Isabel Azoulay: How My Childhood Struggles Shaped My Determination to Succeed
By Mirela Sula
Isabel’s journey began with a childhood defined by family chaos and financial instability. The youngest of five daughters, Isabel learned early on that she had to be resilient. At the young age of three, her mother left her father for a much older man, taking her two youngest daughters with her to France. Isabel learned to smile when saying goodbye to her father, left behind, so that he would always think of her with a positive image in mind. In a foreign country, away from their father and three other sisters, Isabel and Katharina found solace in studying and excelling academically. Isabel graduated top of her class with honours in a bilingual German-French program, and received a national award in German.
Her academic achievements did not come easy. She faced financial barriers when it came to pursuing higher education, as her family could not afford the tuition fees for Princeton University in the United States. However, Isabel was not one to give up easily and managed to combine scholarships, grants and loans to put herself through College. She managed to land a position at one of New York’s best investment banks after graduating from Princeton. Isabel made her own money, paid her share of the apartment in New York, and paid off her undergraduate degree. Her impressive academic record and professional development earned her a place at Harvard Business School a few years later.
The determination and hard work she possesses have led her to become an investor and entrepreneur, building her firm, FrontRow, from the ground up. She invests in emerging VC funds, seeing venture capital as an opportunity to invest in the future and support innovative companies and entrepreneurs- while generating outsized returns. Her experience in investment banking and asset management gave her the skills and knowledge she needs to succeed in this field.
Isabel wants to inspire others to find their passion and pursue their dreams, and to help create a more inclusive and diverse industry. She also hopes to teach at the university level again, which she experienced between her career in sales & trading, and asset management. It was one of her best personal and professional life lessons. As her father was a teacher, Isabel sees academia as his legacy. Being responsible for a young person’s learning and growth is one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences in her opinion, and she feels passionate about teaching.
To stay focused and centered, Isabel has a structured daily routine that includes meditation, Pilates, and Yoga. She plans everything out in advance, from her morning routine to her work schedule to her family time. She also has a great team of people who support her and help her stay on track.
Isabel’s story is a powerful example of how hard work, determination, and a never-give-up attitude can help us achieve our goals and make a positive impact on the world. We are honoured to have her join us today to share her experiences and insights.
Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood and how it shaped who you are today?
My childhood was defined by family chaos. My mother left my father for a much older man when I was only three, taking my older sister and I with her to France. The three eldest of the five daughters were left in Germany with my father who struggled to cope, and I had to learn early on to smile when saying goodbye to my dad so that he would remember me with a positive image. Growing up, I experienced permanent existential fear due to my family’s financial instability and the constant anguish over bills not being paid. I think that is why I threw myself into school, as I found solace in studying and excelling academically. I graduated top of my class with honours in a bilingual German-French program and received a national award in German.
Despite the challenges you faced, you managed to excel academically. Can you tell us a little bit about how you overcame those financial barriers when it came to pursuing higher education?
Yes, I was admitted to Princeton University in the United States. My family could not afford the tuition fees. However, I was not one to give up easily. My father was a teacher and had to cover the financial needs of five daughters. He did what he could and sent me about $1,500 per trimester. It meant the world to me and a real sacrifice for him. Full tuition back then was $30,000 a year … you can figure out the gap that had to be covered. I made it happen, with a combination of scholarships, grants, loans, and on-campus jobs. Princeton was phenomenal in that way, as I am not an American citizen and yet they worked with me to find solutions. Upon graduating from College, I had substantial debt to pay off. My determination and hard work continued, as I put myself through years of an intense, demanding program at one of New York’s best investment banks. I made my own money, paid my share of the apartment in New York, and paid off my undergraduate degree. I am very proud of this accomplishment. A few years later, I was admitted to Harvard Business School, which I paid for entirely myself. In a way, I am glad my parents could not afford my higher education. Fighting my way up and making it happen on my own give me a sense of strength and ownership I would not otherwise have I think.
Your determination and hard work are truly inspiring, Isabel. Can you tell us a little bit about your vision for the future and what drives you to keep pushing forward?
Energy is my main driver in life and work, connecting people and making things happen. My vision for the future is to build my firm into a structure that would allow me to sustain the entire family on my own, which is not necessary as I have a loving and successful husband, but something that I want to be able to do. I also want to teach at the university level again. I did for a semester, and it was one of my best experiences both personally and professionally. My father was a teacher, I feel like I honour him in a way when I teach.
That’s wonderful, Isabel. You have achieved so much through hard work and determination. What advice would you give to young people who are just starting out and looking to find their own path to success?
If you don’t know what your passion is, give yourself the means to build one. You have to listen to yourself, listen to that inner voice, that gut feeling. What are you good at? What do you want to develop more? How do you see yourself? Do you see yourself behind a camera? Do you see yourself in a conference room leading a meeting? Visualize where you want to be and how you want to get there. If you don’t know it off the bat, that’s alright ! Give yourself the means by getting help from mentors, people around you who can guide you, and also give yourself the financial means. Work hard. Period. Accept failure and learn from it. Work even harder. Make sure that you work so that you can make money to give yourself the environment that you want to be in to find that passion.
You mentioned earlier that you put yourself through years of an intense, demanding program at one of New York’s best investment banks. Can you tell us a little bit more about that experience and how it prepared you for your future career?
Working in investment banking was a demanding experience, but it taught me so much about myself and what I was capable of. I had to work long hours, often late into the night, and I had to learn to manage my time and prioritize my tasks effectively. Vacation or free time was not much of an option. I had to develop a thick skin and learn to handle high-pressure situations with grace and composure. Resilience is a key quality that helped along the way. These skills have been invaluable to me in my career as an investor and entrepreneur.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your career as an investor and entrepreneur and how you got started in that field?
After working in alternative asset management for several years, I started my own firm, FrontRow Family Office, investing in emerging VC funds. I was drawn to venture capital because I saw it as an opportunity to invest in the future and support innovative companies and entrepreneurs. I see consistant superior returns in this asset class going forward. My experience in investment banking and asset management gave me the skills and knowledge I needed to succeed in this field, and I have been able to build a successful career as an investor and entrepreneur.
How was your relationship with your mother and how it has evolved over time?
My relationship with my mother has been a complicated one. While I have blamed her for the chaos in my childhood, I also recognize the many things she taught me. My mother is a strong and determined woman, but she also has a strong ego and often a lack of reflection on the impact of her past choices. I try to stay connected to my environment, to act respectfully, to listen to others. In a way, that is thanks to her opposite character. Our relationship has improved over time, and my husband has played a vital role in that improvement. He can handle her personality, which has allowed me to relax around her.
What is your vision for the future and the legacy you hope to leave behind?
My vision for the future is to continue to build my firm and inspire others to find their passion and pursue their dreams. I hope to be remembered as someone who made a positive impact on people’s lives and helped to create value, both in the personal and the business sphere. I also hope to inspire young people to pursue careers in venture capital and entrepreneurship, and to help create a more inclusive and diverse industry.
You mentioned earlier that you have a routine that involves meditation, Pilates, and yoga. How you incorporate these practices into your busy schedule and how they help you stay focused and centered?
I have three children, a puppy dog, a busy husband, my own life, friends, and work. Days fly by, and evenings are never free. There’s rarely a moment when I can calmly enjoy me-time. I figured that the best moment to focus is really early in the morning. I don’t love to get up early, but once I’m up, I adore it because it’s quiet, often dark out, the day is just breaking. There is a certain magic to the early hours. I start with herbal tea, then follow with meditation, Pilates, and yoga for about an hour total. That’s what gives me a lot of strength and balance, both inner and outer. Then, I follow up with my other passion, coffee!
How do you manage your time and stay organized in order to achieve your goals?
I have a very structured approach to my day, Mirela. I plan everything out in advance, from my morning routine to my work schedule to my family time. I also have a great team of people who support me and help me stay on track. It’s all about finding the right balance and prioritizing what’s important.