6 Female-Led Businesses Addressing Societal Issues

In 2006, the famed French jeweller and watchmaker, Cartier, launched the annual Cartier Women's Initiative Awards in a bid to forward and champion female-led businesses that are making a mark in their local societal fabrics. 

For the decade past, the brand made open calls for business entries, formed a global jury to assess them, and awarded prize money alongside coaching for the shortlisted businesses. Till date, the initiative has brought together a network of 198 burgeoning businesses with "strong social impact", coached by a team of almost 400 jury members. For that, the brand describes its annual female entrepreneurship project as an "ecosystem".

The word "ecosystem" refers to the enterprises and jury members' interaction and business meetings. This year, the network assembled in Singapore, where the female entrepreneurs had workshops, courses, contact and feedback sessions about their business plans and products. 

From alleviating diabetes amongst the Indian population, refining hospitals' accident and emergency protocols, to opening doors to a digital realm for the blind and visually impaired community — here are six female-led businesses that won the 2018 instalment of the awards.

Twiage by Yiding Yu

"Every second counts," doctor Yiding Yu (pictured above) quips. It may be a phrase that the majority of us are familiar with. 

Yet, across the globe, hospitals' protocols may not be designed to save time. For instance, when an emergency patient arrives in the hospital, time is spent on paperwork. "When the patient arrives, I have to ask him, "What's your name? What's your date of birth? Give me your medical information. Do you have any allergies? I have to do an EKG." 

All these administrative work would and could have been done in the ambulance. However, the ambulances communicate with the hospitals via the radio — as it has been for the past century — and the sound waves are not secure. Patients' information cannot be divulged over this open network, so the administrative work has to be done all over again in the hospital. 

"I have to repeat all these information. Imagine if you are actually having a heart attack, we are wasting five, ten, fifteen minutes just to get you in the computer and get you registered in the hospital. That is the time we should be absolutely treating the heart attack and not dealing with that stuff," the 33-year-old continues.

This is a problem that is found in almost every city across the globe. "We don't have a good way of communicating from the ambulance to the hospitals. Most countries don't have any system for this." 

In 2013, Yu started developing a solution to this problem. Christened Twiage, the mobile application works on a smartphone "to send information from the ambulance to hospital. And we do it entirely securely — no patient data is ever saved on the phone, paramedics can't retrieve the information once they have sent it, everything is encrypted on the device and while going through the cloud." Patients' vitals and medical information aside, the paramedics can upload real-life photographs and videos of the patients. Doctors and the emergency unit can track the ambulance via GPS. "So doctors like me can have the full picture of every incoming patient."

Across the United States today, Twiage has been implemented in 53 hospitals. "We have helped over a hundred thousand patients receive faster care." According to a third-party time audit at three of these hospitals, "Twiage saved 14 minutes on average per patient." The 14 minutes that Twiage has saved on administrative work "makes a real difference especially if you're talking about heart attacks, strokes."

According to Yu, some of Twiage's strongest advocates are practising doctors themselves. As she continues to reach out to other hospitals, Yu hopes that this system will become "a standard of care not only in the United States but hopefully in other parts of the world."

Epistemic by Paula Gomez

"I'm addressing autonomy — autonomy of patients," mechanical engineer from Brazil, Paula Gomez (pictured above) quips. 

Gomez's mother was a physicist who embarked on a research on the electrical activities of the brain, otherwise known colloquially as EEG, and found a way to predict epileptic seizures. Gomez then took the research and translated it to a wearable device which constantly tracks a patient's EEG, ultimately warning patients and caregivers if a seizure were imminent. 

Gomez spent three to five years on clinical research before launching the device, Epistemic, in 2015. "We still have two years of clinical trials [to go]. We are going to launch the product in 2020."

Epileptic patients will be able to wear this discreet device behind their ear. The brain's activity will be reflected in a corresponding mobile application. A warning will pop up on their screens, 20 minutes prior to an imminent seizure. 

To Gomez, this is more than a portable and wearable medical device. What this offers, is a sense of independence and autonomy to the patients. From her research, Gomez realised that many patients stop doing simple things in life such as boiling water, climbing a flight of stairs, or even going to work — all out of fear that they may have an episode of seizure and hurt themselves. Some even have a caregiver by their side throughout the day to watch over them. 

"I value freedom very much. I have been in a wheelchair just for two weeks and I went crazy because I depended on other people. I can't imagine how hard it is to depend on people all the time," the 45-year-old continues. 

She is hoping that this device will be able to help epileptic patients find a normal life or go back to work. "Many people say they don't work nowadays because there is a high stigma around [epilepsy]. They can go back to it, and that's a financial impact." 

While the device is still in its development phases, Gomez envisions it to be a low cost, affordable and accessible device. And to her, self-monitoring devices might be the future of medical care. "The revolution is that everyone will have a device at home. They will be very low cost, and you can monitor your health." 


Infiuss by Melissa Bime

While in nursing school, Melissa Bime (pictured above) "realised that blood was one of the really big problems that patients in hospitals faced," she revealed in an interview with Cartier. "One particular experience that I had, I met this 5-year-old girl called Rita. She came into the hospital with severe anaemia after a bout of malaria." Rita and her mother were caught in a problem, for the hospital did not have a blood bank. "Rita's mum had to run around looking for blood and unfortunately two days later, Rita died."

The lack of a network and directory was the problem. And to Bime, "her life could have very easily been saved." 

In 2016, Bime started Infiuss — a digital directory which linked 12 hospitals in Yaounde, the capital of the Republic of Cameroon, to blood banks. This way, medical professionals could locate and acquire the necessary blood for patients. 

Bime is looking to connect with the other 908 hospitals in the country. "I want to see a Cameroon where lives such as Rita's are not cut short because of problems such as the unavailability of blood that runs in everybody's veins."

Blitab by Kristina Tsvetanova

"I still remember when I was in my last year of university when a colleague of mine asked me, at that time, to sign him up for an online course," Bulgaria-born, Vienna-based engineer Kristina Tsvetanova (pictured above) recalls. "I realised that all the devices that we have nowadays — all the touch screens, mobile phones — everything is not fully accessible for people with sight loss." 

If the visually impaired wants to plug into the digital realm and all of its offerings, they had to first acquire a Braille device which translates five to six words at any time. And these devices easily fetch a couple of thousand US dollars. 

She stepped into the world of this friend from university and studied the restricted ways they engaged with the digital realm. "There are more than 285 million blind and visually impaired people," Tsvetanova observes. "It's a very good opportunity to spread impact."

A year after that exchange with her blind colleague, Tsvetanova started developing Blitab, "an affordable device that could support essential activities like Braille reading and writing". While the Blitab is still in its development phase, she has invited Braille users from different countries to test the tablet. It allows users to read and listen to digital content, and even engage with graphical information such as Google Maps. "It really opens a new world for people who would like to see more, explore more," she quips.

The Blitab has a touchscreen, which responds to touch with a voiceover. Above the touchscreen is a tactile screen where little dots surface to form sentences in Braille. This way, "the person of sight can see what the Braille user is reading in Braille. This is the way how they can interact." To Tsvetanova, "it's a unit that unites us somehow or connects both the world of sight and blindness... And there will be no limits anymore."

Arboreal Agro Innovations by Swati Pandey

In 2015, Delhi-based mechanical engineer, Swati Pandey left her full-time job to focus on her own enterprise, Arboreal Agro Innovations.

The company produces a plant named Stevia — its leaves when processed, yields a white powder which can be consumed as a sugar substitute. By that, it means that the complex molecular structure of stevia is not metabolised by the body. While stevia tastes sweet in the mouth, it does not have an effect on the blood glucose levels — making this sweetener suitable for diabetics and pre-diabetics.

The product may be sound straightforward for the consumer. Yet, Pandey's business has more than meets the eye. There are three societal issues that the business addresses, namely diabetes in India, the food and beverage industry's heavy use of sugar, and the economic status of the Indian farming community.

"So many people are getting diabetes. India is home to the largest diabetic population in the world. They are the largest consumers of sugar in the world," she observes. Pandey's mother struggled with diabetes for two decades, which was what drove her to try to alleviate this situation. 

The consumption of sugar is then, directly linked to the food and beverage industry's excessive use of sugar in foods. "It's not that there is no willingness to make and manufacture good tasting and healthy products. It's that they do not have good suppliers that can supply them on large scale." Pandey hopes that the Stevia sweetener that she provides will serve as a healthier alternative to these consumers. 

The stevia plants are currently produced by 15 trained farmers, located in Northern India. "If you follow the news, you would often hear about farmer suicides, which is really unfortunate." These farmers' income are dependent on the cash crops' volatile prices. They seldom venture out to new, stable crops, for they do not know how and whom to sell too. In the year ahead, Pandey hopes to reach out to 60 farmers, and 5,000 farmers in the next five years, "and help them improve their economic status". 

Kamkalima by Siroun Shamigian

"Teacher empowerment," is how 45-year-old Lebanese, Siroun Shamigian describes her online Arabic educational tool, Kamkalima

In 2012, Shamigian was "training teachers to use technology in the classroom" when she realised there was a lack of web-based educational tools for teachers teaching, and students learning Arabic. The official language of Lebanon is Arabic. 

Instead of using technology to help them in their lesson plans and delivery, Arabic teachers were using "books, games they made. You know, an average Arabic teacher works five hours more than other teachers.... and there was this growing frustration between them and myself." 

To Shamigian, tools can help teachers teach better. "Teaching is not just in the classroom. There is a lot going on before, and so much going on after. How tools can help — they can help in preparation, differentiation because we all know that no classroom has the same level of students, so it's our job as teachers to differentiate and cater to all the needs. And it's very difficult. Without technology, it becomes almost impossible to differentiate within the classroom, when you're a single person catering for 15 or 20 [students]." An online-based tool can help the teacher deliver the lesson plan, engage with students, and monitor the students' progress. 

Shamigian's online platform, Kamkalima, bridges this need. "Kamkalima is a software that improves teaching and learning for the Arabic classroom, from grades 4 to 12. We have accounts for teachers, students, and admins of the school." On Kamkalima, teachers have access to ready-made lesson plans, and tools to assess and send feedback to the students. 

To her, there is a broader issue that Kamkalima addresses — the digital gap. "The teachers are coming from a different generation, which is not the tech generation. Currently, we are living in a time where the students are much more tech-savvy than the teachers. So it makes some teachers uncomfortable." Shamigian continues, "We are improving the technology skills of teachers."

Videography by Tung Pham
Photographs by Cartier