Monte Carlo might be renowned for its extravagant displays of wealth, but the city is not solely about jet-setters, high-rollers and supercar drivers. For one long weekend every year, an entire quartier (district) of Monaco is transformed into an entrepreneurial hub as a global delegation of candidates, speakers, coaches, judges and journalists descend for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards ceremony.
Streets and hotels were awash with banners announcing the event from June 5 to 9, with “Welcome, mould-breakers” hanging from rooftops, alluding to this year’s theme: How do mould-breakers fuel the engine of growth? Now in its 19th year, the awards have honoured some truly spectacular individuals, from busker-to-billionaire Guy Laliberté, who founded Cirque du Soleil, to Turkish-born Hamdi Ulukaya who credits the success of his US-based Chobani Inc to good corporate culture and who donates 10% of its profits annually through the company’s Shepherd’s Gift Foundation.
Such success stories are sure to set the benchmark for future candidates, and this year saw 57 winners from 47 countries and territories vie for the global title. In the opulent Opera Garnier, adjacent to the Casino de Monte-Carlo, a welcome reception was held. Dr Liu Jiren, chairman and CEO of Neusoft Corporation, won the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Alumni Special Award for Societal Impact and, later, the 57 country winners were introduced.
Among others, the winners include Daiso founder Hirotake Yano, the franchise owner with 5,300 stores worldwide; Ubisoft co-founder and CEO Yves Guillemot, best known for video games such as Assassin’s Creed; and Dectris AG CEO Dr Christian Bornnimann, whose development and supply of scientific X-ray detectors was crucial to the study and production of vaccine for the Zika virus.
From software to hardware, the tech industry was well-represented. While the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year celebrates past and present achievements, it also acts as a reference to industry trends. Big data and disruption were featured heavily in businesses ranging from salmon-farming to intellectual property, citing operations by Per Grieg Jr (Norway) of Grieg Seafood ASA, the seventh-largest fish-farming company in the world; Sabah-born Jeffrey Tiong (Singapore) of innovation intelligence, patent search and IP analytics software platform PatSnap; and game developer Pixel Federation founder Šimon Šicko (Slovak Republic).
“The world is facing three big issues today: health, education and shelter,” said Rubens Menin, chairman of MRV Engenharia and the 2018 EY World Entrepreneur of the Year. All three sectors were equally present, from Turkish healthcare empire Acibadem Healthcare Group’s Mehmet Ali Aydinlar to Serbian publisher Laguna Ltd founder Dejan Papić, and New Zealand’s Nick Mowbray, the mind behind Zuru Tech — a disruptive architectural software that builds houses at a tenth of today’s costs.
And beyond things tangible is the pleasure of intuitive service. Malaysia was represented by Plaza Premium Group founder Song Hoi-see, creator of the world’s first independent airport lounge — travellers pay to access its facilities, regardless of which airline or flight class. The group now caters to 14 million passengers annually at 160 locations in 44 international airports across 21 countries, and has expanded to include complementary businesses, such as airport transit accommodation, VIP meet-and-greet services and airport dining outlets. Song was accompanied by his wife and two children, all of whom are part of the family business.
Of time and place
The Song family did not spend their weekend sightseeing while the patriarch sat through coaching sessions, the final judging and media interviews. EY had planned a detailed itinerary, with significant resources devoted to its NextGen programme for the next generation of family business leaders. Over the awards weekend, the NextGen cohort enjoyed exclusive opportunities for networking and professional development, including a closed-door breakfast at the lavish Princess Grace Suite in the Hotel de Paris.
In fact, the suite — spread across two floors with a private pool, a wine cellar, three lounges and harbour view — is a new addition to the property, following a four-year, US$234 million renovation. Hotel de Paris is touted as one of the worlds’ most luxurious hotels. Its restored Belle Époque façade, like something out of a fairy tale, is matched by breathtaking murals in the gilded Salle Empire dining room and a new courtyard where guests can bask in the Mediterranean sun in style. It is easy to see why both royalty and Hollywood elite have marked this — and the nearby Hotel Hermitage — among their preferred destinations.
The latter is just as noteworthy, with the additional prestige of having its lobby, a former winter garden adorned with ironwork and a stunning cupola, designed by Gustave Eiffel. While recent years have seen the awards weekend take place in Fairmont Hotel, this year’s edition covered The Hotel de Paris, Hotel Hermitage and the One Monte Carlo luxury district nestled between the former two. Attendees had the opportunity to stretch their legs as they journeyed along the three venues and drink in the sights: colourful residences on steep hillsides, superyachts docked at the harbours and glints of the surrounding Mediterranean Sea.
These little pockets of peace permitted by the views tempered what was otherwise a stimulating itinerary. The World Entrepreneur of the Year programme is an invaluable opportunity not just to rub shoulders with some of the canniest minds of today, but also to pick their brains.
The keynote speakers were Lord Karan Bilimoria, co-founder of Cobra Beer; supermodel and philanthropist Natalia Vodianova; Anthony Pritzker, chairman and CEO of Pritzker Private Capital; and extreme sports athlete Stéphanie Gicquel, whose awe-inspiring polar adventures include running a marathon in –30°C at the geographic North Pole and completing a 74-day, 2,000km expedition across Antarctica.
Breakout sessions, too, disclosed consummate expertise. In a panel discussion on navigating geopolitical uncertainty, for instance, speaker Kevin Kajiwara, co-president of Teneo Intelligence, which advises Fortune 100 CEOs and institutional investors on geopolitical and policy risks, answered questions spanning macro- issues from Latin America to Africa without missing a beat, earning himself numerous handshakes and photo requests.
While some sessions — such as “Building trust through the board” and “Funding the future of your business”, among others — were open to any of the event’s registered guests, others (Future cities and mobility) were by invitation only. Topics were interesting and discussions often carried on during informal lunches or networking breaks, in between the ubiquitous exchange of name cards. Dinners were altogether a jolly affairs as drinks flowed freely and everyone had the chance to loosen up and let their hair down.
The grand finale
In fact, the only time guests had their hair up was at the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year Award gala on June 9, when flawless chignons connoted the prestige of the dinner, as did the sequined gowns and tuxedo jackets. The Salle des Étoiles is a legendary venue for society events and concerts, with its retractable roof and view that overlooks the French Riviera. The three-course dinner and entertainment by American music group Sister Sledge was delightful but the 57 country winners might not have paid much attention to these as the hour of the winner’s announcement drew close.
A panel of six judges, including Nixon Energy Investments CEO Jim Nixon and Alexander Mann Solutions CEO Rosaleen Blair CBE, evaluated candidates on entrepreneurial spirit, value creation, strategic direction, national and global impact, innovation and personal integrity or purpose-driven leadership. The trend in recent years has been to especially examine contributions to the community within these criteria; after all, anyone can make money, but what and how do they give back to the community?
The winners each received a trophy for their national achievements in between courses, and as dessert was cleared, the roof was retracted and the late evening summer sky was revealed. A fireworks display began on the sea and many rushed to the balcony to admire the showers of brilliantly configured colours.
EY global chairman and CEO Mark Weinberger leveraged on that high as he invited guests back to their seats for the highly anticipated announcement. A drumroll, the opening of an envelope, and US country winner Brad Keywell was accorded this great glory. Keywell is a serial entrepreneur and ardent philanthropist who co-founded seven companies, including Groupon, five of which have achieved unicorn status with valuations of over US$1 billion.
In 2015, he and his wife Kim signed The Giving Pledge to dedicate a majority of their considerable wealth to charity. He is the chairman of the Future Founders non-profit that encourages youths to take up entrepreneurship, and founded and chaired Chicago Ideas, one of the largest innovation and ideas gatherings in the world.
Keywell’s acceptance speech detailed how the drive to do business is just as compelling to the entrepreneur as an artist’s call to create. He quoted Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena, saying, “Heroes are those who choose to stay in the arena when it gets tough. All [gathered] here have made a choice that might not be viewed as heroic by friends or acquaintances, but I do, because I view the act of creation, and persistence and hard work, as heroic.”
As inspirational as it was aspirational, with stories of creative brainwaves and dogged bootstrapping, the weekend was an insightful peek into how the other half got to where they are, with Monte Carlo as a fitting setting. Access to this playground for the rich and famous is not just for those born into wealth and prominence. Some climb their own way there and they are rightly celebrated for it.
This article first appeared on June 17, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.