【interview / vol.27-English】Unpaid volunteer work is equally valuable!
This time we have interviewed with Marion who is from France and has experiences in living in Shanghai, Soul and Tokyo.
Please click here for the article in Japanese.
ー Tell us about yourself
I am French, I live in Tokyo with my husband and my 3 kids for 2 years. My kids are enrolled in the French International School, in grade 12, 10 and 7. If I had to define myself, I would say that I am curious, enthusiastic and impatient. Living in Asia taught me serenity !
On a professional view point, before moving to Asia 8 years ago, I worked as General Manager of a pharma company based in Lyon. My career had been progressive since I graduated in 1996, from Audit to controlling, and from Chief financial officer to Managing director. Arriving in Shanghai in 2011, I was appointed as Chief operating Officer of the French School, which was a huge school, with 300 employees and 1600 students. I found a job even before moving with my husband (who was the expat) and 3 kids (They are now 12, 15, 17-years-old), as I couldn't imagine not to work at that time. Since then, we moved again, first to Seoul, from 2014 to 2017, and then to Tokyo 2 years ago. I have had multiple activities, as employed, self-employed, and volunteer like aKtives in Korea and Femmes actives Japon in Japan. *1
ーWow…You have a diverse career and what do you currently do in Japan?
I’m self-employed as an external advisor helping small companies to develop and also work for our family vineyard in France that my brother and I started a few years ago. The reason why I decided to be self-employed is that it’s not easy to get a job here in Japan if you don’t speak the language but it’s pretty easy to be self-employed even with the spouse visa because we can apply for permission to work part time. As I mentioned, I had found a job even before moving to Shanghai so when I got there, I had to do everything all at once, like settling into the new place, taking care of kids’ school matters, doing my full-time job and I was super busy. So, I’ve changed my mind when I went to Seoul. I started with volunteer work and gradually settled in and then got a full-time job. I also found it frustrating that it takes a lot of time like a year to find a job in a new country and then you have to move again in 2-3 years. Even if you learnt something in the new field and got your work on track, you have to leave in a few years and start from scratch again. So, when I came to Japan after these experiences, I decided to be self-employed.
ーWine business is very French! It sounds very attractive! Is it common to have a vineyard in France?
There are a lot of people in wine business, producing, selling, tasting, counselling… and many people wanting to or actually moving from corporate world to wine related business. But I would say that there are not many people who started the business from scratch like us. My brother used to work in the hospitality industry and after 10 years he said to the family that he wanted to create a vineyard around our family country house. At first everybody disagreed because we didn’t have any experience, but he was so enthusiastic that we were convinced that we could start the vineyard. Having a vineyard is not only about growing grapes but it involves a whole lot of work like strategy making, financing, branding, marketing and sales. I’ve been taking a lot of time doing these remotely.
ーDo you import your wine to Japan? How is it like to do business in Japan?
Yes, I import our wine to Japan. I believe it’s important to find a local partner if you want to do business in a foreign country. I contacted and met many people before finding someone who was interested in our wine. If you can find just one trusted partner, you can do business. So, now my business has been good. I find my business partners and clients very professional and very kind and efficient to work with.
ーDidn’t you experience any culture shock when you came to Japan?
No, I didn’t experience any culture shock because I was already in Asia, away from home for 6 years when we moved to Japan. So, I’m a kind of used to living abroad. When I went to Shanghai, where my first expat life started, it was tough because I didn’t understand what the people were saying or I couldn’t read anything. Back then, most people in Shanghai didn’t speak English and google tools (like google maps and google translate) were less developed at that time and not accessible in China…. So, I struggled a lot. But I learnt the language and got used to the life there and then I had to move again to a new place, Seoul, and the same thing happened. So, I got used to the situation where I don’t understand anything, and it doesn’t stress me much anymore. I’m like “I don’t understand but it’s ok. Everything will be ok”. If you’re not stressed, you can focus on your life and you can do what you have to. It’s true that each country is very different, and I think they always stay different, but my mind has changed in such a way that I can accept the differences naturally.
ーI guess flexibility is important to enjoy your life as an expat wife. Let me ask you about your husband. Does your husband support your career?
Yes! As I said before, I had employed jobs both in Shanghai and Seoul. But when we arrived in Tokyo, I decided to invest more time in our vineyard and in consultancy services instead of looking for an employed job. So, we often talk about these choices, and how I can develop my business, and develop myself. When we both had full-time employed jobs, we shared a lot of housework but now I have more free time since I work from home, I do more of the housework and also we have a helper a few hours a week so my husband does less domestic work than before but he cares a lot about us, me and kids. For example, the other day, he went to the parent-teacher meeting of our kids’ school and he told me that he learnt a lot about the school.
ーIt’s nice that your husband is cooperative. Does he come home early? I guess it’s known worldwide that Japanese people work long hours.
He comes home around 19:30 to 20:30. He works for a French company and actually, he is the one who pushes the team to go back home early.
ーIt sounds like French companies offer a good environment for family.
I believe so. I think French companies take care of the family well. For example, the companies listed in CAC40 (40 most significant stocks in Cotation Assistée en Continu) have an agreement that says if the company assigns a position overseas to an employee, the company has to help the spouse of the employee to find a job in the assigned country. *2 In France most women are working, so if the companies don’t do anything to help, the husbands might say “No” to the opportunity. Therefore, the companies give financial assistance to the expat spouses for learning the local language or subject of interest and they encourage the spouses to find jobs.
ーThat’s a nice system! If you, instead of your husband, are assigned a job overseas, do you think your husband will follow?
Yes, I think so. It was just that it was him who got these opportunities so I followed him but if the opposite happens, I think he would just be pleased to follow me!
ーYou mentioned that you were also involved in volunteer activities. Please tell us about the activities.
When I arrived in Seoul, I started with volunteer work, which was the External Advisor to the Board of a French school because my priority was settling in. Later I got a full-time job as a finance control manager at other school though. But I also founded a Network for French Speaking Professional Women in Korea called aKtives because when I talked to someone about career, I was told “You won’t be able to work here, so just forget about it.” Being upset with this negative state of mind, I thought that it’s important to change women’s mind, not only men’s mind.
We all should realize that there are things we can do even if we are not allowed to work due to the regulations of the assigned country. We can study at some institutions or have some experiences through volunteer work that would lead to professional work, if we have 2-3 years of expat life. It’s important that we should always value what we do even if it’s volunteer work without salary. People tend to think that it’s the best if we could have a full-time job with good salary and prestigious social status, but I don’t think that the unpaid work is not valuable.
ーI agree. Nowadays there are more and more Japanese women who don’t want to give up on career.
In France, most of women work and being someone in the outside world is as important as being a wife and a mother. Working is a part of life for us. So, I totally understood how the women who quit their jobs and followed their husbands to a new country are struggling with the situation where they suddenly became just mothers and have nothing to do in the outside world.
ーYou are involved in the volunteer work in Tokyo as well, right? What does the group do?
I worked for 2 years as a leader in Femmes actives Japon.*1 We organize a conference on a business topic of some industry in Japan once a month. For example, this bracelet I have here, from the French brand “les Georgettes by Altesse” which was launched in Japan by a French woman and she made a huge success in Japan in only a couple of years.. So, we invited her to speak about how she did the business. Usually, around 60 to 100 people get together.
We also do breakfast meeting in a smaller group of about 20 people. We invite some specialists from different countries to talk about the issues in Japan such as economy, population decrease, women’s rights, sustainability, etc.
We do Entrepreneurship group as well. It’s very difficult for people with 15-20 year-work experience in the corporate world to change to self-employment. So, we help them to find the solution by mentoring and coaching.
We also have some workshops on personal development. We learn about Japanese etiquette, reemployment plan in France, technology updates like how to use social network or LinkedIn efficiently.
ーTalking about the career when you go back to your country, are you worried about it or optimistic about it?
I’m quite confident that I can get a job when I go back because some of my friends got jobs pretty easily even after some years abroad. Of course, it depends on the situation. Some companies might like the people who’ve built the career in the same filed for many years but there are other companies who are more interested in the people with diverse background. More and more startups are emerging in France so I believe that they are the ones who are willing to have agile people who can adapt to a new environment easily.
I wish I could work again as a business developer / general manager of a small and medium sized company in the industry of my interest. I definitely like to work in / with a team.
ーWhat do you think is important to do in terms of developing your career while you're away from your country and live your life as an expat wife?
What I am always trying to do is to give sense to my activities and actions, and to make the story readable and inspiring for a future business partner or boss!
I try to stay up-to-date in terms of methods, technologies, thanks to conferences, MOOC, and webinars. I think being curious, meeting other people, valuing what you do, whether you are paid or unpaid, are also important.
On top of that, keeping self-confidence is very important. A lot of women lack self-confidence but if we are confident in what we have done, people will be convinced that we can do it. It’s important to remember that we have plenty of valuable experiences which are not to be measured by the salary. It’s not the salary that determines the value. I met so many ladies who are smart and efficient through volunteer work. I would definitely want to have them in my team. That’s why I insist that each of you should value your actions.
ーLastly, any tips for Japanese expat wives all over the world who are having inevitable career gaps?
I think self-confidence is the key but at the same time I know it’s hard to build or maintain self-confidence.
So, find a supportive network and occasions to nurture your experience and enjoy your time abroad! When you come back to Japan, and if you’re a French speaker, come and join us, Femmes actives Japon. 15-20% of the members are Japanese who spent time in French speaking countries or who work in French companies in Japan. If you’re an English speaker, there is FEW (for Empowering Women in Japan). I’m sure people who have been exposed to different countries want to keep learning from people with different experiences so it should be good for everyone, connecting with each other.
*1 Femmes actives Japon
*2 Spouse Support Convention
Marion's Winery "Domaine Mayoussier"