SINGAPORE (Aug 13): On the evening of April 26, Prof Ilian Mihov took the stage to speak about the under-representation of women in technology and entrepreneurship. “Please stop me if I talk for too long,” joked the dean and Rausing Chaired Professor of Economics at graduate business school INSEAD Singapore.

“Don’t worry, I have no trouble keeping men quiet,” Sandi Toksvig said, deadpan. The comedian, broadcaster and gender equality champion is the co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party in the UK — in short, a more fitting host of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards 2018 would have been hard to find. Along with the hall full of women gathered at The Cappella in Singapore, Mihov laughed before proceeding to cite dismal statistics, such as how only one in 10 venture capital dollars went to women.

Represented in this hall were some of the women who fought hard to earn those minimal investments allocated to them. The awards, in its 12th year, received a record 2,800 applications from female entrepreneurs around the globe, including, for the first time, participants from Austria, Cameroon and Pakistan. The 18 finalists present hailed from sectors such as health, environment, education, culture, electronics and technology. They were cheered on by representatives of non-profit media organisation TED — a new partner of the awards — guest speakers and journalists present to recognise women-run, for-profit businesses working to create strong social impact.

Cartier exemplified its dedication to the empowerment of women with lucrative rewards — the winning laureates were presented with US$100,000 (about $136,150) in funding and a year’s coaching from INSEAD and McKinsey & Co. A new recognition for runners-up saw the remaining finalists receive US$30,000 each in financing.

Gingger Shankar, the only woman in the world who has mastered the double violin, performed a moving piece from Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock, a Sundance Film Festival documentary chronicling the resolute opposition against the construction of a multibillion-dollar oil pipeline on Native American lands in North Dakota, the US. The grandniece of sitarist Ravi Shankar, she produced and composed the documentary’s music.

“Representation matters for children struggling to find their voice, and I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in the mainstream media,” she said. “When I began seriously pursuing music, I wasn’t doing it just for myself. I was representing my mother, my grandmother, women before and after me. All these strings sing together to create a chorus of voices, just like the double violin. And when I heard about Standing Rock, when I saw the Native Americans fighting for their rights and people pushing them back because they didn’t want to hear their voices, I was angry. Akicita amplifies their voices. If oppressors won’t open the doors, let’s set those doors on fire.”

Her performance was sandwiched between talks by TED speakers Zubaida Bai, founder of reproductive health venture ayzh; Megan Fallone, CEO of Barefoot College, which trains rural and illiterate women in dozens of countries to be solar engineers; Matilda Ho, an emerging voice on food sustainability in China; and Halla Tómasdóttir, the first female CEO of Iceland’s Chamber of Commerce and a recent presidential candidate.

The stage rang with authority and passion as one formidable woman after another — composed, earnest, fiery — took the mic. The finalists were introduced in formats, including video stories, live sharing and Dare to Fail talks, where relevant nominees talked about how failure drove them to succeed.

Vigneron (right) with Tsvetanova and the Blitab

Kristina Tsvetanova, a mechanical engineer who created the first tactile e-tab let for the visually impaired, was among the latter. Braille publications are so costly to produce, so she invented Blitab, a US$500 tablet that converts text to tiny liquid dots that rise from tablets to be read by touch or as an audio document. “My best friend is blind and I did this for him before realising that a product I developed as a solution was also a business opportunity. Accessibility is important. What is the point of having millions of publications when only 1% of published books are in Braille? Why should anyone living in the 21st century be denied access to literature?”

“Looking at these women makes you wonder what you’re doing with your life,” Cyrille Vigneron, CEO of Cartier, said in a later interview at the St Regis Singapore. “That’s why we divide the awards according to region. We don’t discriminate by sectors — many businesses we see are cross-disciplinary — because we didn’t want to constrain ideas of what we could support.”

And Cartier has long been an advocate of empowerment and aid, investing in crisis management and supporting various causes globally, including refugee camps in Bangladesh, clean water programmes in Africa and women’s education in India. The Cartier Philanthropy vehicle has also financed the trips of women from Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia to train as solar engineers at Barefoot College.

“Statistics on the discrimination women face are not new,” continued Vigneron. “There are many platforms for entrepreneurs, but men acquire most of the finances. So, it only makes sense to have these women-only entrepreneur awards. Now that the award is sufficiently well established and has credibility, it increases the confidence of banks in investing in these enterprises. These projects come from very concrete ideas. The laureates are not trying to find new spaceships to colonise Mars. They are addressing real community issues. If we allocate money to women doing beautiful things concretely, we can change the course of things on this planet and not try to escape from it. As a man sitting in that room, I found the surrounding energy, power and strength very touching. I feel like I have a responsibility to support these causes.”

Toksvig (left) chats with Mihov (second from right) and guest speakers in a panel discussion on the obstacles faced by women in entrepreneurship

The ventures were indeed impressive in their idea, execution and potential for scale. Erin Keaney, the American founder of Nonspec, produces prosthetic limb kits for amputees for under US$200; Julia Romer of Germany invented an electricity-independent refrigerator under her company, Coolar, for storage of vaccines in remote regions; and Cameroonian Melissa Bime is behind Infiuss, a digital supply chain platform that operates a database of blood types available in connected hospitals and transports blood to patients in need. Each story came from a personal place and shared a common thread — the women took on these causes because they were driven by empathy and a sense of responsibility to their families, friends or communities. There were gasps, laughter, tears and applause as they related the gruesome, dismal or sad encounters that motivated their enterprises.

Tolksvig returned to the stage visibly teary after all the finalists had finished telling their stories. “I’m having a heck of an evening,” she said, preparing to announce the winners. “I’m crying, I’m laughing. It’s a heck of an evening.”

Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards 2018 winners

  • Asia-Pacific :
    Swati Pandey, India
    Arboreal Agro Innovations
    An industrial-scale, vertically integrated producer of stevia, a 100% natural substitute for sugar
  • Europe:
    Kristina Tsvetanova, Austria
    Blitab Technology
    A tactile tablet for the blind and visually
  • Latin America:
    Paula Gomez, Brazil
    A device that alerts patients and caregivers of an oncoming epileptic seizure up to 25 minutes in advance
  • Middle East & North Africa:
    Siroun Shamigian, Lebanon
    An online platform that uses artificial intelligence and data analytics to help one learn and teach Arabic
  • Sub-Saharan Africa:
    Melissa Bime, Cameroon
    An online blood bank that collects and dispatches blood donations to hospitals.

Five minutes with YiDing Yu, founder of Twiage

As a trainee doctor, YiDing Yu noted a glaring problem in the hospital patient intake process. Ambulance operators were only equipped with radios to contact emergency departments — a process encumbered by frequent disruptions — so patients had to re-register their clinical information and sit through an echocardiogram, losing precious treatment time in life-threatening conditions when every minute counts.

Twiage is a digital platform and cloud system that transmits real-time data from ambulance to hospital via a mobile app. It is capable of shaving almost an hour off data collection and diagnosis to accelerate lifesaving care.  Practised in 16 hospitals in the US so far, it has already saved 100,000 people a total of 1.4 million minutes in early care.

“Courage, competence and confidence are so important,” says the poised young doctor. “I feel like women feel they have to study exceptionally hard and become experts to be taken seriously. I used to constantly question my competence and believe others knew better because they were more experienced, but I  learnt  that that was a mistake. When I doubted myself and trusted others instead, I inevitably made the wrong decision.”

With time, her competence built her confidence, which in turn gave her the courage to take risks. “It’s scary because you know you can fail, but it’s really in those moments, when the stakes are high, that you are at your most courageous. Growing up, I wanted to be a doctor very badly, to help people. I went to college at Harvard and, surrounded by the legacies of several Nobel laureates, I was inspired. But I also  realised  that some of the major discoveries they had made were not available to some of the poorest, most in-need people in the world. As a person who revered science, I felt like I had almost been betrayed by this. Scientists had done their jobs, they had brought these discoveries to the public, and it’s up to all of us to make sure that those discoveries are available to everyone else, and that is a social problem.”

Yu realised technology could be a solution in increasing the accessibility of care and turned her focus to research. “If someone has been brilliant enough to invent a solution, we have an obligation to our fellow man to make sure it’s available to those who need it. If we don’t care about people, what else do we stand for? If I think about the moments I have been happiest, it has been with people. We are social creatures. It is human to care.”

Calling all women entrepreneurs
by Michelle Zhu

Following the conclusion of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards 2018, applications are now open for the 2019 edition, which will see Cartier granting over US$1 million ($1.37 million) in prize money to women entrepreneurs worldwide — making it the largest and most generous competition for women entrepreneurs in the world and across all sectors of industry.

In the 2019 edition of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, the competition is expanding to a seventh region. Additionally, Asia-Pacific will be divided into two separate regional entities, namely Far East Asia (China, Korea and Japan) and Southeast Asia (India, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines and so on) so as to increase the programme’s impact.

Twenty-one finalists will be selected to represent these seven regions, out of which seven laureates will be selected to win US$100,000 in prize money each. The remaining 14 finalists, placing second, will receive US$30,000 in prize money each.

Cartier is currently accepting applications for the 2019 edition of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards until Aug 31. Both the hosting city and the finalists will be announced in February 2019.

For more information about the application process and eligibility criteria, visit