“I consider myself Senegalese by birth, Franco-Lebanese by origin, Monegasque at heart and a citizen of the world,” says Johanna Houdrouge, president of the Association of Women Entrepreneurs of Monaco (Association des Femmes Chefs d’Entreprises de Monaco, AFCEM ).
“Growing up and living in Monaco means being able to work in a reassuringly safe environment, knowing nearly everyone – the kids I went to school with are now entrepreneurs and business leaders – and having an openness thanks to the multitude of nationalities that coexist.”
Although Johanna passed the Bar – “Why did I want to become a lawyer? Because I love the law, I love the idea of defending a cause, whatever it is” – she is vice-president of Mercure International, an import-export business that has 250 points of sale in 17 countries on three continents.
The family-run business was founded by her Monegasque father and began with their own City Sport brand. Today the company covers three sectors of activity – sport, fashion and food – with supermarkets under the Casino and Super U banners (in West and Central Africa), as well as shopping centres in Africa (Gabon, Congo, Senegal, Ivory Coast).
They have 5,000 employees worldwide, including 100 in Monaco, which is where Joanna works at the head office, alongside her father and brother. “I manage all the legal and administrative aspects of the group throughout the world. I am a specialist in business law and more particularly in OHADA, that is the Organisation for the Harmonisation in Africa of Business Law. So, even if I no longer litigate, my knowledge of law is still useful on a daily basis,” she explains.
On December 4, 2018, Mercure International opened the first N’Kids activity centre in Senegal. “N’Kids is my baby. I had been very keen to launch this concept of indoor games for children in African countries, where activities for kids are sorely lacking. Parents are delighted to be able to fully enjoy their shopping experience in our shopping centres, without feeling guilty, since their children are having fun in complete safety.”
Johanna joined AFCEM 10 years ago, and was the youngest member at the time. The network – whose slogan is “Alone we are invisible, together we are invincible” – promotes business and defends the rights and interests of women entrepreneurs. “The association’s values speak to me, they correspond with my own. I have always been very involved in the social fabric, not just in Monaco but internationally, and am very invested in the economic life of the Principality.”
Johanna’s election as AFCEM president last September allows her to carry strong messages to the “courageous and competent women entrepreneurs each in their own field.” For example, she believes the time has passed for focusing on the differences between men and women in the workplace. “Of course, we are different, it would be nonsense to deny this, but why not play on these differences to make them a strength and work together?
“I also want to pass on entrepreneurial desire to younger generations who are the business leaders of tomorrow. We owe it to them to support them, to prove to them that women, like men, are responsible, competent leaders who keep the human factor at the heart of their concerns. This is, I believe, a primary mission incumbent upon us today.”
For Johanna, Monaco’s female entrepreneurship is a formidable patchwork of skills and diversity. “Our members represent all areas of activities – insurance, health, e-banking, art, new technologies … we even have a navigator among us! This diversity is a pledge of openness and human wealth.”
Covid has been particularly challenging for all businesses but women have been particularly impacted over the past year. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics, there were 2.2 million fewer women in the work force between October 2019-2020. Between January and September last year, the largest net decline was among women with two children, down 3.8 points, and among women whose oldest child is 2 to 6 years old, down 5.6 points.
A Catalyst survey of adults ages 20 to 65 working in large companies (500 or more employees) found that 2 of every 5 mothers say they must hide their caregiving struggles from colleagues while a McKinsey survey showed that 1 in 4 women was considering taking a leave of absence, reducing hours, moving to part-time, or switching to a less-demanding job. McKinsey also reported, “women in France, Germany, and Spain will have an increased need for pandemic-induced job transitions at rates 3.9 times higher than men.”
“Covid spared no one and AFCEM members were impacted to varying degrees,” Johanna states. “Our association brings together women business leaders from all sectors and some, like those in the event and travel industry, are still going through difficult times being at an economical standstill yet having to continue to cover operating costs. Fortunately, the Monaco government put in place the Economic Recovery Support Commission, which provides assistance for companies in difficulty, and also the €20 million Monaco Blue Fund, which subsidises all companies, regardless of their size, to cover 30%-70% of their digital transition.”
In addition to keeping its members informed in real time as government financial measures evolve in response to the pandemic, the association also organises conferences, like with CHPG director Benoîte de Sevelinges last December, a webinar on “The success of women in business” organised in partnership with the Monaco Economic Board on International Women’s Day, and, on March 18, Julien Dejanovic, the Director of Digital Services hosted “Extend Monaco” on digital technology and businesses.
“We want to continue our missions while keeping this entrepreneurial spirit and dynamism that defines us. Today we not only need to survive but also to reinvent ourselves. All AFCEM members live in complicated situations, both professionally and personally, but they all have this desire to emerge stronger,” asserts Johanna.
“Covid has impacted me personally and professionally, and continues to do so,” she shares. “As Mercure International is present in many countries that did not implement the same measures at the same time, you can imagine the difficulty in managing stores and shopping centres and, consequently, the men and women who work there. Our main suppliers are in China, and China was the first country to be confined, which meant no more deliveries to our stores. When China deconfined, the rest of the world confined. Production resumed, deliveries also, but we could no longer sell the goods. This was a real headache but fortunately our diversification saved us – the food sector continued to function.”
“From all of this, I will especially remember our formidable capacity for resilience. I believe that word, resilience, is definitely the word of the year 2020. We always say, “What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger”. We have seen it. When it is really necessary, we have tremendous resources within us.”
Johanna is not only an entrepreneur, but also a mother. “And like many women, I had to deal with my two children during the first confinement … and after. I had to change hats regularly in 24 hours – that of a business leader, then a school teacher, then a mom … A very complicated situation to live with mentally and physically.”