Sitting across me in a dark pinstripe blazer over a grey tee, 25-year-old Kathy Ku says it’s been a challenge getting used to Singapore’s chilly indoor temperature over the last week. The Harvard-educated Korean-American has spent much of the last five years in Uganda, where she runs Spouts of Water, a firm she co-founded while still in college, which manufactures and distributes ceramic filters so as to provide affordable clean water in the landlocked East African nation. “There isn’t any AC, and I work in a factory,” she says.
Next to me, 31-year-old Katie Anderson is engaging Cartier’s Regional Managing Director Grégoire Blanche about water conservation. I had leaned in earlier to suggest Anderson puts Singapore on her sights should she expand Save Water Co., a US-based water efficiency solutions provider. “Water is a constant issue we have here,” I told her.
As a Singaporean, who grew up repeatedly cautioned about the nation’s potential water crisis and who now hydrates herself (in part) with NEWater, it’s rather apt to be seated beside the water specialists.
But across the room, there are 16 more women entrepreneurs, who each run start-ups that are financially sustainable and socially impactful. Their businesses are ensuring food security for the future, leveraging technology to connect communities and empower individuals, enhancing healthcare and social care systems and optimising the use of resources towards sustainability.
There’s Yunye Shin, 31, from South Korea, whose Zero Space Inc reduces production waste in the apparel manufacturing process. (It was one of her blazers that Ku borrowed for the day); Trupti Jain, 46, of Naireeta Services, who is bringing water management solutions to the often drought and flood hit agricultural sector in India; Ciara Donlon, 40, of Theya Healthcare in Ireland, which makes post-surgery undergarments for women; Candice Pascoal, 37, who founded Kickante, a crowdfunding platform in Brazil; and 33-year-old researcher Angela Braren, whose online platform — Instrumentl — helps other academics and non-profits get funding for their work.
All are finalists of the 2017 Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, which this year received nearly 1,900 applicants from more than 120 countries. Only six Laureates — one each from Latin America, North America, Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and North Africa and the Asia Pacific — will be named later that evening. For the first time since 2006, the Awards has left France to be presented at the Victoria Concert Hall in Singapore instead.
Each Laureate wins US$100,000 in funding, a year of individual coaching and a place on an INSEAD Executive Program.
When I circulate the room to chat with Cyrille Vigneron, CEO of Cartier International, I ask if he has any insider’s knowledge on who this six may be. He does not. While he is arguably the reason why the Awards continues to exist after more than a decade of good, he doesn’t actually sit on the judging panel. “We appoint an independent jury, who decides,” he says. “We don’t want to award a prize to someone we chose ourselves. That’s not in our values.”
But he does have a few personal favourites, he reveals — namely Pascoal, Donlon and Braren. “The business models are very different, but they are all articulate, focused and very precise and determined. It was just so energising listening to them.”
As it turns out, Vigneron had some very good hunches.
Just a few hours later, in the august environs of Victoria Concert Hall, Pascoal and Donlon were, indeed, named Laureates for their respective regions. Anderson and Jain, too, who both thanked family members who had flown in for the ceremony.
Sara-Kristina Hannig Nour, 27, founder of Sara and Lara’s Baskets, which harvests and delivers organic produce in Egypt, and Salma Abdulai, 31, who supports local farming communities in Ghana by processing and marketing fonio (an indigenous cereal) through her firm Unique Quality Product, rounded up the year’s inspiring sextet.
Click here to watch the 2017 Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards ceremony held on April 12, 2017 at the Victoria Concert Hall, Singapore.