That was my reaction during the Cartier Women's Initiative Awards, an international business plan competition held in Deauville, France, in October. Since its inception five years ago, the Award has provided support, visibility and coaching to 76 women business-owners around the globe. I've been a judge for the last four years, and I can honestly say it's one of the most inspirational events I’ve attended. So much brainpower and dedication! So much hard work! And so rewarding on so many levels.
Even better: You, too, can apply for the 2012 competition.
This year’s winners for North America, Benita Singh and Summer Rayne Oakes, are the owners and founders of Source4Style, an online marketplace that connects designers to sustainable material suppliers. The two women, who are based in New York, met in 2004, not long after graduating college (Yale and Cornell, respectively). They were both on entrepreneurial paths—Singh was the co-founder of Mercado Global, a non-profit organization that empowers indigenous women in Guatemala, and Oakes had started a sustainability consulting firm helping brands develop green products and services. But they soon realized that designers truly didn’t know how to create more sustainable lines, and that there was a missing need. Enter Source4Style, which they launched in beta in 2010 (the 2.0 version is pending).
“When we opened up our public beta site in October of 2010, it was to really learn how sourcing takes place online, to look at the challenges that designers and suppliers may have,” explained Singh, 28. “We wanted to take that learning and come up with a better model and concept tools that weren’t out there.”
Part of what they discovered during their market research phase was that designers were spending up to 85 percent of their time sourcing materials, rather than designing. Suppliers, in turn, were devoting 43 percent of their marketing budgets on trade shows. “We found that designers really want to source at a place that speaks to them. So we’re not only curating material, but also adding a point of view and a place where designers can come to learn something and add it to their collection.”
Last year, the two women applied to the Cartier competition, and they were the winners for the North America region. That earned them a trip to Paris for two days of coaching, as well as the chance to move on to the final competition in Deauville, where they would compete against the winners from each of the six regions around the world.
“It really was months of preparation, and we’re all the better for it,” recalls Singh. First prize came with a year of coaching and a $20,000 cash grant.
So I wondered: What were the most important business growth experiences they picked up during the competition? And what can other female entrepreneurs learn from them?
“One of the things we learned when we presented our business is that we were onto something quite huge, and that we should think bigger,” said Oakes, 27. “Benita and I both knew that we were onto something but to hear it from outside people was incredibly important for us. It forced us to come back and say that we were onto something pretty amazing and allow us to grow in that direction.”
Singh cites the networking opportunities as equally important. “So often in the startup world you’re told you have to meet this person and that person—and usually it’s the same person managing the same pool of money,” she observed. “Just to open our doors to a whole new group of amazing women who we may very well not have met without Cartier was amazing. We had the opportunity to meet them all in very few days and really get their affirmation and backing and offer of continued support.”
Another thing they stressed was the importance of applying to competitions like Cartier, simply for the experience gained during the application process. “Even if you don’t make it to the next level or win, it will be pivotal in really thinking about your business,” said Sing. “One of the great purposes of competitions like this is to really put the entrepreneur through the rigors of thinking critically about
She’s not kidding: Each participant had to submit everything from executive summaries and marketing plans to financials. “I think every woman who has an idea should definitely take advantage of competitions like this, just to test themselves.”
Above all else: The education never stops. “Now that we’ve won, we continue on with coaching, so it’s really good for us,” noted Singh. “There’s a great force behind Cartier. It’s a great name and we’re still learning.”