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A&O alumna Valérie Brisac has always looked for roles where she could make a difference – worthwhile jobs that benefitted society. Fortuitously for her, and society, she has a knack for finding them.

Valérie Brisac was never going to use skills honed at the ESSEC Business School to market consumer goods – that was old hat, and didn’t answer the needling question in her young mind: what could she contribute to the world? She needed a role with “superior value”, as she puts it.

If that young Valérie could see herself now, she would be extremely happy. Not only is she contributing, she’s taking a lead in the movement to create an equitable, resilient and sustainable society.

Since 2019, her focus has been business transformation toward sustainability in her native France, first with an organisation that helps start-ups develop breakthrough technology to use against greenhouse gases, then running an ambitious project to define 100 measures to accelerate the transformation of the economy, and now heading a new association of mission-driven companies seeking to transform themselves and, through that effort, the economy.

It’s her dream job, she says, one that wasn’t even on the horizon when she was starting out.

At the end of her studies at ESSEC, she couldn’t picture herself in any of the jobs on offer at graduate recruitment days. What did interest her was urban planning, an area where she saw opportunities to solve problems.

A new direction

She first joined the SCET Group and then the Paris consultancy Bossard in its public sector division. She switched to marketing after a change in ownership and internal reorganisation left her thinking, if she couldn’t “fulfil something deep, at least I could have fun”.

Her chance to “invent something that hadn’t been done before” arose at Nexity, a progressive real estate company. Nexity had acquired a business that managed large residential buildings and put Valérie in a new role of marketing director to develop innovative ways of selling its services.

“I liked the connection with my previous urban planning life. When you manage buildings where a lot of people live, and do it well, you create value for them. It’s like building a city and giving it a kind of soul.”

Valérie and her husband wanted their growing family of boys to experience life outside France, so they moved to Belgium in 2010. They loved it – and for Valérie, joining A&O in Brussels as head of Marketing, Communication and Business Development was the icing on the cake.

She’d found it hard without speaking Flemish to get a job and, although she’d decided not to take another role in marketing, she changed her mind after an interview with then-managing partner Dirk Meeus, now co-head of A&O’s Global Corporate practice.

When you manage buildings where a lot of people live, and do it well, you create value for them. It’s like building a city and giving it a kind of soul.

“Life totally changed,” she said. It was more than the firm’s international environment, the many nationalities or the high level of the work. There was an attractive richness in A&O’s Belgium office. “People were mostly trilingual, culturally agile, extremely respectful – the mix of ambition, excellence and a human dimension were powerful.

“I liked to open the newspapers at the business pages where I could see everything we were doing – all the M&A, the complex discussions at European level: we were working on all of that. It made me proud to think that we were making business history.”

In her marketing role, she enjoyed the freedom to be creative. On one memorable occasion, an alumni reception around the theme of connecting people, she and her team recreated the onboard environment of an aircraft complete with hostesses dressed as cabin crew and city trips as prizes for attendees.

In 2017, the family returned to Paris, her eldest son for education, her husband to develop his business in their home city, and Valérie to take up an opportunity to move to A&O’s Paris office as director of Marketing, BD and Communication. Her move coincided with the appointment of Hervé Ekué as managing partner, taking over from Jean-Claude Rivalland. She worked closely with Hervé during “a very interesting” time.

I liked to open the newspapers at the business pages where I could see everything we were doing... It made me proud to think that we were making business history.

Wake-up call

The introduction in 2019 of France’s so-called Pacte law – Plan d’action pour la croissance et la transformation des entreprises (‘An action plan for business growth and transformation’) – was “a wake-up call for me”. She recognised a ‘superior value’ in the Pacte law, which requires French companies to consider social and environmental issues in their business and encourages them to incorporate social and environmental objectives into their corporate purpose.

“A lot of things changed,” said Valérie. “Companies reflected for the first time on their purpose.” It was “very exciting” to help companies articulate their raison d’être, to go into their history and corporate DNA and change their governance.

She saw it as a historic cycle, and wanted to be part of it but realised she couldn’t at A&O. “Pro bono involvement is peripheral: I wanted to be at the centre.

“I loved the people at A&O but it was time to go back to my goal of working for the common good.”

Then Covid-19 hit.

About that time she met Team for the Planet (TFTP), a group that raises money to fund start-ups whose technology, if replicated in open source, could have a massive impact; for example developing air-conditioning that doesn’t use harmful hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

While volunteering for TFTP, she took on what she describes as the “toughest thing I’ve ever done” and in 2021 became executive director of Le Grand Défi. It was, as its name says, ‘The Great Challenge’: a corporate-funded charity, its ambition was to mobilise businesses to define 100 proposals for accelerating the ecological transition of the economy, and then follow through on their dissemination and implementation with decision-makers.

It was a brand-new project, with no team or budget. “My aim was always to have an impact,” said Valérie, “so I jumped in.”

Valérie knew they needed expert legal advice and turned to A&O for help. That led to the pro bono involvement of “a wonderful lawyer” from the Paris office, Arthur Sauzay – now partner but counsel at the time – who stepped in with the blessing of both Romaric Lazerges, partner and head of the Public Sector team, and Hervé Ekué.

“Arthur helped us tremendously,” she said. A specialist in environment and public law, he provided invaluable context, perspective and background to ideas arising from the brainstorming – even the correct legal vocabulary to use. “What a gift to have this excellence at our service.”

Through Valérie’s hands-on effort – the work took her to top-level meetings with officials of the Ministry of Economy, Finance and Industry – and the co-founders’ extensive network, Le Grand Défi succeeded in stimulating interest across a broad cross-section of business and government.

A key measure for Le Grand Défi was a national strategy for biodiversity. In July 2023, the government introduced a new national biodiversity strategy (SNB3) and appointed a secretary of state for biodiversity. Said Valérie: “We can never say this happened because of us, but we contributed to making it happen.”

Pro bono involvement is peripheral: I wanted to be at the centre.

On a mission

Valérie left the project in July 2023 for a new job as chief executive of Communauté des Entreprises à Mission (CEM), which she started in September. CEM is the reference association in France on the question of the ‘company with a mission’. The term refers to how an economic entity defines its activities toward the common good, or ‘society with a mission’, a concept that gained legal status with the Pacte law of 2019.

“We’re basically an interface between government and business,” said Valérie, “set up to help mission-driven companies transform themselves.”

What’s interesting, she said, is that similar initiatives are happening across Europe on a country level. The hope is that policy-makers will come up with a new Europe-wide status for companies with a mission – something to which her role will contribute.

Change the economy

The big challenge now, and one which she approaches with obvious relish, is to grow the 1,000-strong CEM membership of mission-driven companies “many times over”, and while she’s at it, change the economy.

How does she feel about that? “It’s a combination of everything I’ve learned as a consultant, marketing director and so on,” she says. “The role corresponds with what I want to do and what I know.

“It also has the political and societal dimensions that I like – it’s great!”

Music and sport help Valérie unwind. She discovered Zumba a few years ago – “a good way to combine cardio exercise with a lot of fun in a noncompetitive atmosphere” – and added it to her fitness and swimming routine.

But her first love is singing. She has been on the concert stage as a member of choirs performing mainly classical music, and now takes singing lessons “to progress and sing different things” – art imitating life in every sense.

 

Reconnect with Valérie Brisac.

Valérie Brisac

Chief Executive of Communauté des Entreprises à Mission
A&O: 2014-2019

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