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Helen MacIsaac, 63

Thu, 01/05/2023 - 09:16

June 10, 1959 - Dec. 11, 2022

Helen Ann MacIsaac, whose career included over a decade of senior international roles in corporate development, finance, and marketing, died on Dec. 11 in Washington, D.C. She was 63.

Ms. MacIsaac lived in Washington for the past seven years after moving there with her husband from Manhattan and Oceanview Lane in Amagansett. She was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2019.

One of Ms. MacIsaac’s great pleasures was swimming between the water fences set by baymen in Gardiner’s Bay off Little Albert’s Landing in Amagansett, her family said. Even when living abroad she spent part of each summer with her in-laws in East Hampton and at her brother’s Barnes Landing house, most recently in August last year.

A former year-round and periodic summer resident of the East End since the early 1980s, Ms. MacIsaac and her then-future husband, Eric Kuhn, first saw each other in August 1988 at Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett. No one among their informal group of mutual friends introduced them. By chance, the next weekend they were at the same party.

As the party ended, Mr. Kuhn, a former reporter for this newspaper, asked Ms. MacIsaac to lunch the next day at the Clam Bar on Napeague. They were a couple from that afternoon on, traveling between Long Island City and East Hampton to maintain their careers, and were married for 33 years.

In recent years Ms. MacIsaac’s work focused on start-up and social enterprise ventures in Europe and the United States. Most recently she was chief operating officer for HipSilver, an online community and e-commerce start-up founded by Gail Bruce to recognize “silvers,” or older people still young at heart in spite of going gray.

Before that Ms. MacIsaac was chief marketing officer for the Global Good Fund, a Washington-based investor in emerging social entrepreneurs. She also consulted for AARP Services Inc. in Washington on growth strategies, which led to her volunteering as a certified AARP tax preparer in an underserved section of the District of Columbia.

In 1991, with her newly minted M.B.A. from the Stern School of Business at New York University, Ms. MacIsaac decided to eschew a traditional career path. She joined the first cohort of the MBA Enterprise Corps, founded by an early Peace Corps leader to take Western business practices to centrally planned economies in Central and Eastern Europe as they opened up following Soviet domination.

The Enterprise Corps initially assigned Ms. MacIsaac to Ljubljana, Slovenia. Shortly after tanks rolled into the city, the start of what later led to the dismantling of Yugoslavia, she and her husband were reposted to Budapest, Hungary. For the next two years she worked to privatize Hungarotex, the former state-owned textile trading company, and traveled throughout the region with her husband.

In Budapest, where the last Soviet troops had recently left, Ms. MacIsaac quickly formed a network of expatriate and local friends with whom she had remained in contact. She earned respect for being a deft matchmaker for enterprises opening up to the West, and also for being paid a local wage in Hungarian forints.

The Sara Lee Corporation, an original Enterprise Corps sponsor, quickly tapped Ms. MacIsaac to source textiles in the region. The relationship led to her joining the former consumer brands conglomerate in marketing and corporate development roles in Winston-Salem, N.C., and its Chicago headquarters.

In 2000, proving her value buying and selling holdings in Europe, she was tapped by Sara Lee to join its office in Paris. She and her husband, who survives, lived there for the next 14 years.

After 13 years with Sara Lee, Ms. MacIsaac stayed in France to become international vice president for the clothing brand Petit Bateau. She later joined L2, founded by the pundit on all things digital Scott Galloway and now owned by Gartner, as its European business development lead for its benchmark “digital IQ” brand ranking.

In Paris, where her apartment balcony overlooked a historic square with 150-year-old chestnut trees in the city center, Ms. MacIsaac quickly formed a new network of expat and French friends. She enjoyed hosting dinners for family and houseguests from around the world, serving blanquette de veau and chocolate moelleux for dessert. For their first few years in France she and her husband also rented a year-round weekend house in Fouras, a small resort and oyster-farming peninsula on the Atlantic coast.

Ms. MacIsaac was professionally fluent in spoken and written French. She first studied the language as a child attending school in Mougins, France, where her father took a sabbatical from a professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In Washington she enjoyed tutoring students of French at the Field School.

Even as her illness advanced, Ms. MacIsaac remained a stoic patient and continued to travel. She and her husband spent April in Paris last year, and then a week in Tuscany visiting a niece living outside Florence. Later in May they spent a week each in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., and Chicago visiting friends. 

Helen Ann MacIsaac was born on June 10, 1959, at the Clinica Sant’Anna in Lugano, Switzerland. Her parents, Warren J. MacIsaac and Grace Collins MacIsaac, both Boston natives, were in Lugano teaching at the American School in Switzerland at the time.

When the family returned to the United States they first lived in Scituate, Mass., and later Washington, D.C., where her father taught dramaturgy and literature at Catholic University. Ms. MacIsaac graduated from Sidwell Friends School in Washington before attending the University of Chicago. She transferred to Barnard College of Columbia University in New York to complete her undergraduate degree.

Before earning her M.B.A., Ms. MacIsaac worked for Richard L. Hanley Associates in New York, a securities analyst and portfolio manager. While there she helped edit “A Money Mind at 90,” a 1991 memoir by Philip Carret, the investor and money manager who founded one of the country’s first mutual funds.

In addition to her husband, Ms. MacIsaac is survived by her sister, Laura MacIsaac, M.D., of Manhattan, and two brothers, Joe MacIsaac of Manhattan and Tom MacIsaac of Bethesda, Md. She is also survived by her nieces and nephews, Margaux and Samuel Terrasson and Ryan and Dylan MacIsaac, all of Manhattan, and Jack, Katherine, and Samantha MacIsaac of Bethesda, determinedly remaining close to all of them even during her years abroad.

Ms. MacIsaac was cremated. Celebrations of her life will be held next year in Washington, Manhattan, and Paris.



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