Virginie de Barnier
Virginie de Barnier

Virginie de Barnier is the first female dean of IAE Aix Graduate School of Management at Aix-Marseille University in France. She is a professor of marketing and has an MBA from Wisconsin School of Business in the US.

Before joining IAE Aix Graduate School of Management, Prof de Barnier taught at Edhec Business School and worked for several years in advertising at Havas Communication. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, running and skiing.

1. Who is your business hero?

Marie Curie, the Polish and naturalised French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, and the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris. She was a great professor, researcher and scientist who went against the grain of her time and was passionate for science. Each time I go to Paris, I read the sentence engraved on the pediment of the Pantheon “To great men the grateful homeland”. I am moved to think that one of these great men is a woman.

2. When did you know you wanted to be dean of a business school?

As soon as I engaged in graduate education. To be a leader it is necessary to be a master and recognised in your field. I acquired several years’ experience as a professor before even thinking about becoming dean. Leadership roles have always attracted me, co-workers and colleagues have often spontaneously asked me to become their leader on many different occasions. The most legitimate leader is the one elected by peers. In 2013, my colleagues at the IAE Aix Graduate School of Management voted for my candidature as dean. That day I knew that it would be possible for me to become their dean, because they trusted me. This motivated me to try even harder to do my best for the school and for them.

3. What is your biggest lesson learnt?

“Nothing is permanent except change.” I love this citation from Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, because it is so true especially in business. The world is ever-changing so you have to make your choices according to what you know but also what may happen. Business schools are evolving, merging, finding new models. With internet interactivity and Moocs the way we teach will be completely different in10 years from now. If you want your school to be in the top 10, you need to accept that nothing is permanent except change.

4. What advice would you give to women graduating this year from business schools?

Don’t let the preconceived notion that being a woman means that some careers are not meant for you. Analyse your options and just reach for the one that suits your goals and values.

5. How do you deal with male-dominated environment?

With humour and professionalism. Professional environments that are predominantly male are often lacking the hint of humour that makes business less hectic. When your male counterparts find out that you are a pro and that you master your subject, they enjoy working with someone who is fun to be with.

6. What was one of your earliest jobs?

Immediately after receiving my French baccalauréat, I took one year off to work and save money to pay for my bachelor's degree and MBA. I spent one winter in London working as a florist in a tiny kiosk just outside the metro. It was very cold and there was no heating. Still, selling flowers was such a pleasure; I enjoyed it immensely because you meet people in love, people celebrating. It was 1980, the year when John Lennon was assassinated in New York. I was freezing in this little kiosk but being able to listen to [his] songs all day long was such a privilege . . . One day, a client even bought some flowers and offered them to me. He is now my husband.

7. What is your favourite business book?

The Art of War. It is an ancient Chinese military treatise written by Sun Tzu, a high-ranking military general, strategist and tactician in the sixth century BC. This work is at the root of every business book. Sun Tzu considered war a necessary evil that must be avoided whenever possible. This is perfectly applicable to the business environment. One of my favourite citations is: “To win 100 victories after 100 battles is not the most skilful. The cleverest is winning without fighting.”

8. What is the last book you read?

Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle by Ingrid Betancourt. She is a Colombian politician, former senator and anti-corruption activist. She was abducted by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 2002 and was held captive for six years after being captured while campaigning for the Colombian presidency as a Green. Her book mainly describes her life and emotions as a hostage of Colombian guerrillas and how she had to fight not only against her captors but also against herself when she was losing hope.

9. What are your top tips for networking?

Like most people, I have a Facebook account and am on LinkedIn and Viadeo. [But] online social networks are merely tools. A core-team of 20 professional friends is far more valuable than 1,000 Facebook friends. [Networking] is about staying in touch with the 20 most important people in your professional network and making this core-team believe in and share a vision.

10. If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?

I would definitely have left the private business school industry for the public university earlier. I feel completely aligned with the values that we share in a state university: diversity, excellence and education accessible to all regardless of race, gender or social level.

This article has been amended to reflect the fact that Marie Curie was Polish-born and was also a naturalised French citizen.

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