Growing up under a powerful family name can be tough. But fourth-generation heir, Vincent Dassault, believes his parents took the right approach.
The Dassault empire in France is a household name. Serge Dassault, billionaire heir to the great French industrial aerospace company that started out making propellers in the First World War, was known for developing the family group to five times its size in 1986, when he took leadership. The family controls Dassault Group, which includes Dassault Aviation, Dassault Systemes, auction house Artcurial, the prestigious vineyard Chateau Dassault and the daily newspaper Le Figaro.
Since Serge’s death two years ago, the control of the group is structured among his four children. Despite a legacy that could weigh heavily on one’s shoulders, his grandson Vincent says he had a normal, happy childhood, which he credits to his parents. Growing up, no one knew his real identity, as Vincent’s mother always used another name when enrolling him for schools or in social situations, to ensure he was not treated differently.
“I was blessed in many ways to be born into a family with such a legacy,” he says over the phone from Paris, the city where he was born. He speaks softly and thoughtfully, with no hint of ego. “From the beginning my mother tried to shelter us from the negative aspects of what that name could project on others. She had us use a different name, to prevent any biased relationships with friends and to give us a sense of normality.”
We are discussing the delicate tightrope walk of raising a fourth-generation heir to be a humble, well-adjusted human being. The perils of inheriting vast riches are well documented and cautionary tales abound. In fact, it seems the balance is so hard to get right, that many of the world’s super-wealthy have already decided not to burden their children with unearned fortunes at all, including Warren Buffett, who sagely announced you should leave your children “enough that they can do anything, but not enough so that they can do nothing”, and philanthropist Bill Gates, who with a US$110 billion net worth, is said to have promised his children a mere US$10 million each.
There is no right or wrong answer. In Vincent’s case, inheritance is carefully staggered “to prevent spoiling our ambitions and work ethic, while also enabling us to live a normal life in the early years of adulthood”. Now aged 26, Vincent is passionate, friendly, modest and driven. He acknowledges that he will become a very wealthy man one day, although he doesn’t plan on spending much of it. “The capital of the business has been part of the family for generations and we are committed to transmitting it to our children. This guarantees the long-term stability of this strategic french technological company and, importantly, it ensures thousands of jobs are protected.” Dassault Group employed over 30,000 people at last count. And philanthropy is a part of the family backbone. At age 18 all the Dassault grand-children were given the option to donate their dividends to charity, which most of them did, enabling them to build strong relationships with the non-profit sector.
Vincent’s parents were sensitive about his upbringing, they lived a simple lifestyle and, every time they moved to a new home they downgraded, Vincent laughs. “We’ve gone to smaller and smaller places each time. Money and power are important if you make something good of it, who really needs a 20-bedroom mansion?” To avoid the family name becoming a burden, his family gave him space to find his self-identity that allowed him to carve out his own niche. “I received a lot of love, respect and freedom when I was a child, which allowed me to take risks. That was important because it strengthened my confidence in my own abilities. It was understanding that, yes, this family is part of my identity, but I have to build something for myself.”
They also gave him access to therapy whenever he wanted, to give him a private outlet to discuss his fears and questions. He started seeing a therapist when he was an adolescent and has gone sporadically ever since, something he attributes to his state of happiness and an ability to optimise self-awareness. “Knowing the brain is the most complex system in the known universe, how presumptuous must you be to think you can master it on your own?”
He started his education in France but quickly found fault with the “harsh and judgmental” French system. “Certain school systems try to frame all children into one model, which just doesn't work. Every individual is different.” So, his parents supported him, switching him to a British boarding school when he was 12, a formative step that made him realise “life wasn't all about maths and physics”.
While Vincent was studying his master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering at Imperial College London, he made his first foray into entrepreneurship, something his parents encouraged. He launched a socially driven company called Art Embassy, an agency with a mission to find and cultivate 20 of the most talented artists from emerging countries. An artist himself, Vincent raised the profiles of budding artists from Indonesia to Georgia, Syria and many more.
After three years he decided to branch into something different and spent some time working at Epic, a non-profit set up by philanthropist Alexandre Mars, which champions some of the most innovative NGOs supporting youth issues on the planet. While the job fed his love of social impact, he still had an itch for his other passion: buildings. So, he found his place, perhaps unexpectedly, as a site engineer for French company Vinci Construction.
In the dust and dirt of the foundations of a construction site, side by side with operatives from all over the world, he was at his happiest. He was part of the team who led the recent award-winning renovation of the 19th century Mandarin Oriental hotel next to Hyde Park in London, which included re-doing all the rooms, building a ninth floor with two large new suites and the new wellness facilities, Vincent’s project in the project.
“Construction sites are some of the most complex places you can think of. It’s a cluster of men, materials and action in a dusty, noisy and dangerous environment which changes day after day. You have to be constantly mindful of how the men are working, the precautions in place, because you bear all the legal responsibilities of their actions. I’ve met some amazing people on this journey, who live in very harsh conditions and I’ll always be grateful for seeing how proud they are of what they build and to learn from their experience.”
Now, he wants to combine his two passions of philanthropy and construction. He is enrolling in architecture schools and wants to learn how to address problems caused by climate change in cities all over the world. “I want to use architecture as a vehicle for changing people’s lives. I feel blessed to be born, not only in this family but in this time. A time where you have unlimited access to a universe of knowledge in your pocket and the ability to make a huge difference.”
This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Legacy Issue, March 2020. To subscribe contact