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Invest In Her

Sustainable businesses led by women around the world today. 

Nearly one in three entrepreneurs running established businesses globally now are women, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM). But more women are starting businesses, with 0.8 women for every one man starting a company. 

According to Aileen Ionescu-Somers, executive director of GEM, although the trend of female entrepreneurship is on the rise, there is still a way to go. “Women entrepreneurs play an important role in driving economic growth and advancing social development,” she says. “However, women still face inequality in the home, carrying a heavier burden of family responsibilities, which contributes to increased economic dependence and decreased interpersonal power and privilege.” 

Interestingly, the report showed women are more likely to set up socially responsible firms. About half of women entrepreneurs reported taking steps to maximise the social impact of their businesses and about four-fifths had taken steps to minimise the environmental impact of their business over the past year. 

We look at some stand out female-led businesses around the world today.   

Eve Ivara, co-founder, Cap Karoso 

Eve Ivara, a globetrotting French adventurer, is the creative force behind Cap Karoso Sumba, in Indonesia, hailed as one of most-sought-after resorts in South-east Asia. Before embarking on this remote hospitality project in 2017, Ivara worked for renowned luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Dom Pérignon, Moët & Chandon, and Tag Heuer, creating amazing customer experiences. But after travelling to Sumba on a round-the-world-trip in 2016 with her husband Fabrice, they fell in love with the island and bought a plot of land in 2017. Since then, they’ve created a chic resort that runs on solar energy with an organic farm, with a handful of beach villas. Today, Ivara divides her life between her home in Paris and Indonesia. 

Did being female help or hinder this project? 
Cap Karoso and all the challenges that came with it taught me to rely on the strengths I have, particularly those as a woman: my intuition, empathy, and ability to gently guide people around me in the right direction. Especially when dealing with local tribes in Sumba, I feel that being a woman is a kind of superpower as they can relate to me much more than to a foreign man. But things have changed a lot. I remember navigating the corporate environment in my late 20s and early 30s and sometimes struggling to be heard or taken seriously. 

How do you look at hotel design as an ecosystem? 
I believe that all things are profoundly related. Design loses its meaning when detached from locality, and local produce truly matters when it adds joy to the dining experience. A hotel that celebrates the beauty of an untouched island lacks purpose without commitment to protect the environment. When you see the interdependence of all these aspects and you convey it with the team, crafting a unified, meaningful whole comes effortlessly. Cap Karoso is in a place where time stands still, the way of life in the villages around us hasn’t evolved much in the past thousand years. So, if we want to keep the edge of our cultural and lifestyle experiences, we need to infuse innovation through inviting visiting talent. We do it through residency programmes for artists, visiting chefs, DJs, wellness practitioners and permaculture experts. Each person builds its own connection to Sumba and weaves their knowledge and creativity into the project. 

How important is sustainability in the hotel? 
At Cap Karoso, we defined several key directions from the start: treating waste waters, reducing energy consumption and producing our own solar energy, banning plastic, creating our own farm to reduce our carbon footprint related to the transport of supplies, and, of course, supporting local communities. Sustainability can’t be done overnight, and it demands attention to constantly improve. 

Marijke Varrall-Jones, founder of Maak 

A veteran of both Sotheby’s and Bonhams, Marijke has worked in the fine art auction industry for twenty years. Marijke focused her specialty on Studio Ceramics from 2004, when she joined the Contemporary Ceramics department at Bonhams in London. When the department closed during the financial crisis, she decided to set up on her own, launching a new auction house dedicated to ceramics called Maak.    

How was it launching on your own as a woman? 
At the time it was a combination of 28-year-old enthusiasm and naiveté, but I always knew there was appetite out there, and if anyone could do it, it was me.  I felt I had nothing to lose by taking that niche market and focus on creating a boutique auction house. For the first few years I worked alone, and now we’re a team of five women. I’ve always been an advocate for women to have part-time roles if they need to, so three of our team-work part time.  

How has the market for studio ceramics evolved? 
Back in 2008 it almost felt a bit nerdy, now there is so much interest in from different cross-sections such as design, fashion, contemporary art, as well as traditional collectors. Now ceramics stands on a par with other art forms and is being taken more seriously in academic circles.   

What is it that draws people to ceramics? 
There is really something quite human about ceramics, it links society’s oldest art form, going back to prehistoric times. It’s made from earth, made by hand, you can almost feel the impression of the maker’s hand on it. Especially during Covid, during a time when people couldn’t see or touch each other, ceramics really resonated with people. They weren’t spending money going out or to the theatre, this was something they could gain comfort from and enhance their home with. But almost all those new collectors who found us in the pandemic are still collectors now. 

Are ceramics a sustainable art form? 

Studio pottery is by its very nature defined by the craftsmanship of the individual, that values the creativity of small-scale artisan production over mass-produced, disposable goods and so is an exercise in sustainable consumption from the outset. Beyond that there is something beautifully cyclical about collecting any kind of art form. Our sellers will often have spent a lifetime bringing a collection together and each object will carry a lifetime of memories but eventually there is a realisation that the time has come to release them and allow other collectors to find their own joy in living with these beautiful works. Collecting is the privilege of being a temporary custodian of something that inspires us but it is only brief in the lifetime of the object itself. 

Hibah Albakree, co-founder of Designlab 

Saudi-born architect Hibah Albakree is co-founder and co-owner of Designlab Experience, a Dubai-based company she launched in 2006. Today with offices in Dubai, Lebanon and Riyadh, the company creates extravagant immersive events with temporary architecture, from royal weddings to glittering parties with hundreds of people. 

How is it as a woman running a business in Saudi today? 
It’s unbelievable. It feels like women have taken over. You walk into any big meeting now and it’s all women, all my dealings are with women in senior leadership. I think because we grew up unempowered, today we are the toughest cookies you can find. You can travel, you can live alone, you can drive, you can get married and get divorced as you wish. Everything that was prohibited five to six years ago is completely gone. 

How else has Saudi changed in your lifetime? 
Saudi has changed a lot in the last few years, it’s exciting. There has been a lot of spending on accelerating our health sector, education, entertainment, Unesco heritage tourism, the service sector, digitalisation, every single industry has been overhauled and improved, and it feels like it happened overnight. It’s a way for Saudi to diversify away from traditional oil and gas, and now there’s so much more to it. What I love about the projects we’re doing in Saudi Arabia today, is that they’re big on holding onto our cultural identity, with a huge budget behind the activations. It must tell a story about the country and the origins. It’s refreshing because no one else is really doing it. 

How do you work sustainability into your business, when often you need to rebuild something then dismantle it? 
What we are seeing increasingly is that although our architecture begins as temporary, increasingly it becomes permanent after we install it, almost like we’ve created a draft. This was the case with the work we did for the event Riyadh Season. Last year, we collaborated with Paris-based Recycle Group, who are amazing in their craft of jaw-dropping aesthetics from recycled materials. Another example is our work for Diriyah Nights, the two-month event at the birthplace of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the outskirts of Riyadh. Our team locally sourced materials such as wood, metal, glass, and sand and used earth tones reminiscent of the traditional mud architecture of Najdi, a nearby Unesco-protected site. Layali Diriyah is integrated into the landscape using a mapping system to preserve the trees and platforms to protect the irrigation system. We created a modular system of small elements that we could build with the supervision of a topographer and an engineer on site. This meticulous process allowed us to maximise the use of the space while having minimal impact on the farm.  

Jeanne Signoles, co-founder, L/Uniform 

Jeanne Signoles never planned to become a luxury bag designer. After a first career in aeronautics and space studies, she co-founded accessories brand L/Uniform. Her aim: to design long-lasting, elegant, utilitarian bags using cotton canvas rather than leather, a quiet reinvention of luxury codes. All are handmade from start to finish in the brand’s workshops in Carcassonne, France and Portugal. Manufacturing is the family business: Signole’s father-in-law is Jean-Michel Signoles, the owner of Goyard. 

How did you come to set up L/Uniform? 
Being an entrepreneur was never part of my plan. My original intention was not to create a company with the aim of selling it on, but to keep it. The development I chose for L/Uniform is a step-by-step development, completely self-financed.  

Have things changed over the past decade for female entrepreneurs? 
Being a woman in this field is not easy, but no more so than elsewhere. I protect myself from misogynistic attitudes. I ignore them, I don't listen, they do not affect me. Since I started the company in 2002 the scene has changed in the sense that there are a lot more women around me. I am no longer the only one. The people I talk to directly are women at the highest level. In my team of 30 there are only four men.  

How do you take sustainability into account? 
Sustainable development is one of the cornerstones of L/Uniform and we pay attention to the origin of the materials we use; that is countries bordering France. We prefer woven fabric to leather, prefer French linen, have our own workshop and manage our own stocks. I worked to develop exclusive materials that respect the environment, reduce the use of plastics as much as possible, work with local suppliers, limit packaging, avoid, or at least drastically reduce, polluting treatments by using a coating that is necessary for everyday use, but using a natural fabric that will develop a nice patina, following precise specifications such as quality control of materials and finished products. 

What is the most important thing about running a brand? 
Keep a dual vision: in other words, create but also to know how to put yourself in the consumer’s shoes, so as not to disconnect the brand from reality. 

Mélanie Huynh, founder of Holidermie 

Mélanie Huynh grew up in a multicultural environment with a French mother and a Chinese father. She began her career at Vogue France, where she worked as a beauty and fashion editor for 10 years and pursued a career as a stylist with international fashion titles. Co-founder of the Aera Nova group with her sister Amélie Huynh, she develops brands with flair. Holidermie is one of them, an Inside & Out beauty brand that was created in 2019 around nutrition, well-being and selfcare. 

How have things changed for female founders? 
In the past decade, there has been a significant shift in the beauty industry towards inclusivity, diversity and empowerment. Women founders have been at the forefront of this movement, creating brands that celebrate individuality and challenge traditional beauty standards.  

How is Holidermie sustainable? 
We’re incorporating sustainable practices into every aspect of the business, from sourcing ingredients to packaging and distribution. This might involve using renewable or organic ingredients, reducing waste through recycling and upcycling, minimising carbon footprint in production and transportation, and supporting ethical labour practices. We’re also formulating products with ingredients that are not only safe for the skin but also offer additional health and nutritional benefits. As environmental and social awareness grows, consumers are demanding more sustainable and ethical products, and brands that fail to prioritise sustainability risk falling behind.  

What are the next steps you are looking forward to?  
I would like to achieve higher sustainability standards through continuous efforts; explore new markets and territories to expand; create innovative formulations that are not only effective but also environmentally friendly and socially responsible; and deepen connections with customers through community initiatives such as educational workshops, collaborative product development and meaningful partnerships.  

Tara Medina, co-founder of Musa  

Tara Medina is the co-founder of Musa, a new beachfront destination spanning 165 acres of jungle, nestled between the cascading mountains of the Sierra Madre and Mexico’s glittering Pacific Ocean. Medina has been developing real-estate and lifestyle projects in Mexico since 2010. She has knowledge of every phase of real estate development, from land acquisition, contracting, project management, and custom builds, to the oversight of extensive teams across architecture, design, infrastructure development, property management, hospitality administration and operations Canadian native and coming from a high-performance rowing background, she refers to the importance of continuously “gut-checking what is and isn’t working”.   

Do you feel empowered as a female entrepreneur? 
The answers is yes, things have changed tremendously, and I am feeling empowered more than ever. What we are doing at Musa is fundamentally rooted in building community, so, daily, the main ingredients that I am working with are people, with totally different wants and needs. My leadership style has evolved and moved towards a more feminine approach. This has brought a steadiness and confidence to how I approach problems.   

How is Musa sustainable? 
We’ve looked to nature to inspire futuristic design with an eco-conscious paradigm that demonstrates a positive impact on our town and the environment. Solar power and innovative waste management systems, combined with a plastic-free ethos is geared towards regeneration. Thoughtful approaches to water capture, compost, plus development of natural bio pools and edible gardens will meld modern and functional design. The remote nature of our property really challenges us to think outside the box and use what we have available. We created the hotel concept as a microcosm of the larger community we are building.      

What are the next steps you are looking forward to? 
I am excited to see how community organically evolves within the framework we have created. I want to be flexible in our understanding and adaptable when needed. We are in an experimentation phase so constantly checking against what is and isn’t working will be key in helping our experience improve.  

Louise Lagendijk, founder, The Core We Care 

After training as a doctor, Netherlands-born Louise Lagendijk realised the inadequacies of the Western system. While Western medicine focuses on disease and the science of pharma, it fails to consider psychology, nutrition and emotional wellbeing. 

She channelled her experience into founding The Core Women Care, an initiative that aims at educating and inspiring women on health and wellbeing. 

What elements are missing from Western medicine? 
I realised during my medical training that I was taught to ask for symptoms, diagnose and treat with pills or surgery. I learned about disease, had subjects called pharmacology, which is the science of pharma, and learned how to adequately prescribe pills mostly. I saw many women who had ‘somatically unexplained symptoms’: symptoms that could not be explained by any physical disease. Women kept having pain, were feeling exhausted, down and unable to function but Western medicine could not explain this. So, what was going on with them? I started wondering what health was. Is it the mere absence of disease, or more? This started my quest.  

Do you have any experience of the benefits of complementary medicines? 
I’ve seen great results with vitamins and minerals for people who had shortages. This is something we don’t look at in Western medicine, because it’s considered preventative medicine. Women were exhausted and could find no cause until they realised they were depleted in vitamin B12. Or women who would come to me with mental-health issues and it turned out to be certain food intolerances combined with a leaky gut. 

Do you see our healthcare moving towards integrative medicine?  
Absolutely. Integrative medicine is already part of the medical studies at some Ivy League universities in the US. Plus, people are self-educating and self-healing. This means the demand for a broader approach is going to come from patients themselves; doctors can’t deny the need for educating themselves in evidence-based complementary therapies to advise and monitor patients safely in their quest for optimal health and healing. Prevention is the future of healthcare.   

Jane Park, founder, Tokki 

Jane Park is a consumer tech entrepreneur with proven experience founding and scaling companies. Prior to founding Tokki in 2019 (a reusable, sustainably crafted gift bag/QR code duo that allows the gifter to add photos or video for a personalized virtual card experience), Park founded the online-first beauty brand, Julep in 2007 which she exited to a beauty roll-up alongside two other cosmetic brands in a deal worth US$120 million funded by Warburg Pincus. While growing Julep, Park raised more than US$50 million for the cosmetic company from high-profile investors, including Andreessen Horowitz, Madrona Venture Group and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation.  

Do you feel as a woman it’s more difficult to get ahead in business and get investors on-board? 

It's so frustrating that structural impediments basically have not changed over the last two decades. When only 2 percent of venture capital goes to women-run startups - that basically rounds to zero. So, yes, being a woman entrepreneur definitely comes with its own set of challenges and setbacks. It's mathematically 25 times harder for us to get the financing we need to succeed. When you look at all the successful male-run companies out there - Amazon, Tesla, Warby Parker - a common denominator is accessing the significant capital that enables the entrepreneur to pivot and find their way to success. Amazon wasn't profitable for decades - we still don't know if the e-commerce business is profitable. And investors love the stock! The same leeway has never been given to a woman entrepreneur. I go in knowing it's 25 times harder for us, but we have to start somewhere in order to make a difference in the long run. 

Is the entrepreneur streak something you’re born? 

My parents were immigrants, and when I was growing up, they owned a 7-Eleven store in Toronto. They both would work seven days a week for 11 hours each day. My dad later opened a frame shop just so he could have one day off a week. Throughout my childhood, I watched my parents work night and day to support our family. There is nothing that I will ever do that is as hard as what my parents have done - moving to a new country and starting a business. So, I got my work ethic from my parents, and I also got to see first-hand that life has no rules.   

Claire & Valia Gontard, Somewhere Resort, Lombok

Claire and Valia Gontard are a duo with a unique background - half French and half Chinese, both of them grew up in Hong Kong. Their passion for exploring the world was ignited from a young age, when they traveled around Asia and Europe with their family, connecting with their grandfather’s Chinese-Indonesian roots. Lombok was always on the itinerary and a place they deeply resonated with.

Claire studied in Canada and worked in Japan, London, and Hong Kong before eventually settling down in Lombok. Valia studied in the UK, worked in Japan then embarked on an adventure to Central America, Indonesia, and Australia before starting their first hospitality project. Before they had also managed the family restaurant inside the small boutique hotel owned by their parents in Niseko, Japan, where we both worked together managing a restaurant. With much commitment, Somewhere Lombok officially opened its doors in December 2022.

How is it as women running a hospitality project from the ground up?

Building Somewhere Lombok from the ground up definitely came with its own challenges, and to be completely honest there were times where we felt as if we were not taken seriously: as two women in our twenties on a Muslim island where unfortunately, women currently don’t have the right to work or own land without their husband’s approval. While it has been tough to constantly feel the need to prove ourselves, it has also been rewarding to challenge those norms and contribute to a more diverse and inclusive landscape. 
How important is sustainability for the future of your hotel, career, profession?

Sustainability is not just a buzzword for us; it is ingrained in the core values of our brand. It is not only vital for the longevity and success of our business but also contributes to the well-being of the environment and community. Operating in a location where there is still a lack of resources and most importantly a lack of education on the subject comes with its challenges. This is why it is important for us to set certain standards and hopefully inspire others to follow suit.

The space has been designed in a way that would allow us to install more solar panels and add a larger waste management facility, which are the next priority. Overall, we are excited about further enhancing our sustainability initiatives, exploring new ways to support the local community, and continuing to evolve our offerings to meet the changing needs and desires of our guests.

This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Power of Women Issue. To subscribe or buy copies, click here.