I am in the midst of all these women with exciting, innovative business models that have social causes wrapped up into the core of their businesses. In the first hour that I met my other co-finalists for the Cartier Women's Initiative Awards here in Paris, I knew this experience would be a precious life memory to look back on. Sharing dinner with those seated next to me was proving me right about the diversity of ideas and enterprises that are out-of-the box and fresh, but with the eye to help fields such as disaster relief, sanitary solutions, medical progress and access to job markets.
Seated next to me was American Lindsay Stradley and her German business partner, who handles the technology side, engineer Laura. They had chosen Kenya as their home, and here their company Sanergy was in the midst of building pre-fab concrete Fresh Life toilets in the slums and shanty towns of the developing world. The product is a sanitation unit that is hygienic, yet inexpensive. Their product not only offers hygiene and privacy, but their company has stepped into the whole value chain: from the waste collection system, to the training of the community, to the re-use of the waste for biogas for electricity and fertilizer for crops. They have franchised their sanitation business to the local entrepreneurs so they can also have livelihood.
"What keeps you going, Laura?" I asked her partner, who narrated back that being in Kenya has only helped her see how another part of the world lives. Having grown up in Germany, where everything was within easy reach, in Africa she saw how she had taken so much for granted. "I wake up every morning with a purpose, knowing I am making a change in this place; so I will stay on in Kenya." Lindsay, who has an upcoming wedding to her Indian engineer fiancé (who is another business partner), seconds the motion by saying, "We are building a sanitation business and here to stay!"
I could so relate to them with the work I do with ECHOstore Sustainable Lifestyle in the Philippines, a social enterprise, retail business paralleled with developmental directions of our ECHOsi (Sustainable Initiatives) Foundation. My two business partners and I have always called our social enterprise a mission-led business because of the changes we see happening as we try to make sustainability in daily life hip, young and understandable. By advocating for green products, fair trade, locavorism and even conscious consumerism, we help open new markets for products and produce from the marginalized poor, indigenous peoples and small women's groups. By upleveling products from community groups and teaching them packaging and product development from a sustainability perspective -- and from what the market wants -- our talents we took for granted such as design and product development, retail, marketing, branding, communication suddenly were put to the center at filling the gap that addresses livelihood sustainability.
I was sharing my story with Michelle Boisdron-Celle, a biologist and pharmacist from France with 16 years of experience in a cancer institute, who was seated next to me. Her own enterprise was just as exciting. Her medical start-up company, Onco Drug Personalized Medicines, improves the toxicity management of drugs used for chemotherapy, especially fluorouracil (5-FU) where dosage has always been given per the patient's height and weight. Now they advocate to test the patients to eliminate the drug and its toxicity after treatment through genotyping and phenotyping tools. She has the whole system down pat and, having clinically tested on 14,000 patients, she is ready for commercialization. Michelle has broken away from the medical statements and "givens," and instead has followed her research for years towards the realization that each person's body is unique and medicines have to be personalized. And how I agree with her!
Cartier Women's Initiative Awards recognizes the power that women have for meaningful enterprises that create impact that can affect positive change. With INSEAD and McKinsey & Company, this competition of choosing one winner from each continent is their way of also affecting impact and change by helping women who bring solutions for both urgent and daily needs.
Tes Mateo, a friend of mine in New York, with her company CXCatalysts, is creating opportunities for rural women around water backpacks from the industrial packaging company Greif. These water backpacks allow poor women in Kenya to be given the chance to earn an income doing activities that promote clean water, sustainable agriculture or waste management. CXCatalysts also continues to develop creative financing models that enable women in their network to buy GE Grief Habihuts, which can provide clean water and clean energy in rural and urban slum settings. They have also been instrumental in HELPS International, a member of the United Nations Foundation Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves that takes an integrated approach to relieving poverty. In the mountains of Sumpango, Guatemala, poor women now have an ONIL clean cook stove, which would drastically reduce the indoor air pollution in their home. Most of these benefits are handed directly to women, who are known to turn around and invest their newfound resources back into their family and community. Despite being disproportionately affected by poverty, women are the force leading the way out of it.
Disruptive enterprises is what we, my women friends, have in common. We are breaking away in our own blue oceans and changing systems without even knowing it. Perhaps some of us do know we are changing things... which is why we wake up everyday with a passion arising from somewhere deep inside, this inner push to work on our enterprises with social impact and address gaps with the vision to help make society and the planet a much fairer and cleaner place.