Monte Carlo, 2-5 June 2011
By Alvin Goh
From 2nd to 5th of June, 49 successful entrepreneurs from 44 countries gathered in beautiful Monte Carlo for a shot at being crowned Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year.
Regarded as one of the most prestigious global entrepreneurial award, it is a culmination of respective 'national' Entrepreneur of the Year Awards that took place in over 40 countries. These countries represent more than 90% of the global economy.
The renowned Hermitage Hotel hosted the massive operation to find this year's 'entrepreneur of entrepreneurs', amidst the watchful eye of the global media. Whilst the Award Ceremony was held on 4th of June in the grand Salle des Etoiles, which boasts the imposing city of Monte Carlo as a backdrop.
Cirque du Soleil provided lively evening entertainment, performing breath-taking circus acts to loud applause. Incidentally, Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque du Soleil was World Entrepreneur of the Year in 2007.
Olivia Lum of Singapore, Group CEO and President of Hyflux Limited was made this year's World Entrepreneur of the Year.
Ms Lum came from very humble beginnings and had to battle poverty throughout her childhood. In fact, she had worked as a child labourer in order to provide for her primary education. However, her personal story is more than one of rags to riches, but an entrepreneurial spirit that transformed Hyflux Limited into becoming one of the world's leading desalination suppliers.
Hyflux's desalination technology has helped ensure Singapore's water security and is now being employed throughout Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Later, at the post-event press conference, Ms Lum reiterated her firm commitment to making desalination technology affordable to countries suffering water scarcity.
Ms Lum gave a short acceptance speech, confessing the win to be "unexpected". Thanking her Lord Jesus Christ and various "angels” in her life, Ms Lum also wished that her award will encourage more women entrepreneurs to participate in the competition. But unbeknownst to her, she had become the first female winner of this award in its 25 years history.
Apart from Ms Lum, there was also another 'first' in this year's World Entrepreneur of the Year. Tan Sri (Dr) Francis Yeoh, Managing Director of YTL Group of Companies was the Chairman of Judges and the first Asian to preside over a judging panel that was made up of illustrious entrepreneurs from around the world.
Casting light on the judging process, Dr Yeoh commented on the difficulties picking a winner, "All 49 of them were worthy of winning. They are leaders in their own industries, and some have even created them from scratch. All of them run successful businesses, and most carry brands that are big names in the market. Whom do you choose?”
"In fact, I have recommended to Ernst & Young that we create a second category for this award next year. One chosen by peers or fellow contestants! That should make things more interesting,” he added.
For the judges, the award was certainly a good indicator of trends and realities in the business world. This year, all 49 candidates epitomised not only the very best in commercial acumen and market leadership, but in corporate governance and social responsibility. There appeared to be a general consensus that entrepreneurship and ethics are not mutually exclusively, but intricately related and very important, certainly for all 49 individuals concerned.
In fact, just before the winner was announced, as Chairman of the Judges, Dr Yeoh gave a speech and actually congratulated all 49 entrepreneurs for championing business as a force for good.
"The judges were genuinely impressed by how much these entrepreneurs are turning the world upside down! I wish we could clone every single one of them hundred times," he said later.
Commenting on Ms Lum's success, Dr Yeoh emphasised that none of the judges knew that there had never been a female winner in the history of the award. There were various criteria in the judging process but they were fully geared towards finding the 'entrepreneur of entrepreneurs' - the Primus Inter Pares or 'First Among Equals'.
"Yes, we considered how difficult it is for women to be in business. But Olivia did not win because she was a woman. We had a very strong field of 49 and it would be wrong to pick her because of gender bias.”
"Olivia won because the judges appreciated the enormous impact of her desalination business. Of course, her remarkable life story helped a lot. But we were more impressed with the scalability of Hyflux's desalination technology in many countries, because water is scarce. And water is profitable business. Olivia is a business woman true and true,” remarked Dr Yeoh.
In his speech, Dr Yeoh also made a friendly gesture and thanked the families of all 49 entrepreneurs for sticking by them. He said, "Entrepreneurship is tough and because of you, these 49 can further their dreams and make our world better. You deserve our applause!”
Dr Yeoh was asked how he would remember the week. "I am grateful to have been made Chairman of the judging panel. I give credit to our Lord Jesus for the honour and I certainly thank Him for giving me wisdom throughout the judging process. But believe me, it was really hard work,” he said with a smile.