Combining her passion for cultures and communications, Ysabel Viau is the founder and CEO of ACCULTURA, a company that provides organizations with sustainable diversity, equity, and inclusion solutions. Using her more than 30 years of experience, Ysabel developed and teaches Global Marketing Communications for the Arts to MMIAM students at HEC Montréal.
Tell me a little bit about ACCULTURA and what you do?
ACCULTURA helps organizations and professionals adapt to diversity—and I mean diversity in a large sense—navigating and managing “differences.” We provide training and e-learning tools to develop cultural intelligence, communicate with international audiences, as well as write, edit, and translate content to fit the culture of targeted audiences. Our team provides these communications and cultural intelligence services on three continents: the Americas, Europe, and Asia.
How did you get into that?
I’ve always been fascinated with cultures and communications. This is my third business; my first was graphic design. I did an MBA and started working with corporations who were looking to enter the Canadian market. I worked with a lot of French companies who needed to adapt—Canadian French and French from France can be quite different—and Quebec can often serve as a major first step into the American market.
I was travelling quite a bit at the turn of the millennium, enjoying getting off the beaten path and this need hit home while working in East Timor, which is north of Australia, in far east Asia. I was there with my then partner on a UN mission and used the time to immerse myself in the local culture. I went on to publish Chroniques du Timor, a socio-economic and cultural analysis of East Timor under UN supervision, in 2006. But in order to do this, you really have to dive into your surroundings, dive into the culture, and find your way through.
I started looking for frameworks, theories or methods, to do this and discovered the Cultural Intelligence Center. The research-based consulting and training organization helps executives, companies, universities, and government organizations assess and improve their ability to work effectively with people from different nationalities, ethnicities, age groups, etc. I got certified and started teaching/adapting to different markets.
Can you share something you/your team has done recently that you’re really proud of?
I think about the pandemic we’ve been through—I talk as if it’s done, but it’s not—and how we not just survived it but grew. I have been happy to find people who believe in ACCULTURA’s mission, because my business has become my mission: on a large scale, I want to get the world to accept differences. We see small wins every day, but this is the kind of mission where the absolute end result won’t be seen until long after I’m gone. One thing I’m really proud of is that we’ve navigated through the pandemic and built a bigger team.
Ok, so how does your work play a role in the arts?
Well, it’s not obviously related to the arts. I met François because I was the only one talking about cultural intelligence and the program wanted to introduce these concepts. In the course, we focus on how to develop campaigns that are adapted to different cultures and audiences. It was slated as an advertising and promotion course but has been adapted to introduce the notions of cultural intelligence. This is my third year teaching; it was quite an honour to be called to work at HEC Montréal and I love François’ program. I wish I could have done it myself.
We cover a lot of information. The students begin with a cultural competence assessment and from there, they learn the notions which they apply in a final project to develop an understanding that you can’t market your product the same everywhere. There are differences, of course, between the US and Canada, let’s say, but even French and English Canada are different. So, they develop a campaign that considers these things. For example: are you selling in China? How do you address your audience? What does your social media plan entail? How about public relations? The course is specific to communications for the arts, but it’s adapted from programs we offer to other businesses. I’m amazed at what the students are delivering. I’ve seen impressive, totally marketable campaigns. I appreciate how the students dive in.
What is something you’ve learned about working/leadership that you want to share with the MMIAMs?
Don’t be afraid to have big ideas. This (COVID) is something that’s never happened in my lifetime. Something that affected everybody on the planet and we’re all trying to figure out why we’re here and what we’re doing. Hopefully we’ll see favourable changes. I’m a “silver lining” kind of girl.
Also, I think culture is going to come back in a big way. In the business world, people are talking about the roaring 2020s and you can already feel it coming. We’re seeing things pick up, especially for anything cultural. People need it… people want to go out and go to museums. Online was great but people want to do live things. So, now is a great time to start imagining projects and bringing them to fruition!
And don’t be afraid of difference, it’s an asset. We all need to figure out how to work with it.
Ok, last question: as a Montrealer, what are your favorite cultural centers/venues around the city? Any hidden gems?
I’m a big music fan and I love festivals. Last semester I brought the creator of Osheaga to talk to students. Two or three of them were actually working on music-related projects.
I love the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts and the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, but Pointe-à-Callière is a particularly interesting museum. I lived right in front of it for 16 years and this is the place I recommend to every newcomer to Montreal. You start with this museum because this is where Montréal started. It’s a very eloquent collection that explains where we come from. Recently, there has been a huge wave of learning regarding Indigenous culture. The museum sits where a great peace agreement was signed between Indigenous people and newcomers and therefore has a big place in my heart.
Of course, we’re just beginning to see what’s open, what’s survived. There are a lot of small gems. The big organizations made it through the pandemic, but we are such a creative city. Things will pick up again!
*Headshot picture credit: Sacha Bourque.