Béatrice Vaugrante (M.86)
Rebel with a cause

After many years working in the corporate world, Béatrice decided to work for a NGO. This passionate woman lives for Amnesty International and seems like she never stops thinking about the famous NGO’s missions. We talked for about an hour with her and the interview was as upsetting as refreshing. This is a humanistic testimony and a vibrant call for action.

Read full transcript…

HU: Hi Béatrice, thank you so much for welcoming us in Amnesty International offices. We are going to start with our little Proust questionnaire.

So, if you were a color?

B: Obviously it has to be yellow, the color of Amnesty International. Yellow to catch the attention and say: “Hey people! Be aware, do something.”

HU: An animal?

B: I love elephants. Because they are very sociable, wise, because they have a matriarchal society and because they have a good memory.

HU: A meal?

B: Paella! Because I have lots of links with Spain and because it is very diverse. Everybody can do his own recipe, it’s a collective meal in the middle of the table and everybody help themselves. It’s a nice meal to share.

HU: A song?

B: Quand les homes vivront d’amour. This a Quebec song from Raymond Levêque and it’s about the aspirational dream of all human beings preferring love than hate to live together.

HU: A movie?

B: There was an excellent and terrible movie from a Quebec film writer called Wajdi Mouawad. It’ called Incendie and it’s about the devastating war in Lebanon. The movie shows how women are impacted in wars. It also talks about identity and roots. It’s an excellent film, but it’s pretty tough!

HU: A capital sin?

B: Anger, because I can understand why people can be angry. Because of injustice, because of inequality, because of impunity… Sometimes I feel very angry at some systems or some leaders who don’t take their engagements seriously and achieve goals in the despite of human dignity.

HU: An object?

B: I would hesitate between a pen and a pair of shoes. A pen because of Amnesty, because you have to do something, you have to write. It can be a pen or a keyboard now, but it is important that people do act. When you are aware of something that is wrong, taking your pen to act is the next step.

A pair of shoes because of demonstration and the need to be able to go in the street. It relies on the freedom of expression we want everyone to have. Many countries and dictatorships are obviously trying to ban demonstrations, but even in Western countries, freedom of expression is at stake: human rights defenders are in danger and Internet surveillance is everywhere. It is always in the name of security. It sometimes looks that you have to choose between security and Human Rights. We do think we can have both.

HU: A sport or a game?

B: I love boxing. I know it looks crazy because I am working for Amnesty, why would I need to hit someone? But I love boxing, I think it’s a noble and complete sport.

HU: Boxing is not about hitting people, it’s about fighting!

B: I know, but still! Sometimes people raise eyebrows when I say it, but I love boxing!

HU: What if you were a book?

B: I read a very interesting book about he impact of development on people. It is called Las Vienas Abertas de America Latina, written by Eduardo Gallinau in the 1970s. It’s an old book, but it explains very well the impact of development on people in the region, from the Spanish Conquista to the arrival of Western countries in Latin America. It explains how the development and exportation of resources, for the main interest of just money, had impact on people, inequalities and destroyed democracies. It’s an essential book.

HU: If you were a (super)hero?

B: I admire a Canadian lawyer called Louise Arbour very much. She was at the head of the UN Human Rights commission and at one point she was the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. She’s a fantastic woman and she disturbed the system by bothering international leaders and fighting against impunity.

I think it marries the law, the way it can be changed in order to protect people as it should be, and the fact that she’s a woman! It’s too rare to name women as superheroes, so I needed to name a woman.

“I wanted to stay 2 years In Canada and 20 years later I am still here!”

HU: We couldn’t agree more…

Now, can you sum up your professional background in 30 seconds?

B: I worked for Hay Management consultants as a consultant for human resources. I was based on Paris, then in London and I also developed business in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall, which was crazy.

Then I did my MBA at HEC Paris and I did an exchange in Mexico, where I finished to learn Spanish.

I moved to Canada after my MBA, still with Hay Management. I wanted to stay 2 years In Canada and 20 years later I am still here! When I was at Hay Management, I didn’t want to have “consultant” written in my forehead, so I went to a startup telecom company, Fido Solutions, as a Human Resources Director. I had a wonderful experience there. I did a sabbatical for 6 months with my husband and I came back in the same company, but doing Sales this time.

During that time, I had thought about what I wanted to do and the telecom company was bought by another one, which I didn’t like the new management style, so I thought it was about time to leave business. I thought Human Rights could be helpful for me and that I could be helpful too, so I joined Amnesty International as a Managing Director here in Canada.

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HU: Have you coped with a difficult choice in your professional life?

B: Moving from France to Canada could be seen as a difficult one, quitting business life to join a NGO where you don’t have the same working conditions too, but I really felt I was what I needed to make those choices. People were telling me: “Wow, you are so courageous! It’s crazy!” and they didn’t understand why I was not choosing the easy way. I could have chosen the easy way: I could have stayed in Europe, I could have kept steady jobs, but I think I dared to listen to what I really wanted to do in my life.

“Regarding Human Rights in Canada, the big issue is about indigenous people’s rights, and more specifically indigenous women’s rights.”

HU: How would you present Amnesty International to a 5-year-old kid?

B: We bring back families together. We bring back your father or your brother, who is in prison because he had a crazy idea to say something that the chief of the country doesn’t life. The chief of the country manages everything and decides for everybody’s life. There are people in prisons because their words didn’t please chiefs of countries, so we want them out with their family. But we also want the Chief to change; so we will tell everyone what the chief does bad in order to free people.

We will make sure that all girls and mommies have the same rights as boys and daddies and that girls can do and dream as big as boys.

We will make sure that kids go to school and have enough in the fridge to eat.

HU: How do you define Human Rights? Is it from the Universal Human Rights Declaration?

B: Good answer! We don’t have a guru, it’s already defined I the UN system!

The UN Declaration on Human Rights is our base and then we have all the covenants: international covenant on Economic and Social rights, the international covenants on Political and rights, covenants for discrimination against women… All these tools have been signed by the countries! All we are saying is “you signed this, so you have to keep up your promise”

Human Rights are universal, whatever your culture or your religion is. It’s about dignity, to be free from terror and misery. We are not reinventing the wheel! We are not asking for empathy, we just want people to respect the Human Rights. It goes the same for countries as for companies.

HU: More concretely, what are Amnesty’s big challenges in Canada?

B: It’s not easy to make sure that people take care about Human Rights in Canada. It’s not easy because the level of interest for international news is very low in Canada and in Quebec.

It is even more difficult today, as international news is only about terror attacks and refugees. The level of prejudices and fear of the other is very high today, so we tell people that we don’t need to fear refugees and we try to interest people to international news. People always think that Human Rights are a complex and political issue, so they prefer environmental issues, which are always political for me by the way.

Regarding Human Rights in Canada, the big issue is about indigenous people’s rights, and more specifically indigenous women’s rights. They have huge economic and social problems, they are facing prejudices, racism, sexism… This is a vast field of work for Amnesty and we need to interest people. It’s changing slowly, but there is a long way ahead before having everyone with the same rights in Canada.

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Indigenous women protesting in Canada

HU: Canada is told be pretty welcoming, but is it a specifically important county for Amnesty International?

B: Canada has a history of contributing to Human Rights, to its system, its conventions. I talked about Louise Arbour, but Irwin Cotler and John Humphrey are Canadians who got involved in Human Rights. There is a huge tradition of respecting Human Rights in Canada, as well as a tradition of diversity and openness.

That being said, Canada went through a dark decade with the previous government, who jeopardized Human Rights. It was tough and our freedom of expression as a NGO was jeopardized too. Many NGOs were receiving money from the government and were asked to shut up.

Today the situation is better and there are signs of improvement. It’s great news because Canada is important to speak up at a global level. Canada can tell other countries not to be afraid by acting as an example and it can be this positive and coherent force leading the progress of Human Rights. Coherence is very important: if you say something about Iran, please say the same about Saudi Arabia!

“I belong the Global Management Team of Amnesty International with 9 other colleagues. We are helping the head of our movement at global level, which is very interesting.”

TITANICHU: What are Amnesty’s main campaigns internationally?

B: For the moment it’s about refugees. We are happy that Canada has accepted more refugees than the previous government but we need to do more and we need Canada to show the way to other countries, especially in Europe. It’s absolutely inacceptable that we let people die in the Mediterranean sea. It’s a fool decision to let people die when we could have opened safe roots and welcomed people. It’s all about respecting the fact that people are in danger and hosting those who are in danger while trying to find political and diplomatic solutions for Syrian conflict.

Out of that, it’s about business versus Human Rights, indigenous people, LGBT rights and women rights.

HU: Is there any achievement you are particularly proud of?

B: There are numbers of victories in terms of number of people we have freed. Every year, millions of people are acting, writing millions of letters and we do free people.

We have also been able to reduce the number of countries practicing death penalty. When we started in 1961, there were only 16 countries where the death penalty had been abolished; there are 140 today. This shows that our impact is good.

The International Court of Justice is also a great achievement because we are now able to sue people or leaders who committed crimes against humanity.

The Treaty to control arms, which aims at avoiding that arms cause human rights violation, is also a good improvement.

We worked a lot to reduce child marriage in Burkina-Faso and today the government is willing to help on that topic.

In Canada, the awareness about indigenous people is improving, too.

HU: How does Amnesty International act on those topics? Could you describe us the typical Amnesty International action, from the issue to the outcome?

B: The techniques are multiple but whatever the issue is, we need to make noise, so there are campaigns, we use social media, we do web activism and we create local volunteer groups who go and pressure the leaders. We prepare those youth groups and we are really happy to have all these young men and women who get involved.

To make it more concrete, I am going to talk about the way we acted in the Commission on Indigenous Women Rights.

The first thing we do is research and documentation. All our work is based on research, so we started by documenting on Human Rights violations for indigenous women: why do they disappear? How can it be so easy to pick up a woman, rape her, kill her and how can it be possible that nobody is accountable for it? We looked into the police system and the justice system to see how they are discriminating indigenous women. They don’t do it on purpose, but we try to understand how they do it.

Then, we work with partners: the people we want to help. We gather indigenous women’s groups and we listen to them.

After that, it’s advocacy and mobilization. We meet with ministers, we present them the situation and we ask them for answers. We made indigenous women speak up, we ask experts to look into the problem… The previous government was not considering it and said it is just a criminal issue, while we were documenting that there is discrimination at the root: indigenous women are not paid, they don’t go to school, they face violence within their community at early age…

The last part consists in making noise in the street: campaigning. That’s when we use media and especially social media. We try to be as creative as possible and we go in the street. That’s what we did for indigenous people and it worked out: we now have that Commission on Indigenous Women Rights.

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HU: What’s your typical working day?

B: It can begin at 5:00am with a telephone conference in London, or because we have things to talk about with our Australian colleagues.

I belong the Global Management Team of Amnesty International with 9 other colleagues. We are helping the head of our movement at global level, which is very interesting.

I can meet partners, indigenous groups for instance: I meet them, I listen to them and I do some research.

I also spend a lot of time doing some media, because it is important for me to make people know what we do, what we say, what our positioning is and what you, people, should do to change things.

And then after that you have finance, fundraising programs, team management of our staff and volunteers and relationship with the board, to which I am accountable.

HU: Is Amnesty International a friend of globalization?

B: We don’t have an opinion of a specific economic system as long as it is respecting Human Rights, but we do say a lot about inequalities. For the moment, the system we have generates lots of inequalities: 70% of the poor in the world are women, which means that our system is somehow making benefits from the exploitation of women.

It is exactly the same problem with environment and we are just starting to consider the environmental cost of what we produce, so what about the human cost?!

It’s not about accepting the economic globalization or not, it’s about having also a globalization of crisis: the refugees’ issue, for instance, does not pertain only to Europe, it needs a global solution and everyone has to help. 86% of the refugees live in developing countries, so it’s not true that we are accepting the misery of the world! Absolutely not! We are avoiding global solutions.

When the issue is about a country that is protecting its economy, Western countries always say that we need to find a global solution, why isn’t it the same when talking about Human Rights? Currently, Canada and Europe are negotiating a trade agreement while there are huge concerns about Human Rights. Don’t get me wrong, we are not against this treaty, but why aren’t Canada and Europe negotiating about Human Rights too?

We don’t want double standards: countries accepting globalization only when it arranges them.

“That’s the beauty of Montreal: its artistic life.”

HU: Let’s talk about Montreal now. Where do you hang out on Sunday afternoons?

B: I have kids, so that drives my choice! (laughs)

I love the area where I live very much. I live in Hochelaga and it used to be a place where workers lived. There are lots of parks, we have lots of connexions with our neighbours, our kids play together, we go the Olympic Stadium… I love my neighbourhood.

HU: If you had only 24 hours left to live in Montreal, what would you do? Let’s say that your kids are fine and that you are on your own to enjoy the city one last time before leaving it forever.

B: Good point! (laughs)

HU: We don’t want to tear up families, we just want to know what you love about Montreal!

B: I would do a big ride with my bike, because I love biking. You can go up to the West of the island, because Montreal is an island, I would go to l’Île Sainte Hélène, where there is “Le Grand Prix”.

I would also go to museums. I love the “Musée des Beaux Arts” very much, or the “Musée d’Art contemporain”. There are only 1.5 million people in Montreal but the city is wonderful in terms of artistic creation, underground culture, music or theatre. There are so many theatres and so many creations… people are working with nearly nothing but they love creating. That’s the beauty of Montreal: its artistic life.

I would also go and have a dinner at “La Petite Italie”, a wonderful Italian neighbourhood, but there are many other great restaurants and the gastronomic life is crazy. There are new flavors each month and there are good ones that do not change. And of course the bars of Saint Laurent, because Saint Laurent is Saint Laurent, this street has its own DNA, so I would probably end up there.

HU: What do you like about people in Montreal?

B: There are cool. There are open, they have different forms and colors, they never judge and they are super easy. It’s super easy. You should enjoy your stay in Montreal. There is no aggressiveness at all.

Obviously, when people from Quebec City come to Montreal they find it a bit hectic, but having lived in Mexico City, in London and in Paris, I can tell you that Montreal is really relaxed!

HU: What is Canada’s main challenge in your opinion?

B: Definitely indigenous people. We really need to roll up our sleeves and tack that deep problem within the Canadian society. It’s an inclusive and cool society but it completely forgot about indigenous people’s rights. We need to face History, recognize History and now build up solutions together. The young generations do want that, but there are many deep errors to correct.

The second challenge of Canada is to be heard on the international scene. Canada made bold choices in terms of economic and social life and I think Canada should show the way to other leaders. I am scared about the choices of some Western leaders… The civil society is very organized now, the technology is helping but we are looking for leaders, not managers.

HU: How many indigenous people are living in Canada?

B: They represent between 1% and 1.5% of the Canadian population but there are different nations and tribes. The indigenous people living in Quebec are those who live in the most unbearable conditions, but the problem is Canadian. The infamous “Highway of Tears” in British Columbia, where indigenous women just disappear…

“Businesses are huge entities, sometimes bigger than entire countries and they do have responsibilities.”

HU: We are going to talk about happier things now, because we are going to talk about HEC! When did you graduate from you MBA?

B: I graduated in 1996.

HU: What was your favourite place on the campus?

B: It was a bar called “El Tibron”, I don’t know if it still exists but it was my favourite place! (laughs)

HU: What is your best memory from HEC?

B: I still remember the name, it’s when we went to the “Monastère de Ganagobie”, in the South East of France. We spent a few days there for a seminar on ethics and management. It was fantastic. The place was magic, and the monk who hosted us was a former HEC student himself! I loved my class, I discovered Emmanuel Levinas, the philosopher, I discovered many texts from Aristotle, like the Nicomachean Ethics and we were thinking about what is happiness, what is the meaning of life…

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The Ganagobie monastery

HU: Was this part of the MBA?

B: Yes, and the best part of the MBA in my opinion. It’s cool to learn marketing, finance and economics obviously. It’s an MBA so we all came to learn that, but I loved that part and I really hope they still have it. Being a manager is about ethics, it’s about choices, it’s about how you implement decisions. I think that today’s young entrepreneurs and businessmen do have a better sense of: “Yes I want to do business, but what is my impact on environment and society?” Human Rights are always forgotten unfortunately, but young managers do have a better sense of responsibility and ethics.

For me it’s vital and every manager has to learn about ethics.

HU: Would you advise someone to go to HEC?

B: HEC is a great business school, so if you have a reason to go to a business school and if it’s not an answer to some social pressure, you should definitely go to HEC.

Running a NGO is like running a business, even if the purpose is not to make money. You have to make strategic choices and to lead your team so having done HEC helped me, for sure. That being said, running a NGO requires good political sciences, economics and law skills. Usually, people who work for Amnesty are lawyers or jurists and not business people.

HU: Do you use the HEC alumni network in your professional activity?

B: Unfortunately not. When I came in as Executive Director, I tried to interest business but they fear Amnesty. They don’t really know what we do, they think it’s political and that Human Rights is a complex issue, but that’s a mistake. I would love HEC alumni to come to me and ask how their business can do more to respect Human Rights. It’s coming, I am telling you. At the UN level, there are more and more discussions about international business and respect of Human Rights.

Businesses are huge entities, sometimes bigger than entire countries and they do have responsibilities. The Canadian mining industry is a huge issue here for example: some of the Canadian mining companies violate Human Rights everyday in Latin America, in Africa or in Asia by killing trade unions, by avoiding local people to be aware of development projects, by dirtying entire regions. Local people cannot protect themselves from these huge corporations because the justice department from their country is week and because they can’t have access to the Canadian Justice Department either!

It’s changing and Amnesty is working a lot on changing that. We were happy to see businesses establishing volunteer codes, like when a CEO says his company now has a moral code, but we need biding rules. This means international laws and national laws regulating companies and making them accountable for Human Rights violations. It’s coming! It has come for environment, it will come for Human Rights, so let’s start now! We want companies to respect Human Rights within their added value chain, to respect the workers’ rights, the environment, to stop using the police forces when local people disagree with their development projects…

We are willing to work with businesses but we are already fighting against non-cooperating businesses. We had an action last week in front of Apple because after having done some research on Apple’s supply chain: we have a wonderful machine – I have the same one – but Apple is unable to tell me where does the cobalt come from… We have been documenting that men, women and children are working in terrible conditions to get this cobalt, which is sold to a Chinese company and then goes into my Iphone and yours. Apple is unable to tell me if this cobalt is free from child labor or not, so we are campaigning.

“The civil society is very organized now, the technology is helping but we are looking for leaders, not managers.”

HU: Imagine we are CEOs who want to act for Human Rights, how could we do it?

B: As I said, there are tools concerning international businesses and Human Rights at UN level, so you would just need to check it out. The problem is the implementation, because if you don’t want to implement, it’s your choice and nobody will blame you.

So please, dear CEO, go and seek for this information! Please take someone on your team – that is NOT from the Marketing or the Communication department because we know the trick of the nice website saying the company is respecting Human Rights for commercial purposes – take a champion and put him in charge of the implementation of Human Rights inside your company.

You can start by calling your Amnesty office, it will be pleased to help you!

HU: Which advice would you give to a young graduate from HEC?

B: Dare! Don’t choose the easy way or the expected way but go for way really matters to you. You have pressure from your parents, from your friends, from your culture but listen to yourself!

HU: HEC’s motto is: “the more you know, the more you dare.” What would be your own motto?

B: I am going to quote Bertolt Brecht, in French first: “Celui qui combat peut perdre mais celui qui ne combat pas a déjà perdu”. We need to fight! Being aware of problems is not enough, you need to act and to fight! Do it, try, you may lose, but you also may not. We need to fight.

… or pick a category…
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