Virginie Goethals is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at RUN Hong Kong. In her 2021 Spotlight Series interview, she discusses her motivations, advice to her younger self, and how her organization has adapted during these challenging times.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
I grew up in Belgium but have spent the last 11 years in Asia. I started my career as a private equity lawyer in a Magic Circle law firm in New York, before moving back to Brussels. In 2010, I moved to Beijing and then Hong Kong. I worked in sustainable development in Beijing for a think tank and got involved with several NGOs in China at that time. I moved full time into the nonprofit world 5 years ago when I relocated to Hong Kong.
I am a mother of three teenagers, who all go to school in Hong Kong. Spending time outdoors is my happy place.
What drew you to this career? What has motivated you to stay?
I have been working with minorities, undocumented migrants and refugees since I was a teenager. First, as a “street educator” in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Brussels, then as a pro bono lawyer providing legal support to asylum seekers. In Beijing, I was on the board of a Chinese based nonprofit supporting female prisoners, as well as another nonprofit based in Afghanistan, which provided women empowerment through sports.
When moving to Hong Kong I was interviewing to go back into legal practice. At the same time, I was asked to help organize a hike for refugee women in Hong Kong who are victims of violence. This hike was supposed to be a one-off event, but at the end of the hike, the women were energized, and told me “see you next week”. So I took a big leap and followed my heart.
Five years later I have never regretted this choice, even if working with victims of torture and violence takes everything out of you on a daily basis. My grandfather, a refugee from Hungary, is my inspiration. Like most refugees, he lost everything and was traumatized, but despite this he always cared for others and never locked his door, so that anyone in need could come in. Witnessing the resilience of refugees first hand inspires me every day, and makes me feel very humble and grateful that they trust RUN to help them recover from trauma.
Think back to when you were starting out your career. What advice would you give your younger self?
A career is never linear, stay open minded to take 360 degree turns if it feels comfortable with your gut feeling. Surround yourself with colleagues and friends who inspire you every day, and always keep learning and educating yourself. If you feel outside of your comfort zone, you are on the right path!
This year has brought tremendous upheaval and disruption to all aspects of our lives. How are you and your non profit continuing to promote diversity and gender equality despite these massive changes?
The current Covid-19 health crisis has exacerbated the trauma of the most vulnerable refugee women, and RUN Hong Kong has adapted all its programmes relentlessly to be able to support them. Large group hiking was changed into self-guided hiking, extra food, medical and psychological support was organized for our women and their children. I am very proud that our team stepped up to the challenge, even with pay cuts and a much higher workload. We also had no choice but to take in more participants, as some were referred to us with high risk of self harm. All this hard work would not have been possible without the support of our volunteers and corporate supporters in Hong Kong. I am deeply touched by how many have reached out to help.