CEO Cyrille Vigneron shares how entrepreneurs are inspiring change within the brand

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It is a simple idea. Yet, with it, Katie Ander son has been making waves in and around her town in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, the US. Using a pasta strainer as an analogy, Anderson describes how a leaky tap literally results in water going down the drain. That is costly, for both consumers and the environment, and she set out to change that. A couple of years ago, she set up Save Water Co, which targets apartment blocks and commercial buildings.

Anderson and her services team would survey homes and offices to identify faulty faucets, and ways to improve water consumption efficiency. Simply by changing taps and toilets at one apartment block, which had about 260 units, the company saved the owners a total of 18.4 million gallons of water a year. In just 2½ years, Save Water has impacted some 14,000 homes in what Anderson calls her “backyard”. And because her business model is based on high-density buildings, there is potential to scale up quickly, to city level and beyond.

Anderson, 31, is one of the six winners of this year’s Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, an international business plan competition that aims to identify, support and encourage projects by women entrepreneurs. The awards started in 2006 as a joint effort by the luxury brand, management consultants McKinsey and Co and INSEAD business school.

Each of the winners will receive US$100,000 ($138,376) in prize money to help expand their business, and a place on an INSEAD Executive Programme. The women will also receive a year of personalised mentoring, media visibility and networking opportunities.

This year, for the first time, the awards ceremony was held outside France. It was held in April in Singapore, which will be the venue for the 2018 event too. The organisers say this is part of efforts to globalise the initiative, which already attracts participants who are truly diverse. This year saw 1,900 submissions from more than 120 countries, from women with ideas to solve the gamut of issues born of their experiences in life. Nominations for the 2018 awards are open until August.

For Cartier, the awards embody the values of the maison as well as its clientele. “Cartier women are flesh and blood. They have [their] feet on the earth, a heart, bills to pay and children to take care of, and still have a sense of beauty and achievement,” says Cartier CEO Cyrille Vigneron. “If we care for them, we care for women all around the world, especially as they are shaping the world. It’s what the brand is about: caring for these entrepreneurs who have their feet on the ground and a lot of dreams.”

Among the finalists this year were Ana Lucia Cepeda, a 28-year-old Mexican who set up an online platform connecting women, particularly those with children, with employers for jobs with flexible working hours, and 41-year-old Nigerian Nneka Mobisson, who launched a programme that links villagers in rural Africa to doctors and other healthcare providers through voice and video, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Some [other] brands can be more poetic, or care only about ultimate beauty and say nothing,” Vigneron says. “The Cartier woman is not like that. They have character. They have heart and dreams.”

Building a community
Anderson believes that even if she had not been selected for the award, it would still have been a win. “Being part of the Cartier Awards is [already] a part of the expansion process,” she says. “Being here and able to share on a global standpoint provides another opportunity to say, ‘These here are my discoveries and who they could benefit.’”

For the winners, the next step in being award laureates, as they are called, is becoming part of a broad community of women entrepreneurs. The network that has been built up over the years is certainly formidable. Over the past decade, the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards has supported the enterprises of 166 women from 46 countries, which has in turn created more than 5,000 jobs. “Now, any small business can be connected to any part of the world, even on a different scale,” Vigneron says.

In a way, the awards are also inspiring change within Cartier. “With the awards, our maison aims to contribute to women’s empowerment efforts worldwide, and thus mirror Cartier’s values: curio sity, audacity, caring for others and willpower to lead the change.

“[The entrepreneurs] are very inspirational. They create fantastic new business models, and can also be a source of inspiration for us. They’re so good at problem- solving, so even if we don’t tie up with them, we can learn [from them].” More importantly, he adds, “sharing with these women about their dreams and lives is part of who we are”.

Indeed, Vigneron has begun what could very well be a new practice in Cartier, by eliminating barriers and encouraging the open sharing of ideas. “I think the world has changed. Now, we have to reintegrate.”

By his own description, the company has traditionally been “a hierarchical pyramid”, a large organisation with the CEO far removed from most of the employees scattered throughout the world. There have also been clear boundaries separating the brand’s various activities, particularly between commercial and non-commercial ventures. Even the Women’s Initiative Awards, for instance, which has been a part of Cartier for so long, felt “a bit disconnected” from people within the company.

“No one really knew what it was about. Is it a kind of social activity? How different is it from a charitable foundation? No one knew. So, we said, let’s bring it back inside [the company]. Let’s have people from within talk to these women and tell others what it’s about, that it’s great,” Vigneron says.

As part of this year’s awards for instance, some Cartier representatives attended the workshops and other programmes along with the finalists. This integration of employees and activities that would have been outside their immediate scope, he adds, is essential to building up a Cartier community. That, in turn, is an important element of how the 170-year-old brand can continue to flourish in the generations ahead. “[People] can say, ‘We under stand what the maison, the brand, this company is about.’”

For posterity
Cartier, founded in 1847 in Paris, is renowned for being a “jeweller to kings”, after Edward VII was said to have ordered 27 tiaras for his coronation in 1902. It is famed for its Panthère collections, which date from 1914. Among the celebrated pieces are the onyx and diamond panther bracelet created for Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor. Cartier is also the creator of fine watches, beginning with its first men’s wristwatch in 1904, made for an aviator friend of Louis Cartier, one of the grandsons of the brand’s founder. The Santos timepiece, with its square, flat bezel, is a design that still endures.

The brand today is part of the stable of the Richemont Group. Vigneron’s appointment to the helm of Cartier International comes at a time when luxury brands are battling for the hearts of a new generation of consumers across the world. Since he started in January 2016, he has set about re-energising the venerable luxury house, stopping at just about every Cartier office around the world to meet its people.

In the short time that he was in this region for the awards, Vigneron met staff in Bangkok, Singapore and Sydney. “It was my first meeting [with] the [Australian] brand president. Because it was too far, no one had ever gone there. We spent two days of intense sharing. And it was so refreshing.”

In his view, this culture of sharing is what the company needs. In turn, it would strengthen Cartier’s culture and serve to keep employees engaged and committed. “It’s [sharing], apart from coming in to work, and [doing] things that are meaningful to them. Then, they will be inspired and [find] meaning and be happy to come to work,” Vigneron explains. “What people say about millennials not being engaged is not true. If you give them the right opportunity to do something exciting, then they are.”

Admittedly, these ideas have not yet penetrated throughout the organisation, although Vigneron adds that there are “internal initiatives” being developed to bring people together and help them work together in different ways. “That’s the way to create connections and inspirations.” Nevertheless, some of these efforts are beginning to blossom. Vigneron says Cartier is opening a retail innovation laboratory in the US, manned by a multinational special project team. The team members — two Chinese, two Japanese, two French and two Americans — who have never worked together, have been tasked with scouting for the best ideas from outside of Cartier.

As he puts it, many of Cartier’s inspired products have taken on external influences, notably its Tutti Frutti high jewellery collection, which imbibes an Indian style. The way ahead for Cartier, he says, is no longer through just having one great idea, but rather, an open, collective effort. “It is my strong belief that the more we share, the more inspiring it is.”

This article appeared in Issue 784 (June 19) of The Edge Singapore.