A few years ago, Vanessa Cherenfant went to the HR department of the company where she was working at the time to talk about mentorship to help her grow as a manager within the organization.
“The feedback was to not to be too aggressive,” she said. “The term was aggressive, not ambitious.”
Statements like that come with a painful “stay in your corner” kind of subtext that women, and especially women of colour, know all too well.
Cherenfant was ambitious, but why not? It’s why she came to Canada in the first place.
Growing up in Haiti, Cherenfant’s parents always told her and her sisters that they could do whatever they wanted, and to ignore the gendered stereotypes and expectations for women in the country. Cherenfant knew what she wanted to do, but also knew she’d have to leave the country to do it.
“I’ve always had a dream of wanting to lead big organizations, big enterprises. I quickly realized that in Haiti that wouldn’t be a possibility,” she said.
Being told not to be “too aggressive” revealed the implicit prejudice that comes with systemic racism and gendered bias.
“I grew up in a country where everybody was Black, so there’s never been a filter in my mind that I couldn’t achieve because I’m Black,” she said. “I discovered that there were those biases, or there were challenges here. Was it because I was a woman, or was it because I was Black? You never know which one was at play.”
Whatever it was, Cherenfant immediately realized it wasn’t the place for her, and started looking for a new job the next day. Their loss.
Today, she is a vice-president and business lead for Cossette’s new-ish consulting practice, but she came to Montreal to attend Polytechnique Montreal and study engineering.
After graduating, she spent the early part of her career in operational performance at Bombardier and Createch, before moving into tech in 2014—launching her own startup, a travel recommendation platform called Elysia. From there, she took on increasingly senior operational and strategic leadership roles before ending up at Cossette last April, hired to launch the business consulting group.
Cherenfant went into engineering because she was good at math, but what she’s most passionate about is building things. It’s what drew her to building organizations and operational performance. And that’s why she joined Cossette, coming back early from maternity leave because she was so eager to join the agency.
The new business consulting group represents the more modern and holistic approach to marketing that recognizes building brands is about more than communications; it’s everything from employer branding to recruitment, to inclusive product design, operational performance and, increasingly, social responsibility, diversity and inclusion.
Cossette’s Jean-Hugo Filion hired Cherenfant a year ago to lead the new business group. Because she was trained as an engineer, she brings a different, complementary skill set to the agency, he said. She’s very data-driven and analytical, going into client conversations with an open mind in search of underlying problems and opportunities, rather than seeking to confirm existing theories and tactics.
“She’s an innovator,” said Filion. She identifies ways to do things better, or do things differently. “And then what she proposes is going to help them go beyond—not just a tactical response—but go beyond and start to transform the organization in a way.”
That vision, the ability to see things differently and imagine better options, is invaluable, but it’s also only half the battle. Fortunately for Cossette, Cherenfant is also good at the other half: execution.
“She’s a great leader who inspires people to get better,” said Filion. “She’s able to rally people around a common goal or a common vision… She’s a disrupter but she’s able to mobilize people and get them to buy into the vision and commit to making it happen.
“When she shares her thoughts or shares her vision, people can’t help but buy in because it’s smart, it is results driven. And so she makes people feel that there’s a higher purpose in what we are achieving, rather than just delivering a project.”
But at the same time Cherenfant was enjoying professional success, proving her ability to be the business leader she always wanted to be, she was also emerging as a leader in the Montreal business and technology communities, with a particular focus on representation and inclusion.
Going back to her time at Polytechnique, she created “Polycultures” to showcase the different cultures of the school’s engineering students. Later, she helped launch Startup Weekend Women to encourage more women to explore the tech sector, and mentors young tech professionals through Next AI and NEXT Canada.
Two years ago, she started a support circle for Black women leaders, called LeadHers Group, which meets to discuss some of the shared challenges they face as Black women in the business world. “We share opportunities for success, and give tips or coaching advice as well,” she said.
Those efforts are in part inspired by her own experiences in engineering and technology, and now in communications, where she wonders why she is often the only Black woman in the room.
“Because the issue is not the competency, the issue is the access,” she said. “So what can we do to actually bridge the access and open the way for others as well?”
“In my head, there’s no limit to the potential, there’s no limit to the capacity, right? So I shouldn’t be the only one. I never should have been the only one.”