Natalie Chan On What It Means To Be A 2021 Cartier Women's Initiative Fellow

By Kate Appleton

Cartier's annual grant programme for women impact entrepreneurs is supporting Gen.T honouree Natalie Chan of Own Academy

Tatler Asia

Since 2006, the Cartier Women’s Initiative (CWI) has awarded more than US$6 million to female entrepreneurs who lead businesses with a sustainable social or environmental impact. Along with grants, CWI provides mentorship, networking and fundraising support.  

Hongkonger Natalie Chan of Own Academy is one of this year’s 24 fellows selected from a pool of 876 applicants from 142 countries. Chan found her education had ill-prepared her for the realities of the professional world and was inspired to launch Own as a platform to connect young people to companies with real-world learning.

“I'm so grateful Cartier is offering this kind of assistance,” says Chan. “The fact that it’s been 15 years, they are way ahead of the curve. They're not doing this because it’s cool and trendy; they're doing it because they truly believe in the impact.”

CWI hosted a virtual awards ceremony in late May and announced its laureates—eight fellows who receive the largest grants (one per region, plus a laureate in a new Science and Technology Pioneership category). The lineup of events included Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women; Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of venture capital fund Acumen; actor Yara Shahidi; and scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb. 

Fresh off the awards, Chan went into her busiest week of the year: Own’s Real World Learning programme, which pairs 300 secondary students with professionals from fields including product design, mental health and sustainable development. She took a break to chat with us about her ambition to go global and how CWI has already helped refine her vision and even inspired an anthem for Own. 

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Above  Natalie Chan with staff for the Real World Learning programme, including past interns and ambassadors
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Above  A Real World Learning lesson in product design with Michel Guy from Herman Miller

What does it mean to you to become part of the Cartier Women’s Initiative?
My mum loves Cartier and my first watch was from Cartier, so I’ve always been familiar with the brand and I’ve known about this fellowship for a few years. My friend Xania Wong, who is also a Gen.T honouree, was the first social entrepreneur in Hong Kong who I got really inspired by. When I learned she was a Cartier fellow, I thought: My dream is to be one of them. It's a really rigorous application process, and the experience has been a very big learning for me because I've realised that what I care about and what we do with Own Academy is really in purpose.

When I first started five years ago, I never used the word purpose in explaining the work that I do, because I felt people would be like, “Oh, that’s so fluffy.” I wrapped it into career exploration. But nowadays purpose is everything, and I can make this more explicit in communicating our mission. This whole Cartier journey has given me that clarity as well as providing that stage for me to be more confident in my vision.

See also: 10 Women Entrepreneurs You Need To Know In Hong Kong

Our mission was probably what set us apart because we're not just teaching coding or entrepreneurship skills. We're here to re-engineer the ecosystem of learning that connects into the real world
Natalie Chan

What do you think distinguished you and Own Academy among the applicants?
Our mission was probably what set us apart because we're not just teaching coding or entrepreneurship skills. We're here to re-engineer the ecosystem of learning that connects into the real world—not just for Asia, but for the world, because if this format can work with Asia, then we can export it.

Our vision is about engaging professionals and corporates as part of the learning experience, which is not in the mainstream or not even really available, frankly. The education system is so archaic, so how do we revamp that? And there are lots of students who get internships, but how quality is that as a learning experience?

Corporates are not explaining their purpose very well, whereas young people are saying, “I don't want to just work for any company; I want to work for one that has a positive impact.” So if we can be the bridge between the two, then we can really build a better world together.

See also: Crazy Smart Asia Podcast: Natalie Chan On Creating An Education Revolution

Which Cartier women are you excited to collaborate with?
All of them! I would love to work with all these inspiring women and for our young people to be their interns or connect with them, because I think young girls need to see more of what women are doing to lead change.

Basima Abdulrahman from Iraq stands out because she and I were both part of Davos in 2019, where they select young leaders to join the World Economic Forum. So when I saw her, I was like, “Basima, we're in the same cohort again!” It was so meaningful to see someone that I've connected with before.

What was a highlight of the Cartier virtual awards ceremony?
When the singer MILCK performed “If I Ruled the World.” I've never heard of a song that truly explains the way that I've been thinking about the world and the way that I operate with Own Academy. I’ve been listening to it on repeat. We have a community of 60 ambassadors that we launched during Covid-19 to find the next generation of change makers and empower them. I've been looking for a song that we can all sing together and I finally found it.

How will CWI help propel your business forward?
There’s a great support network of investors that we can tap into because we're fundraising now for the first time. Cartier also sponsors a one-week programme with Insead where you get to meet fellow social entrepreneurs. 

On top of that, it's the attentiveness. It’s not like after the awards ceremony happened, it’s done; I was just on a call with the women's programme director. As an entrepreneur, it's such a lonely journey, so I’m grateful for that attentiveness, along with the added confidence, credibility and financial networking support.

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Above  The OWN Future Fair team's wrap-up meeting after the two-day virtual career fair which saw more than 3,000 registrations from 30 countries

And what are your measures for success?
Our next big milestone is to reach one million students in Asia Pacific. We also want to be able to onboard as many purpose-driven corporates as possible, because only when the corporates are committed to youth and making this world a better place can young people also be inspired to learn and to grow.

I would love for other women to try out the Cartier Women’s Initiative and for young girls to recognise how important it is to work on a business that can solve problems. It's not easy to be an entrepreneur and to be a social impact entrepreneur is even harder. But if more and more people can join this rally, then there can be a lot more positive impact in the world.

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