Female changemakers and Amal Clooney take centre stage at the 2023 Cartier Women’s Initiative

International human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and Cartier chief executive Cyrille Vigneron at the CWI Awards ceremony in Paris. PHOTO: CARTIER

PARIS – Last Wednesday, a cosmopolitan crowd of 1,000 people descended on the beautiful Salle Pleyel concert hall in Paris, France.

They were there to celebrate the 32 finalists of the Cartier Women’s Initiative (CWI), a global programme spearheaded by the French luxury house to recognise the achievements of women impact entrepreneurs and nurture their potential through grants and training. All have founded start-up businesses which drive change, not just within their communities but also the larger society.

This year’s 16th edition honoured three fellows – as finalists of the programme are known – from nine geographic regions including Anglophone and Lusophone, Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as South Asia and Central Asia.

Among them was Ms Mint Lim – the first Singapore finalist – who founded School of Concepts, a social enterprise to provide the less fortunate access to quality education.

The evening also lauded three fellows from the initiative’s two thematic awards – the Science and Technology Pioneer Award, and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Award. The latter is a new programme open to all genders.

The fellows were an impressive bunch from multiple disciplines. South Korea’s Woori Moon, for instance, founded 40FY, an app which uses artificial intelligence to provide customised mental health support which is easily accessible.

Armenia’s Mariam Torosyan, meanwhile, built Safe YOU, a mobile app which provides a safe virtual space where women suffering gender-based violence can find immediate help, professional resources and community support.

The 11 winners from each grouping received US$100,000 (S$134,600), the second-placed finalists got US$60,000, while the third-placed gained US$30,000. On top of that, Cartier will also provide mentoring and coaching, networking opportunities and entrepreneurship courses at Insead business school.

Since it was founded in 2006, the CWI has disbursed about US$7.5 million in grants to nearly 300 fellows from more than 60 countries.

Themed Forces For Good, this year’s awards ceremony – hosted by Danish-British broadcaster and feminist Sandi Toksvig – was a lively affair with fireside chats with guests, including French actress, director and environmental activist Melanie Laurent and American actress Yara Shahidi, who plays Tinker Bell in Disney+’s live-action feature film Peter Pan & Wendy (2023).

One of the evening’s highlights was the stirring opening speech by Clooney Foundation for Justice co-founder Amal Clooney and a leading barrister in international law.

“Whether you believe in human rights, or just prosperity, it is a good idea to try to unshackle half the population of the world,” said the Lebanese-British lawyer, who is married to Hollywood actor George Clooney.

“The latest data shows that women’s economic parity would add US$12 trillion to the global economy. Yet the percentage of philanthropic grants that go to women’s empowerment is in the single digits.”

The 32 finalists of the 2023 Cartier Women's Initiative, a global programme to recognise the achievements of women impact entrepreneurs. PHOTO: CARTIER

Ms Wingee Sampaio, CWI’s global programme director, told The Straits Times: “It’s not so much that women are better changemakers. But we have so many challenges in the world, why would we leave half of the world out of solving all of this?

“This is why we feel it is really critical for women to be a big part of this equation. Also, when you look at all the women entrepreneurs in our programme, historically, the top two social development goals that they work on are education and healthcare. I don’t think anyone would debate that we need more healthcare and more education everywhere in the world.”

A successful capital markets professional for 15 years before she took over the reins of the CWI, Ms Sampaio said that women entrepreneurship is on the rise.

Many, however, are barely surviving because they do not have the means to scale up. The CWI, she added, helps to plug this gap.

More importantly, the CWI helps to foster a sense of belonging and community.

She quoted a CWI impact report from 2022 which showed that “80 per cent of our programme participants feel that after being part of the CWI, they feel a greater sense of belonging, which then leads to a more inclusive entrepreneurship environment, which then leads them to continue building businesses and creating more impact in whatever vertical of work they’re in”.

Indonesia’s Denica Riadini-Flesch took the first prize for the South Asia and Central Asia region. The 32-year-old founded SukkhaCitta, an enterprise which employs rural Indonesian artisans to produce handcrafted clothing using sustainable organic cotton grown by smallholder farmers.

She is grateful that an international brand like Cartier has thrown its weight behind women entrepreneurs.

“It is so lonely being a woman entrepreneur, especially in Indonesia. Society keeps telling you that your role is just to be a housewife and mother. They always look at female entrepreneurs and say, ‘It’s cute that you have this hobby.’”

School of Concepts’ Ms Lim, 36, who received a US$30,000 grant, agrees. She set up her enterprise in 2017, spurred by the belief that “every child deserves a chance to learn, in the way they’d best acquire knowledge, whenever and wherever they are”.

“Sometimes, when we are a small voice speaking in a small pond, it’s hard to get heard. It’s gratifying that a powerful brand like Cartier, which has so much influence, comes in and endorses it on the global stage and says, ‘Yeah, we recognise what you do, we appreciate it and want to champion and celebrate it.’” 

She said: “I think my journey would accelerate with this recognition. I think the impact will be louder and the message will be clear.”

Applications for the 2024 edition of the Cartier Women’s Initiative are open till June 30. More details can be found at www.cartierwomensinitiative.com.

Ms Denica Riadini-Flesch: SukkhaCitta 

When she was a kid, Ms Denica Riadini-Flesch’s contractor father would put her in his swivelling “boss chair” and make her say: “I’m going to grow up and be rich.”

The fourth of five children added: “He did not define rich in what sense, but I can say my life is very rich now.”

That is because the 32-year-old has found what eludes many: a career with purpose. The first prize winner of the Cartier Women’s Initiative (CWI) for South Asia and Central Asia is the founder of a “farm to closet” clothing brand called SukkhaCitta (which means happiness in Bahasa Indonesia).

It sells beautifully detailed clothing made by rural artisans – mostly women – who are paid a fair living wage. It is also a green practice because the articles of clothing are made using traditional techniques and natural dyes which do not pollute the environment.

After obtaining a degree in economics – “it’s something that governs everything we do” – from Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands in 2011, the self-described idealist returned to Indonesia where she cut her teeth as a development consultant for the World Bank.

Ms Denica Riadini-Flesch with some of the rural Indonesian artisans she works with. PHOTO: SUKKHACITTA

Her work took her to the villages where she met poverty-stricken women. It affected her deeply.

“I realised that if we truly want to solve the issue of poverty, what these women need is not aid but work. They do not need pity, they don’t need handouts. And if we can provide them with work, we can also retain their pride. Offering people pride leads to empowerment, and empowerment leads to real change.”

Another thing which struck her was that rural poverty appeared to be clustered around a couple of economic activities, such as craft and clothesmaking.

“All these women who are making our clothes are trapped in poverty because between us and them are many layers of middlemen.”

She resolved to do something about it. “I wanted to be the bridge between these women and consumers all over the world so that they can trace who made their clothes and what their impact is.”

It led her to set up SukkhaCitta in 2016. The decision was also prompted by a personal health crisis – the discovery of a tumour in her back. “It was a shock because when you’re young, you think you’re invincible.”

Although the tumour proved to be benign, the episode jolted her out of her complacency and convinced her she needed to live life with meaning and purpose.

She did not bank on how tangled a web the clothesmaking industry was.

“The other huge problem was how dirty the industry practices are. All our clothes are dyed with chemicals so toxic that fashion is the second-largest polluter of clean waters globally. It’s turning rivers all around the world the colour of what’s in season,” she said, adding that many rural womenfolk involved in the industry are clueless about the health risks they are being exposed to.

The three finalists from South Asia and Central Asia region: (from left) Ms Mint Lim, Ms Dimple Parmar and Ms Denica Riadini-Flesch. PHOTO: CARTIER

To lick the problem of toxic dyes, she went to different villages to track down old artisans who know how to dye fabrics naturally and organically.

She was seized by the conviction to do more as SukkhaCitta gained traction.

“I felt it was no longer enough for us to cause just less harm. It is time for us to regenerate our living systems and environment in such a way that our choices no longer come at the cost of our planet.”

Research convinced her that regenerative farming was the way forward. 

“After all, regenerative farming not only restores the soil’s ability to absorb more carbon from the atmosphere, but it also provides sustainable livelihoods to indigenous women farmers in rural Indonesia,” said Ms Riadini-Flesch, who works with partners on large-scale regeneration projects where women farmers can grow cotton, dyes and other food crops on previously depleted soil.

It has not been a walk in the park. As she had no experience in lifestyle or fashion, she had to battle self-doubt in the early days of the enterprise.

“Every day, I wonder whether I’d gone mad leaving my stable corporate job. But I couldn’t stop. Not after what I’d seen in the villages. If not me, then who?” said Ms Riadini-Flesch, whose German husband is SukkhaCitta’s chief sustainability officer.

Ms Mint Lim (left) and Ms Denica Riadini-Flesch. ST PHOTO: WONG KIM HOH

Her biggest motivators are the rural women – she calls them ibus – she works with.

“They changed my view of what a meaningful life is – that you don’t need to subscribe to conventional metrics of success, but you can say what is enough for you. We’re not trying to be the biggest or best fashion brand in the world. We are here to show people that there is a better way and how we can work together to leave the world kinder than when we found it.”

She is gratified that many people came up to her after last Wednesday’s CWI awards ceremony and told her what she is doing has made them look at clothes and consumption in a different light.

“That’s ultimately what we want to do, right? We can’t shout our way out of this climate crisis, we can’t just label something as sustainable and hope to sell more of it and continue with business as usual.

“What we want is change, and it needs to start from the business model itself. We need to be able to grow by selling less. And at the same time, also on the consumer level, we need to be a lot more conscious and mindful before you buy something. That’s when we can create a standard change.”

Mint Lim: School of Concepts

Ms Mint Lim wrote a new chapter in her colourful life when she became the first Singaporean fellow of the CWI this year.

She is naturallly chuffed about her achievement.

“This is Passion Made Possible,” she said, referencing a famous tagline from the Singapore Tourism Board. “It’s a testament that we can achieve our own definition of success by doing what we love, with love. As the human population grows, our personal space will only get smaller, but the impact of our actions will only get greater.”

“So a message to fellow women – continue to dream big, love deeply and collaborate to empower and grow alongside one another,” added the 36-year-old founder of social enterprise School of Concepts (SOC).

She describes her outfit – which she started in 2017 – as “an inclusive business”, one that is on a mission to give every child, regardless of financial background or learning needs, access to quality education.

Ms Mint Lim (standing) with members of her core administrative team from School Of Concepts. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MINT LIM

SOC developed a proprietary teaching methodology based on a visual, auditory and kinesthetic approach for pre- and primary-school children.

“We assess a learner’s optimal learning style and tap it to create access points ranging from physical face-to-face interaction and interactive lessons, all the way to mobile application games, making learning a personal experience and an enjoyable process for the children we reach,” she explained, adding that the school sets aside subsidies for disadvantaged children.

Literacy in English is a priority.

“A lot of children fall through the cracks when they don’t have a good grasp of the language. They are not in a level playing field when they don’t understand what they read.”

The desire to set up SOC stemmed from her own experiences and struggles as a dyslexic child. Thanks to a Sunday school teacher, she learnt how to read.

Literacy, she said, was her turning point.

“I finally got it. I learnt how to learn. I realised that I can’t just take information and grab it. I have to dissect it to learn. I have to sequence things and compute them,” said Ms Lim, who went on to get a degree in finance.

Life was not always easy for the eldest of four children of an autoparts businessman and his wife. When her father fell on hard times during her late teens, she started working – giving tuition, running a reasonably successful middleman business trading autoparts, starting a florist business and selling shoes – to bring home the bacon.

(From right) Ms Mint Lim, Ms Denica Riadini-Flesch and other finalists of the Cartier Women's Initiative awards ceremony. PHOTO: CARTIER

Her dream, however, was to run a tuition centre where no child would be turned away.

“I was one of those kids who really wanted tuition, but my mother thought it was a waste of money,” she recalled. “I realised I have a gift for teaching and managed to help a lot of children do better. Some of them learn in a very different way, but I understood them because I was like them.”

She took the plunge and started SOC, doing a lot of research and development using savings earned from her other businesses which she has since stopped. It has been a hard slog, but her efforts have paid off.

SOC now has two centres, with another 15 satellite centres using its programme. It has also expanded beyond its initial focus on English, using the same proprietary methodology to develop a suite of products for financial and Chinese literacy, as well as Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.

Married to a Singaporean construction executive, the mother of a one-year-old daughter has big dreams for the future, chief of which is internationalisation.

“An immediate plan would be to equip one million children with literacy by 2025. Beyond that, we aim to work with fellow educators to be a content hub to onboard and deliver content from partners in education, bringing valuable educational content from all over the world to every educator and every learner.”

She added: “Locally, we aim to work with more family foundations which are keen to invest in a sustainable business, through opening bricks-and-mortar inclusive schools for children from all walks of life to learn in.”

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