Empowering women key to enriching Japanese society

Akira Anzai/The Yomiuri Shimbun

President and Chief Executive Officer of Richemont Japan Ltd., Cartier, Veronica Prat van Thiel speaks to The Japan News at Cartier’s office in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

The Japan NewsCartier, one of the world’s most prestigious brands for jewelry and watches, has actively supported female entrepreneurs since 2006 with the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards. Veronica Prat van Thiel, president and chief executive officer of Richemont Japan Ltd., Cartier, explained the significance of empowering women through the award and nurturing a culture of two-way communication for better decision-making to lead the company.

The Japan News: Can you describe the importance of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards?

Prat van Thiel: Cartier started the awards to support women entrepreneurs who are finding affordable and sustainable solutions to challenges and issues of the world in many diverse areas — it can be the environment, health, education, agriculture or technology — to really empower the women and support their ideas and their solutions. Through them, we’re making the world a better place.

Last year, we had 2,800 applications. These start-up companies that we have supported have already created over 6,000 jobs, and 80 percent are still active today.

Q: Is this something Cartier feels it has to do?

A: We don’t have to, but we want to. Cartier has always considered the value of diversity and the value of women. Looking at Cartier leadership today in the world, it’s not only in Japan but in key top markets such as Hong Kong, the United States, Switzerland or France, women are leading the markets. We are really valuing diversity within Maison Cartier. It is the individuals and the sum of individuals, with their diverse styles, cultures and strength, that can make the country stronger, the company better or more successful.

Q: Individualism and diversity are not common aspects of traditional Japanese society.

A: What I believe is that we need both. How to take the best — and I think this is probably one of the biggest stakes for Japan for the future. How to be true to their values, these very important values of respect for each other, the collective working together as one team, this is key. And at the same time, respecting and letting every individual be who they truly are and reach their dreams.

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  • Akira Anzai/The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Veronica Prat van Thiel emphasizes that the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards are important “to raise awareness and support women around the world and in Japan, especially.”

Q: What is your observation of Japanese society and women’s role in it?

A: Traditionally women were expected to be the perfect mother and the perfect wife, in my personal impression. So this influences, even now, the way women position themselves within society.

I would love to say to the women entrepreneurs in Japan to live your dreams. It takes courage and effort. When you do it, you can do anything. Everything is possible. No matter how young, how old, how experienced their past, I have seen so many examples of inspiring women who have struggled, suffered and had failures, but standing up again is what will define them for their future.

I would like to encourage the women entrepreneurs to apply for the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards so we can support their dream [and help it to] become a reality.

Cartier supports enterpreneurs

Q: The number of Japanese applicants has been relatively low in the past. What do you think is the reason for this?

A: While we used to have maybe four, five, six Japanese applicants per year, last year we had 58 ladies who registered. Unfortunately, we have not yet had any laureates from Japan.

I think there are several reasons. One is maybe the language — probably the biggest one. It has to be in English, so this may be one of the key reasons.

Another one could be Japanese humbleness or respectfulness that they don’t want to shine the light [on themselves]. It’s also connected to an expression, “You should not be the nail that sticks out or you will be hammered down.”

I think Japanese society has so many amazing and strong values. Everything is organized, safe and executed to perfection. At the same time, because there is such a sense of community and there is a respect for others, I sometimes see it creates limitations on individuals to be who they truly are, or to express themselves. Limitations to not dare to speak up, take risks or make mistakes.

That’s why the awards are very important to raise awareness and support women around the world and in Japan, especially. My dream is that one of the Japanese entrepreneurs could be one of the laureates next year or the year after.

I personally believe that we at Cartier have, as one of the leading companies in the world, a responsibility to be corporately and socially responsible. We are a pioneering creative maison. Boundless creativity is … to create creations “today” that are the treasures for the next 100 years.

The same way that we created a style and invent modernity while staying true to our DNA [and] true to our past. I would say it’s interesting that at Cartier and probably also in Japan, there are dynamic tensions between being true to our DNA and at the same time living in today’s times.

Q: What are some of your observations about the Japanese market?

A: I believe the Japanese market is evolving and changing very fast, and we have to transform. Look at the appearance of new players, online or off-line — Zozotown or Amazon creating a retail boutique — and the new modes of consumption with the success of Mercari in the secondhand [market].

It is changing because millennials are bringing new modes of consumption, they’re sharing — the sharing community. There’s a sense of euphoria for the Olympics, but I think more deeply people are searching for value and meaning.

I think the millennials are very important for Japan’s future. My observation is that there are some millennials who really want to express themselves and be the nail that sticks out and open to the world.

Each person makes a difference

Q: How do you help your employees achieve a good work-life balance?

A: What we are trying to do is to mirror the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards locally. I do believe each person can make a difference. My vision is to be people-first. We have super-flex and work-from-home [systems] and these kinds of things. The biggest challenge is for retail. Because in retail it’s very spread out, there are shifts, they work on weekends, late at night. More than 70 percent of our employees are women. Globally we are a feminine maison, in all senses of the word. The number of employees at Cartier Japan stands at around 600.

In retail, I sometimes have female employees [who want] to resign. I want to meet them face-to-face. I speak to them personally, not as a president of Cartier but as myself. Many times what I realized is actually they don’t want to leave, but they believe it’s their problem, such as taking care of elderly parents or being unable to work Friday nights. They don’t want to ask for something from the company. They just resign.

What I do in those cases is to tell them, “OK, maybe I can help you. What if, for example, we create a late night shift with adjusted hours for you, or establish a system of floating staff?” It’s a very one-to-one personalized approach because every situation is different.

One of my key values is communication — two-way communication and a feedback culture.

Q: Is that one of the basic things Japanese companies could do?

A: I encourage the team to speak up, to give me feedback. I think every person has valuable input to give. And if everybody contributes, we will make a stronger, better company together.

I organize management breakfasts with the team, so anyone can raise their hand and come, it doesn’t matter about their seniority, their level, their position. We just talk about many topics, they ask questions.

Q: Are Japanese staffers responsive or active enough to present their own opinions or proposals?

A: I would say it is gradually changing. Some are already very outspoken — [they’re] getting used to it. It’s providing us with very valuable feedback, and all feedback is welcome. Sometimes they’re quite critical and they’re right to be, and it’s good. Because with the feedback we can improve and make better decisions. Feedback culture and two-way communication are very important for me personally in Japan.

Q: How do you achieve your own work-life balance?

A: What is important is to be 100 percent where you are. During this interview, I’m not thinking about other things. When I’m with my kids, I’m 100 percent with them. I’m truly there with them. The same for my husband and my friends. I try to live in the present and live 100 percent with every person.

I manage by setting myself a strict timeline as much as possible, to go home in the evening, and I go around the office and sometimes I say it’s “Nama biru time [time to drink draft beer],” and go home. We don’t want to have overtime, because we want everyone to enjoy their work-life balance. This is my company’s value. It’s important for us that our employees are motivated and have a good work-life balance so they can fully reach their aspirations and their dreams.

This interview was conducted by Japan News Assistant Editor Kenji Kato.

■ Profile

Prat van Thiel joined Cartier in 2000 as project coordinator in the organization department at the head office in Paris. She has held positions such as supply chain organization and development manager, and retail director of Cartier U.K. She was assigned to Tokyo in 2014 as retail director of Cartier Japan and was appointed to her current position in 2017.

■ Corporate Information / Richemont Japan Ltd., Cartier

The company employs about 600 people and operates 33 boutiques. The Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, an annual international business plan competition, was founded in 2006 to support female entrepreneurs worldwide. The top three projects from each of the seven regions including the Far East Asia region are selected as the 21 finalists. Personalized business coaching and workshops and other programs are available for the finalists. The best projects from each of the seven regions receive the top prize — $100,000 and business mentoring. Applications for the 2019 awards must be submitted by Aug. 31. For more information, visit http://www.cartierwomensinitiative.comSpeech

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