Freshmen Students Meet Inspirational Business Leaders
The second of the three-tiered Purposeful Leadership program featured 10 business leaders who shared with HEC’s first-year students their professional and personal quests towards purpose. In a high-wire act, these top entrepreneurs described with candor and emotion their bumpy and inspirational rides.
"In the following three days, you are going to hear about moments of sincerity and courage, all linked to quests for authenticity. They emanate from leaders who have succeeded brilliantly in their professional careers." With these words, Rodolphe Durand, holder of the Joly Family Purposeful Leadership Chair opened the program’s second chapter. Hard on the heels of the four-day seminars in one of three destinations (Chamonix, Saint-Cyr Coëtquidan or Mont St Michel), the 400 HEC students in L3 partook in a no-holds-barred exchange with 10 top French leaders.
Their personal voyage towards finding purpose on the way to their business ventures were as varied as their professions. Antoine Frérot (CEO Veolia), Antoine Lemarchand (CEO Nature et Découvertes) and Bernard Barrera (Major-General French Army) described the courage and coherence needed to follow the paths they chose. HEC graduate 2016 Louis Faure (Head of Young Leaders Program at Fondacio), Edouard-Malo Henry (Director of Compliance, Société Générale) and Hubert de Boisredon (CEO Armor) described how they found their paths in the most unlikely and distant contexts. Laurence Méhaignerie (President Citizen Capital) and Emery Jacquillat (CEO Camif Matelsom) shared experiences which forged their convictions in CSR. Whilst Valérie Mas (CEO WeNow) and Christopher Guérin (DG Nexans) related the painful soul-searching which followed major financial crises in their respective companies.
"However,” said Christopher Guérin, “what you have been doing for the past few weeks is also courageous. At 20 years old, the words “purpose” and “leadership” will destabilize you a little. We are on an ecological, anthropological, economic, geopolitical and numeric fault-line. These multiple mutations generate a great deal of doubt in all our workers and leaders. You must dig deep in yourselves and inspire yourselves from leaders to resist and to find your true purpose.”
Role models have often come from the most unlikely source. Elon Musk, for example, last year revealed that his inspiration came from Kanye West (“obviously”) and from Fred Astaire. For his part, Louis Faure was inspired by ex-conmen he met during a three-year stint at a chicken farm in the Philippines.“They helped me to see what I had in me. The experience also allowed me to detach myself from what was not me. Distancing myself from myself was perhaps the hardest thing to do. And this is something that we do every day, it’s never over.”
Leaving One’s Comfort Zone
Refusing the social and financial pressures to succeed was something Valérie Mas stamped on her audience. Mas’ successful career trajectory in a major French company had left her at odds with herself. "After 15 years, I realized I was in a gilded cage that I hadn’t even seen being built! I had moved up the entrepreneurial ladder, was well paid, but I was confronted with essential problems of purpose, as well as a strong unease with the impersonality of major companies."
Mas shared the experience of serendipity and courage with the audience, describing how it galvanized her to leaving the company and founding WeNow five years ago. This seemingly counter-intuitive move has brought her the purpose and passion she had lost.
A similar philosophical trajectory took Hubert de Boisredon to the rougher neighborhood of New York’s Bronx in 1985. “My meetings there with young people on the breadline changed my life. Those youth were HIV-positive, they would tell me: ‘At least you won’t miss out on life.’ The experience pushed me to use my management training for a cause. I went to Chile where I worked seven years in humanitarian projects. My encounters with poor people freed me from the world of material gains and appearances, from being what others thought I should be. My advice to you? Leave your comfort zone, depart from the beaten track."
The path towards purpose was a sinuous one for Laurence Méhaignerie. The militant entrepreneur described her winding road towards founding France’s top investment fund.“After disastrous experiences in politics, journalism and, to a lesser degree, research, I felt a need to find a job which acted and didn’t only observe. When I discovered the world of entrepreneurship, I felt the equal opportunity, social mobility and multi-cultural society it brought with it. For me, these realities were a strength, not a weight on my shoulders. By creating Citizen Capital, I felt this point of no return."
The frankness of the invitees’ testimonies inspired the students to rain down questions.
- “You said your grandmother did not accept your decisions but your mother did. When you discovered your purpose, were there not contradictions with your traditional values? Weren't you struggling with yourself?”
- “How do you differentiate between a taste for challenge and the true quest for sense, the deeper purpose of your quest?”
- “Does your personal voyage give you more legitimacy, given the fact you have a stronger grassroots experience than the others?”
Whilst ably fielding the queries, the 10 entrepreneurs all agreed that the questions of purpose continue to be omnipresent in their professional and personal lives . “I’m 55 years old, but I’m prepared to call into question my entire business, and many things in my personal life, to follow this inner light which possesses me: this love for the world, this desire for it to survive despite all the problems it has. I want to fight for it.” said Hubert de Boisredon. No doubt that, after the off sites where students have self-experienced the stakes, and before digging those questions in a business environment during the next few months, the sincerity of those business leaders testimonies will help students to embark on their purposeful adventure.
Hubert Joly (H.81), Executive Board Chairman of Best Buy and Major Donor of HEC’s Foundation, created in July 2018, along with HEC Paris and the HEC Foundation, the Joly Family Chair in Purposeful Leadership.
Hubert Joly's exceptional gift and the commitment of Nicolas Giauque (H.93), Pascal Stefani (H.88) and Laure Fau (H.93) on this topic made it possible to set up a path on purposeful leadership for all the students of HEC throughout their studies.
This program was launched at the beginning of the academic year of September 2019 and is followed by the entire new graduating class. Read more about the HEC Foundation