INSEAD, the graduate business school, is one of the world’s most acclaimed destinations for MBA scholars and has been supporting the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards since its inception in 2006.

And the reason for this backing is that “entrepreneurship is very important. It is one way to innovate”, according to Ilian Mihov, dean of INSEAD. “Entrepreneurs change the business models and give rise to new product designs.”

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This mindset, along with Cartier’s “unwavering mission” to drive change and accelerate the growth of female entrepreneurship around the world, backs the long-standing prestigious awards.

This year, 2,800 applications were received from 14 countries, and the finalists span six sectors – health, environment, education, culture, electronics and technology.

“Historically, men can plug in very quickly. Though the number of female entrepreneurs has increased in the last years, they are still significantly lower. If you go outside advanced economies, this network is virtually nonexistent. So what we want to do is help create this network for women,” Mihov points out.

Cyrille Vigneron, president and CEO of Cartier, attests that “when we created the awards over a decade ago, our aim was to support [women’s] initiatives and build a network to help their ideas grow. Today, this vibrant ecosystem federates hundreds of people around the world whose generosity and commitment are an inspiration to us all.”

Mihov agrees. “Eighty per cent of the past laureates’ companies are still in operation. There are some that have grown quite significantly. And now with the new set-up I think there will be more impact,” he says.

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Cartier has upped its game this year with the passionate commitment from Vigneron. For the first time, the awards scheme has partnered with TED and featured discussions and presentations from TED speakers at the finals held in Capella Singapore. TED is a non-profit organisation devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks.

If you go outside advanced economies, this network is virtually nonexistent. So what we want to do is help create this network for women
Ilian Mihov, dean of INSEAD

In addition to the coaching sessions, winners get access to media and a global network. Runners-up receive US$30,000 and a six-day course on the INSEAD Social Entrepreneurship Programme. The six chosen laureates get US$100,000 to fund their business ideas.

One of this year’s finalists, Audrey Cheng, spoke to us about her experience in being part of the awards, and how she moved to Kenya from the United States to work for a venture capital fund and then eventually, founding Moringa School in Nairobi four years ago. The school teaches university graduates and students in Africa computer programming. Now, the school, well-regarded by top companies in Africa, is working on new educational partnerships in Pakistan, Hong Kong, and Ghana.

I was really excited about the idea. It was my big life goal, but how could I make that happen?
Audrey Cheng, founder of Moringa School

“In 2015 and 2016, we spent a lot of time on R&D, to figure out how we can make the most effective and scalable model in the classroom. And then 2017 was when we really scaled up the Kenya classroom. We trained about 540 students last year, which was quite intense for us,” Cheng says.

She says this year, she is aiming for at least three times that number, so about 1,500 students. This year, the school also expanded to Pakistan. “In two months, we are launching in Uganda, and [we are] focusing on regional expansion first. We have more than 100 inbound interests from investors, because when they see Moringa school, they see us as the thought leaders in this space.”

“It’s really hard to build a company if you don’t have the people to do it. A lot of people outsource to other countries, but there is so much unemployment in Kenya. I moved to Kenya thinking if we support entrepreneurs, we will be able to build these economies,” she adds.

But she thinks an important issue has been ignored. Students are writing codes on paper. Teachers in Kenya are going on strike a lot. Technology is changing so quickly, but students are learning technology that is super-outdated. “We want to build a better, higher education for them.”

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Cheng’s drive to make a difference made her turn down a “cushy job offer” in the States and take the leap of faith.

“In global health, we realised NGOs can be really cost ineffective as they cost a lot of money. So I started working with small start-ups in Chicago and San Francisco. I was working for 1871 in Chicago, and I was surrounded by investors, resources and great energy. It was a big start-up back in those days,” Cheng adds.

Our aim was to support [women’s] initiatives and build a network to help their ideas grow
Cyrille Vigneron, president and CEO of Cartier

She thought it would be great to bring this to emerging markets and have local entrepreneurs supported in that way. “I was really excited about the idea. It was my big life goal, but how could I make that happen?”

Cheng is one of the many women who wants to make a difference and take a stance in the world, and the awards scheme makes it possible. Vigneron says, “In stark contrast to a sometimes cynical, me-first world, we take pride in the forces that drive this community, in local initiatives that make a difference, and in businesses with the power to bring concrete changes to the world.”

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Mihov agrees. “I think it is a great initiative. I was very, very pleased when Cyrille [Vigneron] said they will be more involved. From INSEAD’s perspective, investing more on women and entrepreneurship and gender diversity is very important. It is part of our mission. If you care about lifting people out of poverty and correcting injustice, this is something we definitely want to address.”

Women entrepreneurs from around the world are urged to apply for the 2019 Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards. Visit here for more information.

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