Tillekaerts was born in Ghent in 1957 and studied law at the university, from where she went on to open her own practice, specialising in the fields of commercial and insurance law. She also taught at the university and, in 2001, was invited to head their own legal service. There, she helped oversee the creation of the Ghent University Association, which groups a number of higher education institutions together with the university. She also sits on the board of the Flemish-Dutch accreditation organisation NVAO, which governs the recognition of academic credentials between the two systems.
In 2005, she obtained a business management degree and the following year became general manager of the new FIT, formed from the fusion of Export Vlaanderen and the Flemish Investment Service. FIT was headed by Koen Allaert, former boss of Export Vlaanderen. A year ago, Allaert became ill, and Tillekaerts took over the leadership position during his absence.
Allaert died in August of last year, and it has taken since then to confirm Tillekaerts, 54, as his official replacement. She was considered a front-runner, but there were about 30 other candidates to consider.
Flanders accounts for 82% of Belgian exports and on a per capita basis ranks eighth in the world as an export power. Last year FIT brought in 174 investments to the region, good for the creation of more than 3,700 jobs.
In the wake of reports that an extreme right Israeli politician recently refused to shake the hand of federal minister Laurette Onkelinx because she is a woman, Tillekaerts says she sees no problem with a woman representing Flanders on the international business stage. “Of course as a woman I wear a headscarf when I visit a mosque abroad, but I won’t do so when I receive a Saudi delegation here in Brussels,” she told De Standaard. “That’s never caused me any problems. I’ve even appeared on Iranian TV without a headscarf. A few people around here thought I was taking a chance, but there was no problem.”