Caroline Bérubé set out to find her niche in the legal profession and became a serial entrepreneur along the way. Amélie Dionne-Charest became an entrepreneur “by accident”.
Both McGill law grads are francophone Quebecers who have carved out intriguing careers in Asia where they also hold leadership roles in their respective expat business communities.
Bérubé, BCL’99, LLBʾ99, is president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Singapore and managing partner at HJM Asia Law – the boutique law firm she founded that has offices in China and Singapore. Her entrepreneurial ventures include launching a business in China with her brother that manufactures metal and plastic components.
Dionne-Charest, BCL/LLBʾ05, serves as chair of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. She operates a health insurance brokerage firm and health information platform that she co-founded with husband Julien Mathieu, LLMʾ04.
Both women have maintained close ties with McGill as alumna volunteers. We caught up with Dionne-Charest and Bérubé to learn about their journeys from McGillʾs Faculty of Law to setting up their own businesses in Asia.
Like Bérubé, Amélie Dionne-Charest entered McGill law fresh out of Quebecʾs Cégep (junior college) system. She was 18 studying alongside older peers. “When I first arrived, I was so intimidated,” recalls Dionne-Charest. But she loved the program and went on to a master’s in medical law and bioethics at Kingʾs College London.
She practised law in Montreal, then joined her future husband in New York City. As she contemplated career options, Dionne-Charest underwent unexpected surgery, which turned out to be the genesis for her entrepreneurial path. The health insurance company rejected her claim, arguing a pre-existing condition.
“The litigator in me fought for many months, and I ended up being reimbursed,” says Dionne-Charest. But the experience made her realize there was a need for people to be better informed about health insurance and health care options.
Her business idea was still in the embryonic stage in 2013, when life brought her young family to Hong Kong. “All I wanted to do was to help people like me with an international profile be better equipped in regards to making decisions about their health.”
Getting involved with the active McGill Society of Hong Kong and joining the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong proved helpful for Dionne-Charest as an aspiring entrepreneur. She made friends, forged connections, and landed clients through the Chamber for Alea, the health insurance brokerage firm she launched in 2015. The business grew rapidly, and her husband Julien came on board. He leads Healthy Matters, their health information platform, while she presides over Alea.
Dionne-Charest, whose father Jean Charest was premier of Quebec from 2003 to 2012, has been active in the McGill alumni community, including serving as president of the McGill Society of Hong Kong. She’s currently on McGill’s Regional Advisory Board in Asia and is in the second year of her two-year mandate leading the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.
“Itʾs really meaningful work because Canada is who I am. When you live abroad, you are confronted with a different culture that you may tremendously appreciate, but you usually feel even more Canadian and feel even more French-Canadian,” says Dionne-Charest.
Within the Chamber there’s a consensus, “around the fact that there’s a need for the people in Canada to hear a different perspective about Hong Kong and China. We’re very well aware of the geopolitical tensions. But [we] do think that people are missing a perspective,” she says.
“There are many opportunities and it’s an area of the world that our country cannot neglect,” Dionne-Charest says.
Quebec City native Caroline Bérubé knew she wanted to work abroad and felt that civil and common law degrees from McGill would open doors. Coming from an entrepreneurial family, she was familiar with the concept of finding a niche. “I’ve always pursued niche – it has been, I guess, my mantra,” says Bérubé.
For Bérubé, that meant bucking the trend of many McGill-trained lawyers at the time and heading to Asia instead of New York. She completed her final year of law as an exchange student at the National University of Singapore, and then called the managing partner in Asia of a French law firm. “I’ll work for three months, and I’ll work so hard that you’re going to think I’m the best asset on your team, so you’ll have to hire me,” Bérubé laughs, recounting her pitch. “She gave me an opportunity in summer 1999,” Bérubé says, of the woman who became a mentor and friend.
Bérubé made her way to Guangzhou near Shenzhen, the “Silicon Valley” of China, in 2002. She wanted to get there before “every other corporate lawyer” had the same idea to develop expertise in information technology. While working for a Chinese law firm, she saw a big need for helping small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). She encouraged her brother, an engineer, to move to China. “We started a quality control business, a consulting firm and eventually a factory creating more than 225 jobs.”
Bérubé’s law firm concentrates on mergers and acquisitions in I.T. and intellectual property. One reason Bérubé believes she has long attracted SMEs as clients is her entrepreneurial mindset and interest in helping entrepreneurs who come to Asia to reduce costs or increase sales by tapping into a new market.
She joined the executive committee of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Singapore about a decade ago and took over at the helm in May 2021. The Chamber has been positioning Singapore as a Southeast Asia platform – a legally and financially stable business location that’s part of the bigger market in the region. “Usually when there’s no pandemic, people come to Singapore, they set up their business, they go meet their business partners in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam. They can do the trip within a week,” she says.
For the past eight years, Bérubé has been president of the McGill Alumni Association of Singapore. She’s also a member of the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship’s International Advisory Council and mentors young women at McGill. “I’m really trying to give back even if I’m far away.”
Bérubé enjoys the mix of cultures living in Singapore. On any given day, she can speak to people from 15 countries. The business landscape evolves at a dizzying pace – Bérubé says it’s completely different from what it was one, five, 10 or 20 years ago. “I think it keeps me young because I have to learn constantly.”
Dionne-Charest agrees. “Hong Kong is the New York of Asia on adrenaline…I’ve lived in New York, Paris and London and this is the fastest pace I’ve seen.
“It’s also the city where I have found people to be the most open-minded,” adds Dionne-Charest. “It’s very easy in Hong Kong, even if you’ve just landed in the city, to get a meeting with the CEO of an enterprise. Everyone is very open to business opportunities and people give you the benefit of the doubt.”