A Q & A for a better understanding

An interaction between Ms Kathlijn Fruithof, First Secretary, Brussels Invest & Export and Femina

What got you into the world of Trade and Business?

Since I was a teenager, I knew that my life would be a life of traveling and trading. As a 14 years old, I had already planned with my best friend to go to Peru to buy these lama woollen sweaters and sell them on the Belgian market. At 24 I had 3 chocolate shops in Spain….International trade runs in my blood.

When you entered the field, what were some of your biggest challenges? What did you do to overcome them?

When I started at the Belgian Embassy in Madrid, the biggest challenge was to adapt my entrepreneurial spirit and approach to a civil servant environment. The energy and dynamics are different.

I don’t think I fully adapted. I still have the entrepreneurial drive and I run my office as if it was a SME and not a public service. 

There is a common notion in business, that there is some sort of a glass ceiling that exists, prohibiting women from surging forwards and higher in the corporate hierarchy. Do you think this is true? Could you weigh in on the notion and share your thoughts on it?

In my personal career, I have not experienced this. I am considered to be a very hard working and creative person who proposes new ways of doing things in order to improve our services. This attitude is maybe less common in a government administration but it has always been very much appreciated.

In my day to day work with the companies and the different partners, being a woman is not a disadvantage as for most people, being a diplomat or part of the Embassy of Belgium gives all the credit and being male or female does not matter. Even in India I can see that woman are in the forefront of business and profession and successful in what they do.

What does your job as the Trade and Invest Commissioner in Chennai entail?

Our day to day job is very down to earth. We help and guide the companies. We have 3 main tasks:

Identify and help Indian investors to grow in Europe by setting up an establishment in Brussels. Apart from Diamonds, Beer and Chocolates, our multicultural economy has a lot to offer to potential investors such as proximity to a diverse European consumption class, international talent pool, high quality of life etc.,  We want to make a difference by offering an excellent service to the companies. Working closely together with our local Indian partner, SAS Partners, we want to create a long term relationship with our investors. They must know that they can always count on our team.

Assist Indian companies in finding suppliers and partners in Brussels and Wallonia: Indian companies can approach us in order to help them find the right supplier. Belgium is well known for high added value goods and services.

Assist Brussels and Walloon companies in finding partners and clients in South India by preparing a personalized agenda when they come on a business trip, through participation at trade fairs or through personal contacts that we have established.

You appear to have travelled a lot – have you had to make a lot of adjustments on the personal front? Were there too many culture shocks to deal with?

All my live I have wanted to travel and I have travelled a lot. Sometimes I think that all that I am doing is packing and unpacking my suitcase. It is part of the job. We have to be where the action is.

With children it is not always easy to change countries. Their life turns around friends and school. Leaving and start all over again is difficult. They fear the unknown. It is normal.  At certain ages they rebel the decisions but at a longer term they see the advantages as well.

What motivates you?

What motivates me is making a difference for someone. I think I am also motivated by the work itself. It is very interesting. I meet with a lot of focused and intelligent, passionate people. Delivering good work also motivates me. As I told you before, I am a perfectionist and working with a team towards thesame goal is very inspiring. It reminds me at the time when I was in the National Belgian Karaté team and we had this special bond because we all had the same strive for perfection. It gives a good feeling.

What do you do to de-stress/unwind?

Good question. It is a problem. I have been a sportswoman all my life. I did karate for many years and was 3 times Belgian champion, later I also enjoyed playing squash a lot. I could lose myself completely in that game. In Chennai, all I am doing is working, working, working and it starts to take a toll on my health. I have yet to find an activity that I can enjoy and combine with hectic work and travel load. Any suggestion? Any Indian Business women who wants to play squash with me ?

Having been in Chennai for a bit, now, what are your thoughts on the city and the life here?

I love Chennai because of its people. From our arrival we have been blessed because we have met wonderful, trustworthy and interesting people. As multi destination expat (I was posted in Madrid, Montreal and Algiers before coming to Chennai) I can assure you that a posting, anywhere in the world, can be a good or a bad experience mostly through the relationships you build in that place.

Besides that, as a family we have found our preferred places to go, restaurants to eat, where to shop, to relax etc… Maybe the two most difficult things to adapt for me personally are the spicy food and the climate in May/June. These two things make me too sweaty!!

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