"Awards are a time to reflect on where we are and where we want to be, by saying these ideas will help create the world we want to see," the Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o said at the recent Cartier Women's Initiative Awards in San Francisco. As a guest speaker at the event, Nyong'o's words neatly encapsulated the mood of the evening: we were all there to witness dynamic entrepreneurs pitch ideas that could make the world a better place.
This year, the initiative received a record 2,900 applications from 17 countries, whittled down to 21 finalists. And although there are countless awards open to entrepreneurs around the world, what makes the Cartier Women's Initiative so interesting is that it was unapologetically conceived to support women-led businesses. As Cyrille Vigneron, president and chief executive of Cartier says: "Cartier started this because we have mainly women customers.
"We discovered that women were having more trouble than men starting a business, with many having difficulties getting financing. Only three per cent of start-ups run by women get funding. So there was a big imbalance, and for us to help support the redressing of this inequality made sense."
Since it was launched 13 years ago, the Cartier Women's Initiative has had 219 winners from 51 countries. The globe is divided into seven regions, with three finalists selected from each. The seven winners each receive a $100,000 (Dh367,250) cash injection and 12 months of guidance and mentorship from industry leaders who offer expertise in the fields of business, marketing, management and finance. Partly thanks to this vital support, an impressive 80 per cent of the winning businesses are still going, despite a grim US start-up failure rate of 50 per cent within five years, and 70 per cent within 10.
The finalists for 2019 are a dazzling bunch. Take Ran Ma from America, for example. The founder of Siren has developed smart socks that detect fluctuations in the wearer's temperature, pre-warning diabetes sufferers of potentially serious health issues. Or the investment platform InvestEd, set up by Carmina Bayombong when she realised that low-income students in the Philippines were being denied access to universities. The three finalists from the Mena region are equally inspiring, with each tackling pressing – and locally relevant – social issues.
Here, the three female entrepreneurs talk about their projects in their own words.
Mena finalist: NaTakallam by Aline Sara
NaTakallam, Arabic for "we speak", was co-founded by US-born Lebanese national Aline Sara in 2015. Using Skype, it connects students eager to learn Arabic in one country, to Syrian refugees who are able to teach them in another. Students get private lessons, while refugees gain an income and a sense of purpose. "I don't think any of us grasp what it is to be a refugee today. One in four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee, and 65 million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes," Sara tells me.
"The overwhelming majority of these are stuck in limbo. They are stuck at border crossings and refugee camps, often in countries bordering the violence they fled, but don't have any form of work permit. They have no way to restart their lives.
"I graduated from Columbia in human rights, social justice and conflict resolution, at the same time as the Syrian refugees were crossing into Lebanon, an already fragile state plagued with religious tensions and complexities. I realised this combination was catastrophic, because without economic opportunity, people turn to radicalisation and violence.
"Looking for a job, I knew I had to brush up on my Arabic, and then it hit me. I had always wanted to go to Damascus to study Arabic, but now all of these Syrians were in Lebanon. I realised I could hire them as my tutors and pay them informally. It would be win-win: I would get access to affordable, flexible language practice and they would get an income and dignity.
"When I first explain this to people, though, they assume it is the refugees being tutored, because we are so used to thinking of them as passive recipients. We are trying to flip that around.
"The rest of the world didn't wake up to the refugee crisis until Alan Kurdi, the little Syrian boy who drowned. Suddenly, our website went viral and we had 300 people signing up for Arabic classes.
"It is typically men fleeing because they have either been drafted to fight by Assad or by the militia. The regime keeps their passports, so when they flee, they have no way of proving who they are. They have been uprooted and have lost everything.
"We help a lot of middle-class refugees who aren't served by the NGOs.
These organisations have a mandate to look after the most vulnerable, so the middle class community is caught in limbo, trying to survive on their savings. The work we are doing is urgent. We 0cannot just ignore displaced people, but political leaders are using refugees as scapegoats.
"It is hard to wake up to that every morning, but I still have the refugees who told me I saved their life, or the students who told me they never thought they would meet a Syrian who liked Pink Floyd. Khadija is one of our language partners and she fled [from] Syria to Iraq, which tells you how bad the situation really is. She has been in the camp for three years, she has two kids and she has cancer, yet she is amazing. We recently did a lesson between her and nine-year-olds in New York and, at the end, the children wanted to donate to a refugee organisation.
"In another case, one of our tutors in Brazil broke his laptop, and a student mailed him a new one. I had no idea. He never told us. It's that sort of thing that matters. It's the non-tangible, the non-monetary, because ultimately it's human connection."
Mena finalist: Spica Tech by Reine Abbas
Reine Abbas, from Lebanon, started her company Spica Tech because of her son. "He knows I produce games and have my own gaming company, and he asked me to teach him and his class. So I spoke to his teacher and created a 14-hour course in game design. We had 25 four-year-olds creating their own video games. They learnt game design, coding, storytelling, implementation and how to test it," Abbas recalls.
"Later, one mother told the teacher her daughter could now explain how a washing machine works. Her daughter had understood the logic, the orders, the conditions and she was able to explain it all to her mother. When I heard this, I knew I had to do something bigger.
"Kids in the Mena region are the biggest digital consumers in the world; they are digital junkies, but they are consumers, not creators. As a game developer and university professor, I know the industry in this region is poor – we just Arabise existing games.
"This huge industry will be worth $100 billion (Dh367.25bn) in two years, creating thousands of jobs, but in this region, there is no education to help kids get into it as a career.
"Mixing my experience with my child's education, I founded Spica Tech. It is an academy for children and teenagers to learn how to make their own video games. I am not teaching them coding – everyone is teaching coding – instead, I am giving them professional know-how of highly complex production, using real industry software. In two years, we have taught more than 500 kids, and had more than 50 of their games published online, which is so empowering for them.
"We work with NGOs to also give an opportunity to refugee children, girls in particular. Only 15 per cent of this industry worldwide is female, so I really want to encourage them, because for many refugee girls, marriage is their only future. But I know that if we can give them the skills with coding and design, they will be able to do anything.
"We use the same software the industry uses, so I am creating real game developers, with real skills. I have created an online platform with a game engine to reach more kids, and have also designed a system for artists and developers to submit their courses. We have just signed a deal with the App Store and Google store, so our children can submit their games for free. Apple really believes in us, so Spica kids can publish their games without review.
"Our secret is project-based learning, and offering courses in three languages. Arabic, to teach refugee children and at Lebanese government schools; French, because there are more than a thousand French schools across the region; and English because it is the main language.
"The name Spica means two stars that exist in the solar system, but are seen as only one. This is exactly what Spica Tech is; it is art and science together. We are giving these children a lifelong gift, because too many kids in the Middle East have low self-esteem. We have had kids with dyslexia and ADHD who didn't notice they were coding, because we were using their passion for video games. The same for kids with cancer. We are helping to change lives.
"We help kids become resilient and creative because too often, the education system blocks and boxes children. Spica gives them confidence and instils entrepreneurship. I see how it opens their minds."
Mena winner: Maharat Learning Centre by Dr Hiba Shata
Dr Hibah Shata scooped the top honour for the Mena region at the Cartier Women's Initiative 2019 Awards. The Saudi Arabian national, who lives in the UAE, founded the Maharat Learning Centre after discovering that her youngest child had austim.
"My daughter Sarah was one-and-half years old when we discovered she was autistic. The doctors suggested a special needs school – but I had heard successful stories of parents being told their child would never have friends, would never learn, would never go to school, but who are now professors and founders of organisations. I wanted that for my daughter and for other children. I wanted to remove them from special needs centres and let them live a normal life, supported by peers and friends.
"Early intervention and applied behavioural analysis therapy were not available in the UAE, so I had two choices. Either immigrate to a new country, or do something myself.
"I started the first medical centre in 2008 for early intervention, with individualised programmes to help the kids go to mainstream school. By 2010, we had 10 students ready, but schools refused to take them. So I set up a child learning and medical enrichment centre as an alternative.
"To have an academic programme, I knew I had to engage the government, so we started the 'I want to go to school' campaign, which brought in the government for discussions on inclusion.
"We started focusing on what was needed to bring children to school, like assessments, working with behavioural problems, modifying the curriculum and communication skills. And for every autistic child a school accepts, we give the school free training.
"The beginning was not easy. There were so many barriers and every time we achieved a milestone, we still had to build a bridge to the next step. In Dubai, we now have 150 students, 70 per cent of whom are in mainstream schools. For those children who cannot access mainstream education, we have programmes in technology, and app or graphic design, so young adults can find jobs later. Now Dewa is hiring adults with autism, and we are in negotiations to train, coach and support them, so they can have a career.
"The problem with autism is that it is increasing; when we started 20 years ago, it was one in 1,000. Now it is one in 59. In 2015, the American government spent $265bn on treatment, with the majority going to adult services because these kids didn't have early intervention, they didn't go to school and they now need lifelong support.
"I have seen families give up on their children and that hurts me. I know these children can do much better if their parents engage with them, but some parents feel it is hopeless and just give up. My daughter spoke her first words when she was five, she first told me she loved me when she was eight, and first hugged and played with me when she was nine.
"I called her this morning and she said: 'Mummy, I really miss you,' and now I am starting to feel I have a daughter. It is hard to have a disconnection between you and your child, and even now, I will ask her something, and she will say: 'It's too hard to talk, I want to sleep.' It's hard for her to connect the words and make a sentence, but she is doing well, and I am very proud of her. She is now 13, is in grade 7, speaks Arabic and English, and is doing her Royal Academy exams in May.
"She still has challenges, but she inspires me, and I hope she inspires other families.
We want to connect with all the families to tell them, all they need is to know how to work with their kids."