From the Ardennes to Taiwan: an assignment that changed a life

Aged 30 and a trained lawyer, Justine Thiry was awarded a grant from the Prince Albert Fund, managed by the King Baudouin Foundation. It enabled her to enjoy a thrilling professional and human experience in Taiwan. Now, captivated by the island and its people, she has chosen to live and work there.

Born in the Ardennes, after completing her secondary education, Justine Thiry decided to study law in Brussels, Louvain-la-Neuve and Geneva, collecting one accolade after another along the way. Hired as a lawyer in an American law firm, she hesitated about the next steps of her career. The bar, consultancy, corporate lawyer? “When I heard about the Prince Albert Fund, which offers young professionals an opportunity to develop an international career whilst also contributing to the development of Belgian business abroad, I found myself at a potential crossroads. I saw the assignment and grant as an opportunity to live an extraordinary adventure and I decided to accept the challenge and make an application. After a written selection, I had to appear before a jury, where I presented a business case with an economic approach. And I was chosen!”, Justine recalls.

First steps in the off-shore wind power sector

Justine took off for Taiwan, together with her husband. She joined the local partner of DEME, the well-known Antwerp company, which is specialized in the dredging sector and a worldwide reference for the transport and construction of windfarms at sea. Her function, which was business-oriented and based on the operational, would provide an additional and solid chord to her bow: “It made a lot of sense to get involved in this project. Outside my legal comfort zone, I immersed myself in a multitude of functions, wearing a commercial as well as a legal hat that demanded practical answers.”

The Taiwanese partner with which DEME is associated in a joint venture is the largest naval construction business in Taiwan and employs a thousand people. “It was not that evident at the beginning”, confides Justine. “I was the first person to be sent to work there by DEME, at the very start of the development of the project and launch of the first offers. I had to be sure about the way things were being set up with our Taiwanese partner: contacting suppliers, ensuring the follow-up of offers made to me, developing the network of our associates brought together in the wind power sector. For someone who knew nothing about off-shore wind power, this was quite a challenge! Something that brought together a range of knowledge that is legal, environmental and business. Yes, I think the most difficult thing for me was firstly getting to know the off-shore wind sector and coming face to face with a triple change in my life – the business sector, the country and the language.”

However, Justine’s work alongside her Taiwanese colleagues enabled her to integrate gradually into Taiwanese society. The Taiwanese speak Mandarin, but don’t use much English. The young Belgian immersed herself in learning this subtle language, articulated around tonalities and sounds that are difficult to assimilate and whose written form uses a multitude of characters. “At the beginning, I had to keep a pretty low profile and let myself be integrated into a social system that is very different from ours, one that is rich in particular codes. You have to ask questions, show your curiosity and be aware of one’s status as a foreigner. Out of respect and the wish to integrate, getting to know the language was a must.”

An exceptional experience

After a year’s experience, enjoyed thanks to the Prince Albert Fund’s grant, Justine Thiry was hired by DEME and is still in Taiwan. "Professionally, I have acquired business and managerial skills and I have lived an incredibly rich reality that is light years away from my European habits."

On a personal level too, things are changing. Billy, now aged six months, is a lively part of the family. Friendships with the Taiwanese have been created: “They are such welcoming, kind people. We have just shared a galette des rois to celebrate the new year.” As far as life in Taiwan is concerned, this much is clear: “It would be a lie to say that we don’t miss Europe and our families, but we are not planning to leave. We live in Taipei, a city that is on a human scale, a successful mix of various Asiatic cities, but without the chaos. Life is less stressful than in Paris or London. The people here are more phlegmatic, they have a slower pace of life.” Beyond the city boundaries, there are also plenty of reasons to be amazed: “Taiwan is superb. A mountain range that reaches up to 3,000 metres crosses the central region and the landscapes you can see from high up are stunning.”

"Being outside my comfort zone, I was able to discover a new sector and develop new skills."
Justine Thiry
Prince Albert Fund grantee

The ‘Taiwanese difference’ also manifests itself in the fight against COVID-19. Management of the pandemic in Taiwan is a real example of how to fight the virus. Only 740 cases have been detected amongst its 23 million inhabitants and seven people have died of COVID-19. Today, life has returned to normal and COVID-19 has been stemmed. A few days ago, Justine was able to enjoy the musical Phantom of the Opera, performed by a Broadway cast.

The Prince Albert Fund

For over thirty years, the Prince Albert Fund, managed by the King Baudouin Foundation, has offered talented young professionals the opportunity to work for a year for a Belgian business that wishes to develop its activities or projects internationally. Today, the fund has 451 alumni, among whom 34% are female and 66% male.

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