Erik Nigon, head of IT transformation at AXA, takes us on a journey from land to sea, led by his heart.
For some people, I am in charge of IT transformation at AXA and work during the week in Paris and La Défense. For others, I am a sailing aficionado and a skipper in my spare time, spending weekends and off time on my boat in La Rochelle. I have decided not to choose between work and pleasure in my life, and navigate between these two parallel lives. For over ten years, I have also been sailing the seas in a boat emblazoned with a red ribbon, symbolizing my commitment to the fight against AIDS.
Birth of a personal commitment
I have volunteered for AXA Hearts in Action* ever since it was created in 1992, always devoting my time to helping people suffering from exclusion due to social difficulties, sickness or a disability. My commitment to the fight against AIDS dates back to 2005, the year that I began ocean racing, which required me to change boats. The hull and sails of my new Figaro were disturbingly white: my volunteer “instinct” spotted an opportunity to decorate it and also sail for a good cause. I spoke with AXA Atout Coeur, the AXA Hearts in Action branch in France, which works with AIDES, France’s leading nonprofit organization fighting AIDS. The devastation caused by this disease affects me strongly, so I naturally chose to turn my boat into the Voilier au Ruban Rouge, or “Sailboat with a Red Ribbon.”
The volunteers involved in the project quickly became friends. Never at a loss for ideas, we took action, organizing outings for people living with HIV and hosting stands at race departures to talk about prevention. We all felt the desire to offer new perspectives to people living with the disease and undergoing aggressive treatment. I met people living with HIV and became an activist: I wanted to communicate optimism, openness and freedom, by combining my sporting passion for sailing with my passion for people. More than ten years have gone by since my first transatlantic race and I still feel as committed as ever.
Focus on AIDES
AIDES was established in 1984 at the initiative of the sociologist Daniel Defert. The nonprofit was designated of “public utility” in 1990. It is the leading French organization in the fight against HIV/AIDS and viral hepatitis and one of the biggest in Europe. Today, the nonprofit has drop-in centers in over 70 French cities, close to the people living with the disease, and cultivates many international partnerships. Its current president is Aurélien Beaucamp.
Fight against AIDS: a few statistics
- 100,000 people die every month from AIDS
- 7,000 young girls are infected every week
- 21 million people still do not have access to treatment
- 17 million people are taking antiretroviral medicines (as of end 2015)
AXA Hearts in Action and the fight against AIDS
- 23 years of partnership with the nonprofit Ensemble contre le Sida (Together against AIDS)
- Participation in the Sidaction telethon for 18 years
- In 2017, for Sidaction:
o 96 AXA Hearts in Action volunteers participating
o 2,362 pledges recorded
o For a total of €92,991
Balancing two lives
To live my passion and commitment to the full, I need time, my family’s support, and of course the green light from my employer. I am a senior executive at AXA. It’s my free time that I devote to sailing. I spend weekends in La Rochelle, where my boat is docked, so I can devote time to prepping and sailing. I keep myself physically fit by biking to work. So exercising doesn’t interfere with either family or work time.
Racing takes place during my vacations. This is possible thanks to the open-mindedness of my colleagues at AXA. Naturally, my sometimes extended absences require advance organization. Business must continue as usual during a three-week race. I see this as an opportunity to empower my team further. We therefore reassign tasks, and my manager agrees to make the decisions that I can’t make while racing. Although I can be contacted on the boat via satellite phone, obviously I can’t respond as quickly or as efficiently as someone local.
But finding the happy medium is not always easy. When I get back from a race, adjusting can be tricky. While I’m at sea for three weeks, I have simple problems to solve: sleeping, eating, avoiding accidents, and getting my boat to the other side. Back at AXA, there is obviously an adjustment to be made. With experience, I now manage to get quickly back into the swing of things.
Adventure for the whole team
I’m the skipper of the Voilier au Ruban Rouge and I sail most of the time solo or with a partner. But there’s a whole “crew” on land supporting me.
The main pillars of this team are of course my family. I could not have gone forward with this project without my wife and children. The latter, who are now grown up, have always supported my endeavors, as has my wife, who also participates actively. The whole family is involved: my wife handles relations with the press and with AIDES, and my children are there to greet me at every finish. They have travelled all over the world! Mexico, Brazil, the Caribbean islands, New York…
Erik shares his passion and his values. Not only does he invite us all – family, friends, partners – on board his sailboat through his writing, he also takes us on a magnificent human adventure.
My colleagues are also part of my team. At every level of the company, they stand by me and I can always rely on them. They have given me support since day one and do what it takes to keep the machine running smoothly while I am away.
It is very impressive how engaged Erik is in his life. A fully engaged director in the AXA IT organization, playing guitar in the AXA Tech band, and sailing across the Atlantic. He is calm, organized, persistent at work, I guess all traits that help him as well to survive during the long days on board of his boat. He is humble and very value driven, supporting the fight against Aids out of passion for bettering the world. Erik works hard and when he needs a few weeks off for a major race there is no issue as he deserves the "rest".
My friends are on board, as well! They help me prep my boat. In exchange, they sail with it and some are even part of my crew.
Samy is Erik Nigon’s sailing partner on the Trimaran since 2010 : "One of Erik’s biggest strengths is that he shares his dreams. He quickly and skilfully chooses trusted people around him. And he’s a genuine sailor, determined and capable of finishing a race regardless of the conditions or difficulties that arise."
Pacôme, Erik's partner on the Figaro and Class40 , from 2005 to 2009, says: "I have been sailing with Erik for so long…(his daughter was still crawling)! He is so good now that he has earned a place in the circle of exceptional sailors"
Continuing the fight
I just finished my 8th transatlantic race from Plymouth to New York with the Voilier au Ruban Rouge.
This is a very difficult race against dominant winds in which I never intended to participate! But I changed my mind after talking with the people at AIDES, who convinced me to give it a try. I am proud of my accomplishment: after the magical finish in New York, I had the pleasure of meeting France’s ambassador to the UN. I talked to him about our efforts and the call for funds launched by the Global Fund to fight AIDS***. My participation also triggered a donation of €4,553 from AXA Atout Cœur to AIDES.
The fight is not over. Each year, two million people are infected by HIV. One hundred thousand people die each year because they did not get the treatment they needed. Early diagnosis of the disease is crucial, as is access to the necessary treatment to curb the disease. If we can treat all people who are infected and halt the transmission of the virus, we can eradicate AIDS by the year 2030. It is vital to keep up the pace.
A new challenge
As for me, I am continuing my commitment and have set myself a new objective: a solo round-the-world race in 2020 (the Vendée Globe). For this, I need a new boat and am moving to an 18-meter monohull. The new boat will continue to be a “Sailboat with a Red Ribbon” and navigate for AIDES.
In the meantime, I am working hard at AXA and elsewhere and will keep the Sailboat with a Red Ribbon in the water as long as I can!
- 2016: The Transat (Plymouth--New York): 4th
- 2014: Route du Rhum: (ab)
- 2013: Transat Jacques VABRE: 4th
- 2012: Transat Québec--Saint-Malo: 3rd
- 2010: Route du Rhum: 5th
- 2009: Solidaire du Chocolat: 10th
- 2008: Transat AG2R: 10th
- 2007: Solitaire du Figaro: 37th
- 2006: Transat AG2R: 3rd
- 2004: Vice Champion of France, Olympic and Competitive Sailing