Interview with Creative Business Strategist Vanessa Belleau

Discussing business, burnout and the importance of self-care at work.

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Today, we catch up with Vanessa Belleau. A former Futurist and Director of Consultancy at WGSN, Vanessa now works at The Walt Disney Company as a creative business strategist and Fashion marketer, as well as a Intuitive Coach and Diversity Advocate. Here’s her story:

Newnham: What were you like growing up? How would your friends and family have described you?
Growing up I was soooo not a cool kid! I was not popular at all as I was always the head of class with the best grades, looking geeky and ohhhh so not fashionable. I had a quiet (yes I said quiet!) intelligent confidence being myself and very happy to just be me. I think that this behaviour very much came from the fact that I am a middle child.

I jumped a grade and changed schools few times so I must have been perceived as the annoying kid, who was always getting the favours from the teacher! Gold Star anyone? Me? Really, are you sure? Actually yes! Thank you very much!!! Haha!

Yet everything was not always great with the teachers because I was always getting in trouble for talking too much to everyone during class! Unfortunately for my peers, I got bored very quickly doing the same thing for too long — I had a very low attention span when things do not rock my boat / make me dream/ entertain me/ teach me something🤷🏾‍♀️. And to this day, this is still valid and, truth be told, I am not even apologetic about it.

I remember that at the age of 10, my desk was put far away from the rest of the class as I was too distracting. I didn’t like that much (even though I did feel special, even at that age I was always thinking that it is better to stand out than to be ordinary) so that is how I started to try to focus my thoughts and my energy and decided to read a lot and process things rather quickly. I started to request more exercises from the teacher so I could not get bored or try to disrupt the class. I was in a double level class then, that is how I jumped one grade.

My mum used to call me ‘draught’ because I was never at home, growing up. Unlike my two sisters, I always wanted to socialise and spend my energy outside doing things like sports, playing with my friends or just simply exploring the world by myself. I became a Girl Scout aged thirteen and I defo followed (Robert) Baden Powell’s mantra of being ‘always prepared’ to experiment life and serve the community.

My family and friends would hopefully say that I was a curious, bright, well-behaved kid most of the time but very annoying with all of my questions and matter of fact answers… haha!

Newnham: Can you tell us about your career to date including any particular lows and highs in your career so far?
I believe that my experience to date is pretty rounded, a bit like me lol (I am curvy and embrace it 98% of the time!).

I have worked very hard so far to get a freaking fabulous understanding and perspective of what makes brands successful, taking into account current and future market context and consumer behaviour.

I have always chosen to work for agencies, until last year, as I wanted variety and wanted to learn as much as I could in a short amount of time.

So I worked for Kantar Worldpanel for four years (doing syndicated quantitative market research in fashion and then beauty), then for a small company called Conquest (doing ad-hoc quantitative market research across various categories), then for Synovate and Ipsos (doing ad-hoc quantitative advertising research and pre-test across various categories like tea, alcohol, beauty, energy, etc), then I got headhunted to work at WGSN (being a futurist and lead business creative strategist advising brands on their creative process development, collection building, commercial & retail strategy, marketing strategy and more).

As a official member of ´team too much’ — meaning that I love dramatic situations, I would say that I experience highs and lows EVERYDAY.

I take it all as experience and move on to the next situation pretty fast!

I have a way to process things that is very emotional, disruptive and pretty big picture. I accept the lows and rationalise them fast (often using spirituality) and acknowledge & celebrate the highs fast as well. My mind is always focused on the ‘what’s next’. I guess that it is my low attention span coming to play but also my passion for the future and high dislike of dwelling on things.

Newnham: You worked at WGSN. How did you get started?
Belleau: I did indeed work at WGSN from end of 2013 to May 2017. I was the Director of the Consultancy division (which is currently called Mindset) for EMEA, even though some projects sent me to Japan and El Salvador.

Firstly, I attended a business school and graduated with a Master’s degree in Management and a MSc in European Business Administration. Back then, I was very analytical and developing more commercial business strategies than creative business strategies.

I then widened my experience and joined two different market research companies, where I worked on non-Fashion categories like food and beverages, beauty, banking, energy, the National Lottery (!), etc. Then I joined WGSN.

I started my career in fashion in a very different capacity though, working with fashion brands. I started as a consultant in market research in a company called Kantar Worldpanel in the fashion division. I worked with the Marketing and Insights teams of multiple fashion brands and retailers like Amazon, Levi’s, Clarks, New Look, Debenhams, VF Corp, Matalan, John Lewis, etc advising them on the fashion competitive landscape, and their commercial strategy to attract either more customers or getting their customers to spend more with them. I dealt with a lot of data.

Newnham: And what are you working on now?
Belleau: Since leaving WGSN, I have been contracting for The Walt Disney Company as a creative business strategist & Fashion marketer, creating campaigns with fashion and home retailers to bring the magic of Disney at retail.

I am also the Co-President of the first multicultural employee resource group there so I am really investing myself in diversity advocacy.

Outside of this, I am working on starting a leadership coaching practice and I also mentor people! And of course I keep my eyes on future consumer trends and shifting behaviours as well as on disruptive business practices and concepts!

Too much? Yes maybe! But we only live once right?

Newnham: What’s the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far and why was it impactful?
Belleau: I have learned so much from so many people and situations so it is hard to pick. So I will share three of the most important lessons I have learnt and live by now. The first two most important lessons have to be ‘be unapologetically yourself’, and ‘choose to be happy and truly healthy’.

Bringing my authentic self to work, or everywhere as a matter of fact, is more than vital to me. I have a big personality that I cannot disguise fortunately. I have been told to learn how to put a poker face on few times in my career and my answer has always been the same: ‘Where is that written in my contract please?’.

To me, being yourself and authentic doesn’t mean that you cannot be diplomatic. The main things are to be respectful of others and to share your insight/opinion from a place of love and compassion.

Health in the form of mind-body-spirit happy alignment is so important. I have learnt this the hard way after falling sick and ending up in hospital for burn out and needing surgery for a large number of fibroids, which I suspect came from a poor diet and stressful lifestyle with very little balance: always on a plane, eating crap food and working over 55 hours every week. This is, of course, not sustainable. During these tough times, I was being strong and smiled through the pain and kept going, when really I should have stopped and reflected on why I was doing what I was doing to myself > what did I need to prove and to who?

The third most important lesson, which is as important as the previous two, and which I actually teach is ‘define your why/your purpose and always link what you do with your why’.

I see too many people not being driven by anything nowadays. It is like they walk like wandering ghosts. OK, my analogy is a bit too strong but you see what I mean. I believe that this is the number one reason companies are not as truly successful as they could be actually.

Newnham: Can you tell us about your exec coaching? What is some of the advice you have for women who are looking to start a business?Belleau: First of all I would like to say that I love being a coach! This is something that I have started in the past couple of years on a small scale and I think that I cannot live without it now.

I love people and enabling another individual to reach their true potential or just working with them to provide clarity is so rewarding and uplifting! I feel very lucky and blessed that I am trusted to actually share my different coaching methods with people, who trust me.

I am very passionate about mind-body-spirit alignment. So topics that I explore are resilience and it’s dimensions, everyday leadership, energy-driven excellence, purpose, self-reflection and awareness, humble arrogance, communication and impact, authentic persona vs. projected persona, values system, power and control, etc etc etc — the list doesn’t end.

For women who want to start a business, I would just say: dream about what you can achieve, believe that you can achieve it, prepare a plan, be flexible with your methods and strict with your goals, be kind to yourself and choose to have fun and learn a lot!

Newnham: What’s your favourite book quote and why?
Belleau: Can I change the question and say my favourite quote from a movie? I read many books and I have too many book quotes!

‘If you want to be somebody, if you want to go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention!’. In my head, I am singing this quote in true gospel soulful style like in Sister Act 2. I say ‘in my head’ because my singing is utterly terrible 🤷🏾‍♀️.But as my dad says, we cannot have it all and it is true that I am a fab dancer.

Newnham: Love it. Finally, if you could go back in time, what advice — if any — would you offer a younger Vanessa?
Younger VB was very similar to VB now, except on one thing so I would tell my younger self: learn how to talk about money better so that you negotiate your salary and benefits better!

Vanessa on LinkedIn / Instagram

This interview originally appeared on the F = blog here.

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