Leaving the corporate world to help protect the environment

June 2021

Originally from the north of France, Isabelle Higgins is an experienced director whose passion for the environment and social justice saw her change her career 15 years ago. A trained engineer, she dedicated her work to large multinational corporations mostly in the petrol and oil industries. After spending some time in Asia, she saw the devastating impact these industries were having on communities and nature, and decided to return to university to study a Master of Environment. Since then, she has been working as an environmental consultant in diverse activities and pursuing Not-For-Profit boards since 2017.
 
Where does your passion for making a difference stem from?
I come from an old coal mining area in the north of France. Both of my grandfathers died before they were 60 from working in the mines. My father was both lucky and smart to receive a scholarship from the mining industry to continue his studies to become a mining engineer. We always had this understanding in my family that you have to look after people that don’t have the means to do so themselves. With regards to the environment, we lived in a rural setting in a village and always had a very large garden, almost a hobby farm. I was always outside in nature and looked after the garden with my mum.
 
What are some of your core beliefs?
I am passionate about social justice and the environment. “I believe engaging the community including Traditional Owners is paramount to achieving equitable development and environmental sustainability.”
 
What motivated you to pursue a parallel career in boards?
In 2017 I decided to step into boards. I was at a point in my career where I wanted different challenges and I knew I could extend my support to a broader audience. I had spent many, many years volunteering for Not-For-Profit organisations and was getting frustrated because I could see how my skills could be better used strategically beyond school committees and delivering food to the homeless. I spoke with a friend of mine who has had a prolific board career as a legal counsel and she convinced me that my skills were needed and valuable.
 
Current boards and committee roles

  • Water Well Project, NED and Company Secretary
  • Mornington Peninsula and Western Port Biosphere Foundation, NED
Tell me about these two organisations.
The Mornington Peninsula and Western Port Biosphere Reserve is a hidden gem. It is one of four active biospheres in Australia, as designated by UNESCO. The focus of the biosphere is to conserve biodiversity, restore and enhance ecosystem services while fostering the sustainable use of natural resources and contributing to sustainable, healthy and equitable societies. In essence, it’s a unique environment where the environment thrives in the presence of human development.
 
The Water Well Project is a not-for-profit health promotion charity, which aims to improve the health and wellbeing of communities from refugee, asylum seeker or migrant backgrounds through increasing health literacy. 
 
Previous boards and committees
NED — Western Water

What are your areas of expertise?
  • Strategy and business planning
  • Project and risk assessment and management
  • Stakeholder consultancy and community engagement
  • Strong analytical skills in wide range of industries
  • Environment and sustainability management
  • Health, wellbeing and safety focus
 
In addition, I can quickly assess an issue and identify potential solutions for the long-term of the community with a more holistic consideration of environment and society.
 
What have been some of your biggest lessons in pursuing boards?
  • Serving on Not-For-Profit boards can be very busy because they don’t have a lot of resources. Often you’re needed to support more executive management tasks on top of your own strategy board role.
  • My time serving at Western Water was very rewarding. However, it was difficult not to take it personally when I wasn’t reappointed because the board had been given a directive to get more local people involved on the board.
  • It’s challenging to limit myself to the “helicopter view” as opposed to wanting to understand all the details, especially coming from an engineering background. I always want to understand how everything works.
  • It’s been hard to accept the slower pace of decision making when waiting on government’s and minister’s directives and accepting the political nature of implementing change.
 
How has WOB helped you on your board journey?
The same friend who encouraged me to pursue boards pointed me in the direction of WOB. I straight away signed up for the Getting Started and Financial Literacy courses, and participated in an informal session with a board director who spoke to potential new board applicants like myself. It was incredibly useful and pushed me forward. I also love the vacancy list!
 
What words of advice can you share with women starting out on their board journey? 
  • Believe in yourself. You have much to contribute
  • Attend director development trainings
  • Continue to learn and grow as an individual
  • Select an organisation and role that fits your values and meets your skills
  • Work on your networking skills
  • Use mentors to bounce ideas