Isabelle Hudon: from shy child to accomplished business woman

Isabelle Hudon has always been drawn to challenges that often seemed nearly impossible to meet.

Katia Lavoie | Journalist

Isabelle Hudon has never been "afraid of being afraid." But she has had to work hard to go farther and break down barriers to become the business woman she is today. Here's her story. 

Little Isabelle didn't have an entrepreneurial spirit. She describes herself as being a bit stubborn but rather shy as a child and wanted to work for a large organization.

"I felt like I was a bit stifled in my hometown. I'd always had the ambition and maybe the dream--or the other way around--to move to a bigger city and meet people I didn't know," says Hudon, who is now Canadian Ambassador to France.

The wake-up call
The turning point, however, was in the mid-1990s. After working in politics, she followed her then-spouse, who had been accepted into an MBA program on an international university campus in France.

When she saw the students from all over the world, who had so much drive, knowledge and talent and dreamed of changing the world, she reacted in two ways.

"I'd come with Paul, so I wasn't very busy, but the students were. I was depressed and a bit disappointed in myself, because it seemed like they were having fun, but I wasn't," she says. So she decided that she would find a path for herself.

She came back to Canada with newfound energy and the drive to excel. "I realized that we're really the ones who set ambitions for ourselves and that we often hold ourselves back by repressing those ambitions, telling ourselves that our biggest dreams aren't achievable," she says. 

From one success to the next
This strength and determination have served her well over time. She has been open-minded and pursued varied professional and personal interests.

"I threw myself into everything I did and always pushed myself out of my comfort zone professionally," she says. She admits that she's always been drawn to challenges that often seemed nearly impossible to meet.

True to herself, Hudon was also very determined in going after the position of president and CEO of the Board of Trade (now the Chamber of Commerce) of Metropolitan Montreal. At the time, she was VP of the same organization and asked for the role instead of waiting to be asked.

"I told the board of directors that although I had a lot to learn, I believed I was up to the challenge," she says. 

She finally landed the job at only 34 years old. It was a stepping stone for the rest of her career. What was most surprising is that people congratulated her because it was the first time a woman had been appointed to the position, and not because of how young she was. 

Not the SME type
After heading up ad agency Marketel, which was a formative experience, she realized that she "wasn't the SME type," and in 2010, embarked on the Sun Life adventure, which she considers the biggest challenge she's ever taken on.

"I didn't know the financial sector. The company had been mismanaged in Quebec, because it had mismanaged Quebec. And I was the first person to take on this leadership role for the province. I had to make it all up," she says. She realized the full extent of the work the team had done when she got her national promotion.

Her big cause
In 2015, Isabelle co-founded Effet A to help other women become more confident and own their ambition.

Besides seeing how few women were in influential and decision-making roles, she read numerous accurate studies on the subject. However, no one was doing anything to change things.

"I cofounded Effet A to take concrete action in supporting women, so they're better equipped for the challenges they want to take on," she says. The concept is rather straightforward and involves giving them advice and persuading other leaders, both men and women, to take day-to-day action.

For example, "you can take a call from someone of any age that you don't know who needs advice and you can acknowledge her courage, or you can make sure you always have a list of female candidates on hand to sit on boards of directors," she suggests.

The results were soon evident. "I was the first one surprised to see how fast Effet A took hold in the business community. The vast majority of graduates have received one or two promotions in less than 2 years, become more confident, gone after what they want, and raised their hand when it's time," says Hudon proudly. 

Hudon as ambassador
Hudon has been in France for a few months now and feels "a bit at home" because of all the skills she developed in her previous roles, which have served her really well. 

What does the future hold for Hudon? She wants to live in the moment, grow from her experience as ambassador and, most of all, not rush to decide what's next after these 5 years are up.

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