Isabelle Girard, general counsel for 3M Canada, believes her interests and her desired lifestyle should guide her career decisions. It’s a philosophy that has led her to opportunities abroad and in Canada, and has enabled her to remain passionate about her work throughout.
By Hailey Eisen
This past July, Isabelle Girard packed up her life and her two small children and moved from her home in Mexico City, with a population of around 21 million, to suburban London, Ontario — population 400,000 — to take on the role of general counsel for 3M Canada.
To say her life has changed dramatically would be an understatement, but the Montreal-born lawyer is no stranger to change. In fact, it’s something she’s embraced eagerly throughout her career, pursuing opportunities to integrate her various passions and interests into jobs she’s loved.
Thinking back on the diversity and international scope of her career to date, she traces it all back to high school. “You never know where your education is going to take you,” Isabelle says, referring to the Spanish courses she took while attending a French school in Toronto. “Little did I know that I would spend 10 years of my career working in my third language.”
Her love for Latin America was born out of what she calls a “life-changing opportunity” she was afforded during Law School. A student at The University of Ottawa, she received a one-year scholarship to complete a masters degree in International Trade Law at UNAM in Mexico City. There she wrote her thesis on NAFTA, and had the chance to apply what she’d learned studying Civil Law at Ottawa U.
Back in Toronto, Isabelle got a job with a large international law firm, where she helped
Canadian companies navigate business transactions in Mexico. There, she was fortunate enough to have her first of many great mentors, a male partner at the firm. “I felt comfortable telling him that I was leaning toward working directly for a company rather than continuing with the law firm,” she recalls. “I realized that I wanted to be a true advisor within a company, not just providing legal advice, but weighing in on commercial and business decisions as well. I wanted to be embedded in the business I was working with, rather than letting clients go once an assignment or transaction was complete.”
Equipped with this knowledge and the support of her mentor, Isabelle left the law firm for an opportunity with Pfizer, which took her back to Montreal, then on to Paris for a year, and finally to Mexico City.
This final transfer came about through a recommendation from her sponsor, who knew Isabelle spoke Spanish and loved Latin America. “It’s important to always voice your capabilities and interests because you never know when there will be an intersection of these which could lead to the perfect opportunity,” she advises.
“The advice I always give other young women when they’re at a turning point like this is, it’s okay to take a different path, even a side path — but don’t get off the wagon completely.”
In Mexico, Isabelle immersed herself in the culture and language completely, finding her place and establishing a community within the city. While she was making great strides in her career, Isabelle also got married and started a family. When her daughter was just three months old (the extent of the maternity leave in Mexico), Isabelle came upon the next crossroads in her career. She found herself at a conference in Europe — halfway across the world from her newborn baby — and she began questioning the sustainability of a travel-heavy career. “I loved the work I was doing, but I wanted to spend more time with my daughter,” she says. “The advice I always give other young women when they’re at a turning point like this is, it’s okay to take a different path, even a side path — but don’t get off the wagon completely.”
Thanks to her adaptability and openness to change, Isabelle was soon able to find a new role that fit with her desired lifestyle as a mom and continued to challenge her professionally. She joined 3M in Mexico where, among other things, she shifted her focus to “developing others,” as she refers to it. “It was my turn to give back, to work with other women lawyers and help build their strength.”
Diversity and inclusion was on her radar and she recognized the need, especially in the legal profession in Latin America, to help advance women. During her years at 3M in Mexico Isabelle was not only involved in the women’s leadership forum within 3M, she also helped found Abogadas MX, an organization that provides mentoring and networking opportunities for women lawyers in Latin America. Beginning as a group of 20, it now has 700 members.
Back on Canadian soil in her new position, Isabelle continues to lend her expertise to the mentorship of women. She is also enjoying having access to 3M’s international team, and has already begun leveraging their diversity to ensure everyone is performing to their fullest. Her aim is to help create an environment where people feel comfortable, valued, and accepted — a foundation she says 3M is built upon.
On the family front, Isabelle is embracing a slower pace as she establishes a new balance and helps her children adapt to life in a new country. “Opportunities like this don’t always come at the perfect time, but the key is to adjust accordingly — and let go of the guilt,” Isabelle says. “As women we tend to try to do it all, and then feel as though we’re not enough — but I’ve learned to let those feelings go and be 100 per cent present in whatever it is I’m doing at the time.”