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Johanna Houdrouge: “We can handle it all, both our private and professional lives, it’s a matter of organisation”

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Johanna Houdrouge - © Alain Depart

Johanna Houdrouge is simultaneously Vice-President of Mercure International, President of the Association Monégasque des Femmes Chefs d’Entreprises and soon to be a mother of three. She wants to encourage all women to become entrepreneurs.

With three sons at home soon and a father and brother running the business alongside me, I was born to experience male-female complementarity on a daily basis!” This is how Johanna Houdrouge, Vice-President of Mercure International, laughingly describes herself. The company has been based in Monaco since 1986, specialising in the creation, operation and management of shopping centres in West and Central Africa.

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Having trained as a barrister, Johanna Houdrouge didn’t – initially – plan on joining the family business: “I studied law in Paris, and practised for around ten years. (…) I’d always dreamed of being a barrister and wearing the robe. I made the dream come true: I went to trial. I like defending. Then, inevitably, since there was the family business, it was important for me to get involved. As I couldn’t do both at the same time, I decided to give up law – not without regret – to concentrate on managing the legal aspect of the company.”

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Afetr studying law, Johanna Houdrouge took the oath in 2008 – All rights reserved

A hands-on woman

Now specialising in African business law, and originally from Senegal herself, she handles all the legal side of the company, working alongside major brands such as Super U, Casino, L’Occitane en Provence, Hugo Boss, Nespresso and FNAC. “The aim is to provide shopping centres on the African continent with international retailers on a human scale. We are particularly proud to have the FNAC franchise, because it is now the first European-standard electronics store in Africa,” she says.

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Hers is a demanding job, sometimes requiring her to travel to the 17 countries where Mercure International operates, including Senegal, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Congo Brazzaville.

Johanna Houdrouge recalls a trip to the Congo, where Mercure International created the country’s first escalator, since the shopping centre was on two levels. “Customers were really scared to take the escalator, it was an experience in itselfIt made a big impression on me to see that what we take for granted in Europe is not necessarily so over there,” she smiles.

But one of her proudest achievements is the creation of N’Kids. An indoor play area where parents can drop off their children while they do their shopping, named after her two sons, Nael and Nolan: “You have to realise that in Congo Brazzaville, there were no outdoor slides. I was very moved by their curiosity and joy.”

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Many hats in the Principality

All this work in the field is “a challenge,” she admits. “It’s also a very interesting experience. And even though I sometimes miss defending clients in court, I find entrepreneurship fulfilling.”

More than fulfilled, Johanna Houdrouge is very involved, not only in entrepreneurship, but more widely, in Monaco’s economic and voluntary spheres. At the ‘Women World Congress’ in Lima in 2019, she was awarded the prize for “Woman Entrepreneur of the Year.”

Even though I sometimes miss defending clients in court, I find entrepreneurship fulfilling.

A member of the Steering Committee of the Monaco Economic Board (MEB), President of the Syndicat Monégasque des Établissements de Négoce International (SNEMI), Vice-President of the Children of Africa family charity and a founding member and Vice-President of CEMA, Johanna Houdrouge has also been President of the Association des Femmes Chefs d’Entreprises de Monaco (AFCEM) since 2020. 

Elected for an initial three-year term, then re-elected for a second and final term in 2023, Johanna Houdrouge is, at the age of 40, the youngest President in AFCEM’s history. “I was the youngest member when I joined, aged 25Once there, I met women who had set up their own businesses and taken risks. As we saw during Covid, the risks of entrepreneurship are not insignificant. It made me want to get involved even more,” she says.

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Princess Charlene was present when Johanna Houdrouge was reelected as AFCEM’s President on 27 June – © Alain Duprat
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Promoting management by women without undermining men

Her hobbyhorse? Showcasing female management, without undermining male management. “Men and women are biologically different,” she says. “We need to tap into those differences to make them an asset in the workplace. I see it every day: I work with men. I can see the differences between the two management styles.  In reality, they are complementary. I believe that this complementarity is beneficial in a business, and even throughout the economic world. That’s why I also advocate wage and professional equality between men and women.”

Through her involvement with AFCEM, Johanna Houdrouge hopes to help further develop women’s entrepreneurship in the Principality. Entrepreneurship is “increasingly important,” with Monaco boasting 60 female company directors, “which is no mean feat given the size of our country.”

Female entrepreneurship is alive and well in Monaco, and I am keen to represent all these women, who operate in very different fields.

“Female entrepreneurship is alive and well in Monaco, and I am keen to represent all these women who operate in very different fields: insurance, construction, transport, haute couture… I think it is very important to acknowledge the work of these women who contribute to the Monegasque economy,” she adds.

So it is only natural that AFCEM has been promoting female entrepreneurship for the past two years among the younger generations, organising Girl Boss, a speed mentoring initiative aimed at young girls in the Principality, in partnership with SheCanHeCan, for March 8 (International Women’s Day): “It is important for me to pass these values on to young girls. Entrepreneurship builds self-confidence: you have to learn how to manage your business, your employees, take risks…

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Mothers: the most organised women at work

Another project of which Johanna Houdrouge is particularly proud is the recent partnership with Monaco Boost. FCEM is committed to welcoming a number of female business owners from the Monaco incubator for one year, free of charge, to encourage Monegasque entrepreneurship and to promote youth.

The number of women entrepreneurs is constantly rising,” she says with satisfaction. “Entrepreneurship provides flexibility that fits in more easily with family life, even though it means more work. (…) I defend the position that we can have a career and children. It’s not always easy; you often get the impression that you’re doing both badly, but it’s just an impression. I will keep fighting until my dying breath: you can be a mother and work really hard. We can handle it all, both our private and professional lives, it’s a matter of organisation.”

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Johanna Houdrouge – © Alain Duprat

I defend the position that we can have a career and children.

And apart from the ability to balance family and working life, Johanna Houdrouge believes that the most organised women in the workplace are mothers: “they have an incredible resilience to stress, time management skills, adaptability… They are highly operational. I like to spend time with my sons, to show them that a woman can work and be a mother, and to instill in them the values of equality between men and women. I have a fight on my hands because I don’t have any daughters, and I am convinced that women’s views should also be voiced by men.

Between her career in the family business, her involvement in the AFCEM, her various charitable activities and, of course, bringing up her boys, Johanna Houdrouge still finds time for a lot of sport. A keen runner and winter sports enthusiast, she even took part in a semi-marathon two years ago: “Sport provides as much self confidence as work. The ability to surpass ourselves that we can gain through sport enables us to develop a form of resilience in the professional world. Anything can be done in life, if there is the will to do it. It requires perseverance, never giving up, and these are values that we see in sport.”

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With a new team that is very committed to the future projects at AFCEM, which will be celebrating its twentieth anniversary next year, and which will take part, in Paris in November, in the annual conference of the Women World Congress, Johanna Houdrouge does not, for the time being, envisage donning her lawyer’s gown again. “You can’t do everything,” she concludes. “I have projects, and I need those, but they’re definitely to do with the boardroom rather than the courtroom. At the same time… who knows what tomorrow will bring!”

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