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Gracie Dyer | graciedyer

Former fashion CEO finds a new passion in helping others

Jun 10th 2015 at 11:26 PM


Recently retired as president and chief executive officer of fashion brand Diesel Canada, Ms. Adler is now a full-time “social entrepreneur” and philanthropist with the OneXOne Foundation, and into her fourth term as a councillor in her home community of Estérel, Que.

She passionately believes we all have the power to make a difference in the life of at least one human being – whether it’s sharing water and a cold street corner with a homeless person, or feeding a hungry child, among the multitude of ways she has touched the lives of others over the years.

So even after the long-time sports lover broke her ankle twice last year, both times when her foot turned over while walking, she still doggedly pursued her humanitarian efforts. She won’t call it work, stressing: “If you love what you do, you’re not working.”

And while she has given up running, she still enjoys walking, as well as playing tennis, golf and skiing – partly because she shared those sports with her late husband and business partner, Lou Adler, her inspiration for much of what drives her today.

Joey Adler is a former Diesel Canada executive who now runs humanitarian agency OneXOne and sits as a councillor in her Montreal-area town. (Peter Power for The Globe and Mail)

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“I’ve been a sports enthusiast my whole life – I skied, played tennis, softball and field hockey as a kid, and even played basketball in high school, which was interesting,” chuckles the 5-foot-1 Ms. Adler, who’s adept at time management and organizing both on and off the playing field.

“What I like to do is when I’m travelling, I try to see what [activity] I can fit into a day, like when I’m in Europe, I see where I can stop and ski, or play a round of golf in Las Vegas.”

Although petite in stature, the 55-year-old is big on trying to push herself more – both in her leisure and philanthropic efforts.

Born Joelle Berdugo in Marrakesh, Morocco, to a Spanish father who was in the U.S. Air Force and a Moroccan mother, Ms. Adler is the middle of three children. She lived in France and Switzerland before moving to Montreal, and worked in marketing while studying commerce at Concordia University. Her fashion career started in 1984 with Sergio Valente, and two years later, she and Mr. Adler secured the Canadian distribution rights for the Italy-based Diesel brand.

But it’s her humanitarian efforts that make Ms. Adler most proud.

After her husband died in 2003 from an aggressive form of cancer, she founded OneXOne (pronounced “one by one”) in his memory, with a mission to improve the lives of children.

In 2005, Ms. Adler also became principal benefactor of Lou’s House – officially called the Hope & Cope Wellness Centre, a haven for cancer patients and their caregivers that opened in 2007 at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal.

“My husband and I were business partners and best friends. We spent 24 hours a day and seven days a week together,” she says.

Not only did the Adlers turn Diesel into one of the country’s top fashion brands, but their private time was filled with family – raising two sons Mr. Adler brought into the marriage – and sports.

Coping for her in the dozen years since her husband passed away includes continuing in a position he encouraged her to run for two decades ago – as a councillor in Estérel, a small municipality in the Laurentians that’s surrounded by lakes, and is about an hour’s drive north of Montreal.

“We’re always looking at the problems we have in the world, but if everyone looked within what they can do within their community, to shore them up, we would be much farther ahead,” says Ms. Adler, who oversees Estérel matters ranging from the environment to finance.

Two years ago, Ms. Adler, who had already received an honorary doctorate of laws from Concordia for her business and charity work, completed her executive MBA at Montreal’s McGill University – something she had always wanted to do and that changed her life forever.

Ms. Adler says McGill’s program emphasizes being self-reflective and teaching leadership using a “humanistic approach,” which she sees as the future of business.

“In the process of taking my EMBA, it hit me I wanted to do other things,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to do business any more that didn’t have a social component.”

After selling a part of the Diesel business back to the Italian parent in 2006, she left in recent months “to have more passion for what I’m passionate about.”

OneXOne collaborates with private interests such as corporations, and works in partnership with local organizations, to put charitable programs and initiatives into place in various areas of the world – in Canada and abroad, and notably in developing countries.

While the foundation has also formed partnerships with high-profile celebrities including Hollywood star Matt Damon, whose philanthropic projects include delivering safe water to needy areas of the world, Ms. Adler prefers to focus on the issues.

In September of 2013, for instance, Industrial Revolution II (IRII) – a state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly apparel manufacturing facility – opened in Port-au-Prince. IRII invests 50 per cent of its profits back into the workers, their families and local community.

During the 2012-13 school year, OneXOne served more than 500,000 breakfasts to 3,000 children from 19 First Nation communities across Canada.

In April of 2015, Ms. Adler took the Live Below the Line challenge to raise money for people living in poverty. While spending just $1.75 a day on food for nearly a week, she also spent some time living on the streets of Toronto, where she endured cold and hunger, and shared some water with a young homeless man. The experience validated her efforts to expand the food program in Canada.

“You can’t tell me with a country like ours, with all the blessings that we have, that the provinces shouldn’t have mandatory meal programs in public schools. We don’t understand the importance of food for education. That’s why I went on the street – because I want to bring it to the forefront.”

Despite her whirlwind life, Ms. Adler is never far from the personal joys that often go hand in hand with her humanitarian efforts. With her two stepsons grown, Ms. Adler is now a grandmother to a 10-year-old boy.

She also loves reading, watching documentaries and sports – with her husband ever present in her mind.

“We went through a lot as a family and learned to stick together,” she says. “He was a guiding force and I could always feel that – he never left.”

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