HEC Paris (part of a double degree in corporate and public management science at Sciences Po)
2016-17 Private equity analyst at Bpifrance (investment bank — six-month internship)
2015 Business-to-business sales at Jam (online media company — summer internship)