Pride in Cartier’s history has never been about the biggest jewel. The prestige lies in how founder Louis-François Cartier, by the age of 40, rose from poverty to open his own jewellery shop in Paris amid economic doldrums and a coup d’état, paving the way for his grandsons to transform the maison into an international luxury stalwart with a clientele as glittering as its gem-crusted wares.
Inheriting a storied legacy can only take a business so far because leading it depends on what you do, not so much who you are. The Cartier family, each scion with different working dynamics and desires to strengthen the tribe, makes a compelling case study. Louis, the eldest, sought inspiration from architecture and decorative wreaths of the Versailles court instead of getting swept up by the rising avant-garde art movement pervading Paris. Second heir Pierre, with an innate grasp of markets and innovation, traded a pearl necklace for the town house on Fifth Avenue that remains the company’s American headquarters today. The youngest, Jacques, abandoned his hopes of becoming a Catholic priest to expand the firm’s reach in India and the Persian Gulf.
Beyond feeling the responsibility for the stewardship of their company, the trio broadened its definition of business, catering to maharajahs, movie stars and, in sheer zaniness, aviation maverick Alberto Santos-Dumont, a friend of Louis’ who inspired the brand’s first pilot wristwatch. And the unifying factor that contributed to the brothers’ success at the time? Youth, and a keen eagerness to keep their hands full without forgetting to try and run the world too.
The discretion and personal touch that helped the jeweller’s dynasty endure three generations was dismantled by the fourth in the 1970s. Yet, despite the company’s change of hands, leadership — ever since fashion designer Jeanne Toussaint succeeded Louis and became the industry’s first female creative director in the 1930s — has always been an integral part of Cartier’s vision to break barriers and drive solutions to worldwide challenges. Nearly 176 years later, it is still helping others do the same.
Diamond in the rough
Red Club x Cartier was established in 2019 to provide a global community of entrepreneurs aged 20 to 40 with networking opportunities and a platform to launch initiatives that will improve the livelihoods of others through knowledge sharing. Initially launched in Paris, Milan and London, the club was extended to Moscow and Tokyo in 2021 and Sydney, Barcelona, Singapore, Dubai, Taipei as well as North America in 2022. In a span of four years, it has launched a total of 11 chapters in these cities, bringing together a dedicated pool of entrepreneurs from a wide range of industries.
But not all CEOs begin as founts of wisdom. Start-up ideas germinate in office daydreams before blossoming into something that merits pursuing, and there will be days when the future looks like a long, dreary corridor of locked doors. With the right mentors, however, the agonising Silicon Valley mantra of “fail fast, fail often”, which impels one to push through doubts and try again, no longer needs to be commonplace.
This is precisely the reason Red Club x Cartier created the Young Leader Award (YLA) in 2021 — to help leaders of business and non-profit entities circumvent unnecessary hurdles and increase a ripple effect that will motivate other aspirants who want to follow in their footsteps. For instance, the winner of the 2023 edition, Dr Bea Bakshi, founder of UK-based C the Signs, has used the award’s exposure to enhance the visibility of her clinical platform that uses artificial intelligence to identify patients at risk of cancer at the earliest and most curable stage.
Although YLA is part of the brand’s overall efforts to uplift business owners impacting the world in a positive way, the award’s objective is markedly different from the goals of the Cartier Women’s Initiative formed in 2006. The latter was initially introduced to honour forward-thinking and socially conscious businesswomen often marginalised within a male-dominated workspace but it has expanded to include all genders with the addition of a new thematic category, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Award, this year. DEI is open to candidates from underrepresented and underserved communities.
The 2024 edition of YLA is hosted by the Southeast Asia and Oceania (SEAO) chapter of Red Club x Cartier, with “Tech for a Sustainable Future” as its theme. The panel of judges, which include Red Club members and top-level Cartier executives who are involved throughout the entire selection process, is not only seeking technology-driven solutions that are shaping the future of people and the planet, but also innovations that foster economic progress and improve environmental well-being. Apart from taking home a grant of €50,000 (about RM250,000), the winner will also benefit from tailored mentorship provided by academic partners National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School and University of Sydney Business School (USBS), as well as ad-hoc coaching from the club’s networks. Three runners-up will each receive €10,000.
Real leaders are those who build on who they already are while responding to changing circumstances. Constantly operating at the edge of ambiguity or chaos, emerging game changers will need to prove they have what it takes to be brave when it counts. Global president Giada Zhang and head of Sydney chapter Richard Li, who spoke to a crowd of hopefuls at the award announcement in Singapore recently, are just two of many Red Club x Cartier members worth emulating.
For Zhang, a whiff of home smells of ginger, chilli and dumplings cooked to delicate tenderness. “I was staying with grandma in Wenzhou, China, for a couple of years. And every time a cart selling wantons passed by our condo, she would push open the window and order some for us,” says the second-generation Chinese-Italian, whose family emigrated to Italy from China in the 1990s.
Dumplings are practically a dish with a passport. Each culture puts its spin on this parcel of filled dough, which transforms every time it arrives in a new region, country or household. Hot momos with swirled pleats are salvation during cold winters in India; flaky half-moons of empanadas are put together as appetisers in formal Spanish restaurants; tortellinis are the reason the kitchen erupts with cheer when Italian nonnas greet the return of their grandchildren near or far. This ubiquitous and shape-shifting delicacy turned into a bestseller for Zhang’s Milan-based company Mulan Group, which distributes ready-to-eat Asian meals in supermarkets throughout Europe. Naming her venture after the great female warrior who defied tradition to bring honour to her family was no coincidence — Zhang, born into a home of only daughters, wanted to be reminded of Mulan’s tenacity.
“People all around the world love eating Chinese food even though they have never been to China. That’s how food bridges cultures and communities. Just last year, we launched the first Chinese cookbook in Italy with my grandma’s recipes. [Renowned chef ] Massimo Bottura liked the project so much he wrote the preface,” she says.
Zhang, despite being fluent in French, Italian, English and Mandarin, was not always proud of her multicultural background while growing up in Europe. “I wanted to forget my Chinese roots,” she recalls. “Almond-shaped eyes are not exactly cherished in this part of the world, so I often felt discriminated against. I wanted to be completely Italian. But when I was staying in New York, someone asked about my heritage. I told them my origins and they said, ‘Wow, that is so cool!’ So I came back [to Italy] with my head held high and developed a better appreciation for who I really am.”
Diversity is strength, which prompted Zhang to extend Red Club x Cartier’s membership (initially intended as a global gathering place for Chinese entrepreneurs) to communities everywhere. It is to ensure unsung leaders get their voices heard and receive the support they need.
“I always make the comparison between an athlete and an entrepreneur. Athletes spend 90% training and 10% performing to make it to the Olympics or the finals. But entrepreneurs are the exact opposite. That 10% training is not enough to take them to greater heights. So the club, which partners universities worldwide, is like a mini MBA to educate them,” she explains.
Echoing this year’s YLA theme, Mulan Group, which mostly promotes single-portion meals, is already looking to enlist the help of start-ups to manage food waste. A new technology is being developed to see what goes into the bin and how much is being discarded at restaurants so chefs can salvage the excess and feed the needy.
“We keep talking about using our businesses to change people’s lives but what are we doing practically? How do we do a proper call to action? This is why the YLA, operating on the belief of ‘connect, share and influence’ exists. It helps you realise you’re not alone, and many others have failed before you. You don’t need to leave your success to chance. The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
Bag of tricks
July, engulfed by the frigid cold of winter, can be unbearable in Australia. Yet, Li and his friend Athan Didaskalou, who were acquainted through the start-up scene in Collingwood, Victoria, still named their luggage business after the month. “It’s the most popular time to travel as people escape to Europe for the summer heat,” quips Li.
July’s growth skyrocketed in 2018, attracting US$10.5 million in funding from high-profile investors including — by a stroke of serendipity — media billionaire Lachlan Murdoch.
“Lachlan, a friend of a friend, invited us for lunch at his house. Incidentally, we received a call from a customer who was having trouble with her lock on her July suitcase. So we went to Western Sydney and helped her fix it. She was so grateful she took a picture of us and posted it on Instagram. As it turned out, the lady happened to be the sister of the chef who cooked us lunch earlier. The story went back to Lachlan and his private investment company CEO Siobhan McKenna. That was how we scored our big break!” Li recalls.
The company immediately scaled up to unicorn status, but the pandemic in 2020 hampered its suitcase demand, causing a 95% loss of revenue and forcing the duo to make drink bottles to tide them over. They were recording negative numbers on some days as people returned their purchases (July has a 100-day return guarantee) since everyone was homebound. To stay afloat, the Melbourne-based company started shipping products to countries that were not experiencing lockdowns as domestic travel remained in favour.
July finally saw an uptick in sales when travel restrictions were finally lifted, and holiday goers were looking for suitcases to match their post-Covid lifestyles. Its lightweight offerings eventually caught the attention of the Australian Winter Olympics team, which engaged the brand as its official luggage supplier. July has been asked to provide for the national contingent travelling to the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, this time with 1,000 units.
“The first time the Olympic team called us, we thought it was a fluke,” admits Li. “But working with the Australian Olympic Committee again is a testament to what we stand for: quality, design and durability. We consider ourselves a disruptor who fills the gap where established brands cannot. July thrives because we not only offer a wide product range with a variety of personalisations [almost everything can be monogrammed] but also provide solutions to challenges plaguing the modern traveller. Our CarryOn Pro, for example, has an in-built charger with an ejectable battery inside so you can charge your phone and laptop on the go. We might introduce a global WiFi network you can connect from your suitcase next.”
Not every 34-year-old can bounce back from a pandemic-induced slump like Li. How does one draw the line between taking a calculated risk and being enticed by a long shot? At what point does breadth suggest a lack of focus?
“This may sound like common advice but you need to understand your own situation, whether you’re a risk-taker, like me, or risk-averse. If you want to launch a business, find out how much savings you have and how long it will last you. Because you may not make money in the first six months or even up to two years. Don’t give up too soon, stick to the mission and stay genuine to your identity. It’s the same criteria we look for in our YLA candidates,” urges Li, who is responsible for vetting and growing the recruits of Red Club x Cartier beyond the existing 37. The winner or a finalist of the YLA is not automatically granted membership as one needs to be recommended by Cartier or a minimum of two members.
“At the end of the day, everyone walks their own journey. We’ve been taught that managers possess a certain followable personality, but that’s not always true. The most important trait that will keep your company and people going? Leading with empathy,” he advises.
Applications for the 2024 Young Leader Award are being accepted until Jan 31. Submit here.
This article first appeared on Nov 6, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.