01/28/2013 03:22 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

Celebrating Female Entrepreneurship With the Seventh Annual Cartier Women's Initiative Awards

I have often been asked how Cartier, with its venerable history and luxury heritage, came to launch a competition to encourage and promote female entrepreneurs in the start-up phase of business: the Cartier Women's Initiative Awards.

Cartier is no stranger to breaking new ground: from pioneering novel jewelry practices to creating the Fondation Cartier, where avant-garde artists work in total freedom and independence, it stays firmly attached to the core values of its founders: creativity, innovation and responsible enterprise.

It all started with a proposal to be involved in the Women's Forum for the Economy and Society, often dubbed the "Davos for Women." We set about thinking how we could make the most of this opportunity with a meaningful contribution. Not a straight corporate sponsorship, but action.

We asked ourselves: what do women need that we could tangibly bring, on a long-term basis, to improve their economic status and social dignity? We wanted a partnership where women can accomplish their own project and make their mark on the world. We wanted a social impact and to encourage the spirit of enterprise. Across the globe, women continue to struggle to be acknowledged as entrepreneurs and business leaders. In report after report comes the same damning conclusion: access to funding, networks and mentorships are major barriers that stand in their way.

As a company with a majority of female staff and management, we knew this was where we could act. It was important that the business be for-profit; charity is one thing but the true drivers of progress and change are economic empowerment and employment. Women-led firms frequently advocate flexibility, social interest and benefits for the community. Those that have competed in the Awards have created over 1,000 direct and indirect jobs around the globe.

We knew we could support the finalists with international visibility and credibility, and we teamed up with McKinsey & Company and INSEAD business school to create a strong network of professionals who could steer our entrepreneurs towards growth. There is also a financial reward of $20,000 for all Laureates, but it is not the biggest draw: over and again the ladies tell us that the coaching is invaluable, a chance for entrepreneurs struggling to wed business with social impact to tap into the knowledge of global players, with terms like "heartening", "enriching" and "inspiring" returning again and again, from finalists and coaches alike. It's wonderful to hear top experts tell us: "We can all learn from these ladies."

Obviously, an international competition draws a broad diversity of candidates; some are business school graduates, some are salaried workers and executives changing course, others never thought they'd run a company but had a great idea and need help making it a sustainable business. That's where the coaching helps, preparing all finalists in the run-up to their presentations with the international Jury of investors, business leaders and professionals, whose tough decisions come with valuable feedback.

This year is the 7th edition on our journey through women's initiatives, which has taken us from sanitation solutions in the slums of Kenya to beauty products farmed by women in Senegal, paperless receipts in the U.S. to hand-made shoes in Indonesia, chemotherapy toxicity treatments in France to engineering courses for children in Lebanon, hospital ward management in Chile or biomass pellets in Bolivia.

It's a real thrill to be part of this ever-growing network of women working for change. Yes, it's a competition, but one in which everyone pitches in together, long beyond the ceremony itself. Past contestants are full of tips about their experience and applications on our social networks. It's all about community and this is one of the things I love most: meeting dynamic women driving such stimulating projects.

The competition is open to women of any age running any business that fulfils the main value criteria: creativity, financial sustainability and social impact. You can apply online and find more information at Applications for the 2013 edition are open until March 8th. That's International Women's Day. For us, it's very significant.

We look forward to hearing from all you enterprising ladies!