Esther Dormagen

President & Senior Sustainability Consultant at Ellio

Esther Dormagen, CRHA, travaille avec des équipes de direction pour les aider à développer des modèles d’affaire, des pratiques de gestion et des opérations qui créent plus de valeur et de sens pour la société et préservent la qualité de l’environnement. Ellio travaille avec des PME, des grandes entreprises, des municipalités, des associations professionnelles, des institutions financières et autres organisations.

Work and impact

Well, it’s fully integrated, because that’s the only objective of my work. My work and my company are actually totally dedicated to creating an impact. The way we do it is through sustainability consulting, 100%. I have also co-created another a company, Toucan solutions, that’s dedicated to creating technology to support circular economy networks to avoid any type of waste, starting with food. At Ellio, we’re currently a company of 12 and a few partners that work with us. At Toucan Solutions, we are 4 owners.

One of them would be to empower organizations to actually to conduct change. So that’s what we want to do and where we’re the most useful, because we can’t change the organizations ourselves being from the outside, but if we can empower people to change their organization, then I think that’s really where we can make a difference. So co-creating the path towards transition is really my biggest focus and now, and there are other focuses related to that, like certifications, or adopting international reference guidelines to work on more specific areas of the transition and to simplify the process. For example we’ve started to work on low carbon strategies. We’re using international standards, and we’re working with ADEME, a French governmental organization that developed guidelines and a process and so we’re being trained to apply that. We want to simplify the change process. So yeah, that’s another area of focus, but it all goes to helping the transition and empowering people. In the past it was much more putting the word out, and trying to convince and explain what was happening and why, but now it’s not so much trying to convince, it’s really to help and empower people. Yeah, people are convinced npw and they want to change things, and so it’s much more fun.

It was really a personal conviction. It happened over a period of time. So I did a Bachelor in Business in France. And then I worked for a few years and was more in the HR field. Then I came to McGill and sustainability was not really you know, like a word that anybody was using, like the Brundtland Report was out but it was not very mainstream at all. However, when I was doing the MBA at McGill, I think the most progressive class I took in that area was called Marketing for Developing Countries, and I entered this group called Students for Responsible Business at the time, now, it’s Net Impact, but at the time, it was called SRB. That’s where I started meeting people that had the same convictions as me. We went to this conference in San Francisco and it was so cool and I was so amazed. I was seeing all these business people saying that ‘We want to make a positive difference in the world.’ I thought, okay, that’s really cool. But you know, from this great conference to making a job out of it, it still took a few more years. So, after McGill, I went into marketing and I went back to HR and but I went back to France actually. And then I worked at L’Oreal, and I thought it was really really fun company. Inside L’Oreal, I could see there was a possible convergence between environment and business as surprising as it sounds, but there was a really deep concern about the environment and society, but then after a while, we kind of our ways diverged. Like with L’Oreal, I won’t go too into details but I had a baby at the time so it gave me a long time to think differently and think about what I really wanted to do. And I thought HR and working for a large company was not for me. It started to become really competitive really hierarchical and I really didn’t feel that’s where I could make a difference and I didn’t feel very comfortable with what I had to do to continue working for L’Oreal. So that’s where our ways diverged, but I was still in Paris at the time and I started doing pro-bono for a few people that were actually starting to do real stuff in that field. Doing a lot of pro-bono, that’s exactly what you should do, it’s an amazing way to learn. And my family and I decided to move to Montreal and I went back to an HR job because nobody was talking about sustainability here. But then, you know, like one thing leading to another, I met some people that had similar points of views and values and a year and a half after I moved back here, I started working for a small consulting firm. And that’s really where I got the true deep conviction that consulting was what I really wanted to do and, and sustainability consulting. Finally, I was getting there and that’s what I’ve been doing for 16 years actually. I was in that small company, the company obviously changed a lot and stuff, and then we merged with two other small companies, creating the first generation of Ellio, and then we created another generation still called Ellio, and that’s the company I lead now. Yeah, so anyway, a lot of thinking, a lot of time and patience. A lot of, you know, getting to know more and more people. I became a part of Catalethique, another local organization that does sustainability-related conferences, and I became the president of that organization so that also helped getting credibility and meeting a lot of like minded people there. Anyway, so that was really a realization of what I didn’t feel comfortable doing or and where I really felt I could make a difference and have some freedom as well to build my job.

The mental maturity of entrepreneurs, employees, and society has increased tremendously. That’s one good thing, because we see that organizations are ready to invest in that field, like invest energy, money, and professional help, but also they’re ready to make it more strategic. In the past, we could do a project without ever meeting the President or the top management of a company because it was not as strategic. Recently the top management wants to meet us because they’re choosing a partner, not so much a consultant and they’re really expecting some strategic advice. They feel the responsibility of the work we’re going to do together. So that’s one thing that I’m excited about, because I think we’re going to make bigger transformations thanks to that perception that it’s now really strategic.

Another thing is public financing. Well, there’s something that is amazing right now that’s called the Fonds Écoleader, from the Government of Quebec,. It finances 75% of those projects for organizations, not only private companies, but that’s an amazing fund because companies can actually do much more with the investment that they had intended to dedicate to the project. So that’s really cool because bigger project means bigger impact. So the public investment is there. And international frameworks and spaces are there too so it’s helping speed up.

There’s still this misconception, that if you want to be sustainable, you need to reduce your profits or it’s more expensive. I mean, there are still a lot of companies that still look at their budgets in silos. Companies spend their whole day spending money, so you make a budget. If you want it, you make strategic decisions on how you want to manage it and it’s not because it’s sustainability related that it’s going to be more expensive. It’s just a regular thing to spend your business, your product, your profits, or your investments on anyway. So that’s one thing, but also, it’s still hard for them to understand that if you save money here, you might want to reinvest those savings to spend more money there, just because it should be a 360 degrees strategy, not just a cool thing that I’ve saved money there. It’s still a misconception, I think but that’s the way companies are built, and it’s not easy for them to look at it differently.

And about my profession, some misconceptions about the consulting job is that they think we’re gonna find all the answers or sometimes they do exactly what we tell them because they think we are the experts. But we’re not the experts, we’re only experts in one side of the project, or a few sides. So that’s a bit annoying because there are so many ways to do things. What do you want, and then let’s build it together.

Life and aspirations

It’s very hectic in the sense that I spend a lot of time in meetings in having conversations so now I spend less time writing things up, because the rest of my team does it, but still, it’s a combination of spending time in meetings with the clients, facilitating workshops, and stuff like that. It’s writing documents that are actually strategies or diagnosis. It’s spending a lot of time preparing with my team; like I said, we do a lot of work sessions internally. We spend a lot of time preparing for the meetings with the clients. Also because it’s a company, we run the company as well. So, a lot of time, in my day is also dedicated to having team meetings. I do a lot of outreach, and participate with organizations and associations. I do a lot of business development: I spend a lot of time talking to people about potential projects like the City of Montreal to try to build stuff together, or otherwise talking to potential clients. I do a lot of less organizational tasks now.
We have a big project at Ellio called the Parcours développement durable Montréal. It’s actually one initiative that we’ve created with the City of Montreal and the Sustainable Industries Council 5 years ago. Through this one-year program, 20 companies develop their sustainability action plan. We’re finishing our 4th cohort this year, so it’s 75 companies that have been involved in this program, where we have collective activities, individual strategic planning sessions at their facility with their team. So we have a lot of meetings, we do a lot of training facilitation and workshop facilitation with that program as well. Honestly, running all thos different parts of my life it’s a challenge because because I run Ellio, a consulting company, plus I’m also a mother, a citizen, and a friend, so no, it’s not easy. What I’ve managed to make work for me is running, a bit of yoga, a lot of friends activities, some traveling. In any case one thing is important is having good times in the professional environment with your team as well, because then even if you’re with team members, they’re your friends too, you can count on each other.

Combining the entrepreneurial aspect of it is exciting but at the same time is challenging because it’s combining all the consulting with the company management, and growth management. It’s very challenging having more people to talk to in the team and more people to transfer experience to at the same time while managing expectations. We’re a very small organization, but we’re 12 people while last year we were 6 people and we didn’t let anybody go during COVID so that was a very, very, very stressful time. But it’s exciting too, it’s very exciting!

Advice for the next generations

Okay, one thing one is definitely project management. You can’t do it without it. Project management, because everybody in the team manages several clients, several internal projects, and company oriented projects. So project management is key.

Capacity to create relations with people and ideas and concepts. What I’ve found extremely useful in and in my work is the ability to connect people and make connections between ideas and people. But also connecting concepts together. For example, one thing that I had not predicted at all, but that happened is like when I met somebody from the City of Montreal five years ago, and I told her a concept about what we could do for these small and medium sized businesses in Montreal. And then she told me she had created a program with 40 companies following the same program over a year and that we’re going to mix the two ideas together. This combined their expertise and my concept to do something together. That’s how there was a connection between two people, but also two concepts, and different ideas. And then thanks to that, we’ve managed to include about 30 different experts that contributed for a part of it.

Another one is curiosity, because you need to know what’s happening. You need to know who’s doing what, and what the new concepts and skills that are required are. There are so many sustainability-related things happening like circular economy, climate change, artificial intelligence, neurosciences, and everything. So you need to be curious about all that, because you can always make connections.

It’s hard to say I mean, we need intelligent people that have a basic knowledge and some experience. A specific degree, I don’t know. In the end, what we want to have is people who have consulting capacities and experience, sustainability knowledge, and the personality that goes with it. So if you have only two out of three of them, that’s okay. We’re going to give you the third one, if you have only one of them at that that’s a bit more complicated. But you need to have the personality for sure. Like it needs to be a good fit. A sustainability degree makes things easier, obviously. But I don’t believe in one size fits all, you know? But one handicap, you’re gonna have in your generation is that a lot of people have degrees in sustainability, so people who do not have it will need to counterbalance that with either experience, like in organizations or through internships or having experience in a company that is really dedicated to sustainability. And then how do you make yourself known if you don’t have a degree in sustainability, because then you need to bring something else to the table.

A lot of it goes with what I’ve just said. It’s a personality fit, it’s having the key skills, it’s being able to structure your thoughts, because being a consultant is not something you learn at school. It’s professional or pro-bono experience, studies and interests. capacities. It’s really the whole package.

Probably a million things, but at the same time, not so much. There’s a context in a situation that makes things happen. When I started, it took me time to start in the field, but not because I was doing things wrong, just because you know, they were few people and no jobs in that area. So I had to create my own job, and so there’s a context and you have to adapt to the context. If I were starting now, I would do things very differently, obviously, because the context is different. But that being said, what I think I would have done differently had I known would be to develop the entrepreneurial skills earlier, like working on the business model, working on the strategy, on building the team, having a strategic vision or strategic approach to the project itself.

One thing I would not have done differently is staying true to myself and my conviction and staying true to my desire to have an impact. Because it’s the impact that has driven the business and not the business that has driven the impact. In my philosophy, the success of the company and the revenues and the profits that I can have are a result of the impact we managed to have. So that’s very important because if I were driven by how much money I was going to make, I would be much less generous and I’m not sure I would be better off. If you’re too concentrated or focused on how much you want to invoice the client or how much it costs, then you’re not as strategic and you lose track of what is best for the organization you’re helping and what is best for society, so I think it’s staying true to that. It cannot be the other way around. It cannot be the profit that drives my life.