Our alumni are a constant source of inspiration to current students.
Valentine SIMONNIN, Co-founder and CEO – PLUG ZEN GROW, Long Island City
Why did you choose to study at CEFAM?
I chose CEFAM because they teach all their classes in English, and over 50% of their teachers are American, having held executive positions in corporations, which brings extensive corporate experience into the classroom. They can integrate real-world case studies into their teaching, which greatly appealed to me. This setup allows me to fully immerse myself in the American business culture. My aspiration has always been to pursue an international career, and this aligns perfectly with my career goals. Being able to receive valuable advice from these experienced professors to kickstart my career is an added benefit.
What is your one special memory of your time at CEFAM?
One of my most cherished memories is meeting one of my closest friends, Kaiyun, who is from China. It’s remarkable to remember that moment, as we come from very different cultures and life experiences. Even though we now reside on separate continents (US and China), I continue to lean on her for guidance and support. To this day, she remains a precious person in my life.
In one word, how would you describe CEFAM?
CEFAM is an international career accelerator (sorry, that was three words)
What have you done since graduating from CEFAM?
Before graduating from CEFAM, I took a break from schooling to gain real-world corporate experience. I engaged in internships for two and a half years. The transition period between completing my education at CEFAM in France and beginning my studies at Pace University in the USA was marked by analyst role in Merger & Acquisition for Modulaire Group. Our primary focus was acquiring modular construction companies in Europe, owned by a private equity entity, to expand market share and execute a significant buy-out strategy, culminating in a 5-billion-dollar deal in June 2021. Then, I joined Oraxys, a private equity firm specializing in financing growth capital and buyout activities for companies dedicated to environmentally friendly products and services. These two experiences significantly improved my foundational knowledge in finance and operations, which have proven invaluable in my current role. Following my graduation from Pace, with the benefit of these prior experiences, I assumed the position of CEO in collaboration with my father. We launched an Agri-Tech startup eight months ago, introducing a novel concept known as “Regenerative Vertical Farm.” This innovative system, designed for outdoor use, enables individuals to cultivate ultra-fresh, pesticide-free, and nutritious vegetables at home, under the @Plugzengrow brand. Our regenerative approach underscores a shift from merely “doing less harm,” as sustainability strives for, to actively “doing more good.”
Here’s the 20 sec elevator pitch:
“We offer to sell regenerative vertical agriculture systems designed for outdoor use, enabling people to grow vertically ultra-fresh, nutritious, pesticide-free, and delicious veggies at home. Our recipe is simple: sun, water, and soil. Our vertical system minimizes environmental impact by conserving water (by 95%), preserving soil health, and harnessing nature’s power through solar panels. Plus, people eliminate the entire food travel and packaging cycle and cut their wallet-shopping vegetable expenses between 20% and 40%.”
What is your current job role? And what does it involve?
As the Co-founder and CEO, my role defines various facets of the business, with a strong focus on product development and market expansion. I serve as the driving force behind our vision, acting as the project’s public face and ensuring its strategic direction. This involves constant networking and learning from different sources to refine our approach. Right now, we’re actively engaged in fundraising, requiring me to pitch our project to potential investors.
On a day-to-day basis, my responsibilities can vary from handling financial management, engaging in discussions with potential customers to taking moments for clarity and reflection.
The entrepreneurship role is a very dynamic and challenging journey, highlighted by periods of unwavering belief and doubts, but it’s all part of the growth process as we work to successfully introduce our vertical farming system to the market.
How did CEFAM help you get to where you are now?
CEFAM has provided me with essential skill development, but what sets it apart is its unique American approach to business education. Shifting from the French education system to learning from American teachers has had a profound impact on my entrepreneurial mindset. The cultural disparities, between the USA and France, have been transformative. At Cefam we’re encouraged to embrace risk, celebrate failures as learning experiences, and prioritize a work-life balance that suits our individual needs. Whether you’re an early riser, hit the gym midday, or take extended breaks in the afternoon, it’s about optimizing your work hours to be most productive rather than adhering strictly to a fixed time behind the desk. The opportunity that CEFAM gave me has allowed me to immerse myself in the American spirit very early in my journey.
What advice would you give to CEFAM current students preparing to graduate?
I would advise them to have a “shoshin” mentality. It’s a word from zen buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind”. It refers to having an attitude of openness, lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level.
Tell us something about yourself that most people don’t know:
For nearly a decade, from the age of 8 to almost 20, I struggled with a severe stutter that severely impacted my ability to communicate. During those ten years, my struggle with stuttering was a constant source of emotional and psychological distress. It was painful not only in the sense of physical impediment but also because it often led to feelings of social isolation. The fear of stuttering frequently held me back from expressing many thoughts and ideas. However, it undeniably played a defining role in shaping who I am today, and I am immensely grateful for the personal growth that has come in my life and that has allowed me to speak fluently now.
What is your motto?
Life happens to all of us. The loss of a loved one, severe stutter, an ugly breakup, family issues, or health problems. But even in the face of adversity, we must show up, we must fight, and we must step up. It’s during times like these that the world discovers what we’re truly made of.