Dr. Jahel St-Jacques, optometrist, is the Vice President, Professional Affairs and Partner Relations. Dr. St-Jacques is married to Dr. Patrick Caron, also an IRIS partner optometrist, and the mother of two young daughters aged 15 and 13. She has been involved as a cyclist for the past 7 years in the Tour CIBC-Charles-Bruneau to raise funds for pediatric cancer.

A dedicated, passionate, human and versatile woman, we met with Dr. St-Jacques for a virtual coffee chat to discuss her journey, her philosophy and her vision of the profession.

When did you know you wanted to become an optometrist?

I have a very typical educational background. In high school, I attended a private school for girls in Gatineau. I was doing very well in school and had an interest in just about everything. I enjoyed my physics and chemistry classes as much as my French and Spanish classes. Like a large majority of teenagers with a facility in school, I ended up in the Natural Sciences in College.

At first, medicine appealed to me. However, a rethink in College led me to think about the quality of life I wanted. Was I ready for on-call duty, to work evenings, nights and weekends? I explored many areas of health care and was fortunate to have an optometrist that I liked very much in Buckingham, the city where I grew up, and with whom I was able to discuss the profession. I found that optometry matched many aspects of my personality. Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, optometry connected me to the health field and the possibility of being an entrepreneur.  I liked the multidisciplinary aspect of the profession and the quality of life it offered. 

Have you always practiced under the IRIS banner?

I started my career at IRIS completely by accident, but I like to say that I couldn't have done it any better. My husband is also an optometrist and we met at the University of Montreal School of Optometry. When we graduated, we evaluated our options. Stay in the Montreal area and do a master's degree to teach at the School of Optometry? Settle down and practice in the Outaouais where I was from? Or seize the opportunity in my husband's native region, who grew up in L'Islet-sur-Mer, a small municipality between Montmagny and St-Jean-Port-Joli?  The stars were aligned for this option since an optometrist was leaving the region and the owners of the IRIS clinics in La Pocatière and St-Jean-Port-Joli had decided to open a third clinic in Montmagny. It was a great opportunity for both of us.

We settled in this region because Patrick knew the people who worked there well. We didn't know much about IRIS at the time. With a brand-new clinic in Montmagny, we were spending a lot of time there, even though patients were scarce. The competition was strong and we wanted to be there. It is with the values and mission of IRIS that we persevered and succeeded in business.   Values that were completely in line with ours and that allowed us to differentiate ourselves from our competitors. 

At what point in your career did you become partners?

In our minds, there was no doubt that after two years we wanted to invest. In 2006, we sat down with Dr. Céline Baril and Dr. Michel Robichaud, IRIS franchisees, and became co-owners of the three clinics. In addition to the IRIS stores in La Pocatière, St-Jean-Port-Joli and Montmagny, we also partnered for a few years with the IRIS boutiques in Haute-Ville and St-Jean-Chrysostome in the Quebec City area. In our opinion, the key to a successful partnership is to be on-site and to be involved. Not only in the clinics, but also in the community. You have to make yourself known. We therefore reviewed our priorities and decided to maintain our partnership only with the boutiques in which we practice, i.e. Montmagny, St-Jean-Port-Joli and La Pocatière.

Your career path is impressive: optometrist, partner, entrepreneur and vice-president. How did it all come to be?

It's the passion that drives me. The pleasure of always having projects. Also, I must say that the stars were aligned. It was during my second maternity leave in 2009 that things clicked. At that time, IRIS was launching new guidelines. We were really happy to see them come in because they standardized the processes across the network. In our three stores, we had already started to establish guidelines so that the processes and ways of doing things were the same in each of our stores. When I read the French IRIS guidelines, I had to read the English version to understand. The translation left something to be desired. So, I gathered my courage and wrote an email to the president, Dr. Francis Jean, to tell him that the content of the guidelines was excellent but that the quality of the French version was not up to the mission of IRIS, which is to offer high quality products and services. Dr. Jean simply said "send me your version"! So, I sent him my version and he sent me different mandates.  Also, during an IRIS event, Dr. Gaston Bérubé asked me if I wanted to get involved in the IRIS advisory committee. One thing led to another, and by sitting on different committees, I ended up working on the Professional Development Team, and then became its director. I really enjoyed this period, as it fulfilled my desire to teach and share my knowledge. In 2015, during the Vision Expo in New York, I had a meeting with Dr. Jean in one of his favorite New York City bakeries to discuss my involvement and career path at IRIS.  As a result of that meeting, I became Assistant Vice President and in 2019 Vice President of Professional Affairs and Training. My role has continued to evolve to now being Vice President of Professional Affairs and Partner Relations. 

In addition to your professional involvement, which requires a lot of time, you are the mother of two teenagers who are very involved in sports, you sit on the board of directors of the Montmagny gymnastics club, you are involved in the CIBC Tour of the Charles-Bruneau Foundation, you cycle, you do yoga and you take the time to answer all your emails. The question that comes to us all: How does she do it?

When I was in high school, I worked in an ice cream shop. And when it was 32 degrees on a Friday night in the summer and you couldn't see the end of the line, I would think, "One cone at a time!" It's still like that. One thing at a time. You do it right and move on to the next one. I have to say that I do have some planning skills though. And I'm fortunate to work with some great teams. There is a person who once gave me some valuable advice. To take time every day to do something that makes you feel good. Even if it's just reading a few pages of a book before bed, doing half an hour of yoga or taking a walk. I try to apply this advice. I am very demanding of myself, I plan a lot, I am very thorough and I multi-task. I like to be active; I like to move and be efficient.


Your career plan, your future at IRIS, how do you see the next few years?

Currently, I have a good balance between my work as Vice-President and my practice. I love practicing optometry and the contact with patients. I still have a passion for improving the vision of Canadians.

What we are developing with iProfil and the electronic medical record for example, I want to test and try out the tools and practices we are developing. I want to make sure that I have both feet on the ground and put into practice the processes that we have been thinking about. I want to practice optometry throughout my career. Also, I see my role as the keeper of the philosophy, history and DNA of IRIS. I am motivated to recruit new professionals and new partners for IRIS. We must evolve and adapt, but keep the DNA of who we are. I want IRIS to grow.

With whom, dead or alive, would you like to share a meal?  

Definitely my mother who unfortunately left us too soon. Also, my daughters, my husband, my father, my sister, my nephews and nieces. My family is my priority. It is the most important thing.

In closing, what is your relationship with coffee?

My history with coffee started in college and the long evenings of studying and working! Now I have a coffee in the morning, one after lunch and sometimes decaf at night. I don't tolerate caffeine as well as I used to! For the past few years, I've been taking my coffee black... I've learned to appreciate its taste in its natural state, without cream, milk or sugar!