17 Apr 2015
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A Driving Force for a Sustainable World

Investing in the future by promoting companies and practices that make transportation greener and smarter.
Re: Nancy Card (MBA 1984); Nayla Rizk (MBA 1984); Susan Lyon Hailey (MBA 1984); Cindi Miller (MBA 1984); Catherine Bouvier d'Yvoire (MBA 1982); Maggie Milan (MBA 1979); Danielle Feunteun (MBA 1976); Christine Valentin (PMD 74); William Sahlman
by Jill Radsken

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Photo by Jean-Luc Mege

Fabienne Herlaut (MBA 1984) has strived for sustainability in the greater world and in her own life. The founder and managing partner of Ecomobilité Ventures, a €25 million multi-corporate venture fund based in France and committed to green transportation, Herlaut believes leveraging businesses that want to preserve the environment provides solutions that benefit everyone.

“If each of us contributes a little bit, at the end of the day we can really meet the challenges the world is facing,” she says.

Herlaut has spent 14 years elevating her cause, and the payoff has been tremendous. Last fall, she was honored with the National Order of Merit, France’s highest decoration, in recognition of her efforts to promote sustainable development and to support innovative startups.

“It doesn’t make my life different on a daily basis, but it’s important to show you’ve been honored,” she says. “I feel that having this distinction, people look at me differently, especially as a woman. It forces me to be a role model. It gives me a status I have to respect.”

Being a woman in a male-dominated industry has provided Herlaut a unique perspective. At HBS, she was part of a female population that comprised only a fifth of the entire student body (at 22 years old, she was also one of the youngest).

“Because there were so few of us, it was easier to catch the attention of whichever professor, to have the chance to speak when we raised our hand,” she says.

In her finance class with  Professor William A. Sahlman, she found her voice.

“Though I often knew the right answer, I never raised my hand in class. Bill came to me and asked me to present a case, which I did. Then he said, ‘I want to hear more of you’ and from that day on, I had my hand up. It’s something I remember in my professional life—not to be quiet because my boss or my competitor or colleague is fascinating me. It’s not a reason to be quiet and shut up.”

After graduating, Herlaut found occasion to speak up—in her actions—after a prestigious firm passed her over for advancement to partner while two male colleagues were promoted.

“The feedback I got was I was too young and I was a woman,” she says. “They said, ‘Stay with us. You need maturity. In a year, you will be promoted.’”

Instead, she left the firm and chose a more entrepreneurial experience in managing a family-office portfolio. “I increased the value of company five times in 10 years,” she recalls.

In 2001, Herlaut joined Pechiney in Paris, which was acquired by Alcan, then Arcelor (which became Arcelor Mittal) in Luxembourg. Those jobs made her realize how much money companies were investing in processes to protect the environment from their own industrial activities. The investments were enormous, but the returns minimal, and that got her to thinking about smarter green practices. She joined SNCF in 2007 as head of strategy and sustainability development, and within the year created Ecomobilité Partenaires, a sustainability-minded investment fund. She launched her own fund in 2012 with Ecomobilité Ventures.

The firm’s investments have included Ouicar, a French car-sharing business, and Ridepal, a San Francisco–based company working to redefine commuting. It provides real-time, shared bus services for workers whose employees pay monthly subscriptions for the service.

“I especially find it rewarding as these emerging companies develop projects that, in the long run, will contribute to a better world for the coming generation; they all want to do more and do better with less,” she says.” Their creativity is amazing, and it is just a privilege to support them in the best possible way.”

As gratifying as Ecomobilité Ventures is, Herlaut gives equal attention to her family. “I consider myself a successful professional woman who has made an impact, but I consider myself a balanced person. I spend a lot of time with my two daughters, who are 14 and 16. Helping them to grow up as young adults gives me a great sense of accomplishment,” she says.

A former competitive tennis player, Herlaut regularly hits the courts with her girls, and she is readying to run the Paris Marathon for the first time this spring. It’s a race that might be a metaphor for her professional mind-set.

“It is hard work, but you must come well-prepared,” she notes.

Herlaut has also found meaning in her HBS sisterhood. She has maintained cherished connections with five women in her section, including Nancy Card, Nayla Rizk, Susan Hailey, and Cindi Miller.

“This friendship has gone on 35 years,” she says. “It has been a profound friendship.”

In 2012, she expanded her commitment to the women of Harvard, cofounding Harvard Women France with Catherine Bouvier d’Yvoire (MBA 1982), Margaret Milan (MBA 1979), Danielle Feunteun (MBA 1976), Christine Valentin (PMD 74, 1999), and Kennedy School alumnae Meriem Ait Ali Slimane (MPA 2008) and Mariane Nafijar (MPA 2011).

“We wanted an arena where women could get together and feel comfortable and share their experience and be mentored,” Herlaut says. “It mixes business school and non-business school grads, which is an interesting mix of culture. There is a lot of energy. When women are only amongst themselves, they behave differently than in company of men.”

Like her company, the creation of Harvard Women France reflects Herlaut’s desire to conceive challenging solutions based on need.

“I like to create, and I like to do things that are relatively unusual and sometimes difficult to deliver,” she says. “I like to see the concrete accomplishment. I’m not just a thinker; I’m a doer.”

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1984, Section H

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