Women Power

The Rolex Awards for Enterprise is designed to not only recognise past achievements but are given to new or ongoing projects. Let’s meet the four women and their visionary projects.

Meet the Female Laureates of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise

In 1976, Rolex made history by announcing one of the world’s first major corporate awards programmes, the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which support exceptional individuals with the passion and commitment to improve life on the planet. To win a Rolex Award requires an original, visionary project that can benefit humanity and/or the planet, along with the skills and determination to implement it.

The Rolex Awards are given to projects focusing on: the environment; science and health; applied technology; cultural heritage; and exploration – but many projects that do not strictly fit these particular disciplines have also won Rolex Awards.

These projects are judged on their originality and the impact they have on the world at large, as well as on the candidates’ spirit of enterprise.

Laureates featured include archaeologists, architects, educators, engineers, entrepreneurs, explorers, filmmakers, geologists, medical doctors, microbiologists, mountaineers, physicists, primatologists, sociologists, veterinarians and wildlife biologists.

The tangible benefits of the 150 Laureates’ projects are wide and varied. For example, in projects directly related to the environment, 18 million trees have been planted, 25 endangered species and 21 major ecosystems protected, including 57,600 km2 of Amazon rainforest; hundreds of new species have been discovered; 13 challenging expeditions have been completed; and 32 innovative technologies have been developed for a range of applications.

The past Laureates are living proof of the enduring spirit of the Rolex Awards – anyone can change everything. The new Rolex Awards Laureates will be chosen to continue this pioneering tradition and to demonstrate Rolex’s fundamental belief in unlimited human potential, in always pushing the boundaries.

Let’s meet four amazing female Laureates from the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

2016 Laureate Kerstin Forsberg in Zorritos, Peru, wants to protect the manta rays

Kerstin Forsberg
It all began when Lima-based conservation biologist Kerstin Forsberg was enthralled with the majestic beauty of the giant manta rays and she became determined to protect these majestic creatures.

Giant mantas, which are plankton filterers, are classified as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with an “elevated risk of extinction”. Thousands are caught each year across the world to satisfy a lucrative market for their dried gills, which are used in traditional medicine.

In Peru, fishermen reported taking up to dozens of mantas in a season for fish meat, putting the species under severe pressure, especially as they are slow to reproduce. Giant mantas take from seven to 10 years to reach maturity and produce just one pup every two to seven years.

Forsberg’s giant manta project could be a turning point in the perception of Peru’s ecotourism offer, particularly in its community-based focus. Her long-term aim is to develop this giant manta project into a model that can be used in sustainable community-based initiatives for many different types of marine conservation projects worldwide.

The manta ray conservation initiative began in 2012, in collaboration with WildAid, the Manta Trust, the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, Project AWARE and the New England Aquarium. The project attracted additional support from local government institutions, but Forsberg’s early attempts to lobby the Peruvian government about the importance of conserving giant mantas did not go far. “Our proposal to legally protect project attracted additional support from local government institutions, manta rays in Peru didn’t receive a response,” she recalls, “but we kept but knocking on doors.”

In 2015, an extremely large manta weighing 900 kg was caught, and became a local media sensation. “It was talked about as a monster,” recalls Forsberg. “People had no idea of how vulnerable giant mantas are.” Building upon this front-page news, Forsberg’s continued lobbying led to a government ban on giant manta captures a few months later.

Forsberg works from an office in Lima but travels to Tumbes, a two-hour flight, once every two months, staying for a week to monitor and implement conservation activities. Other members of her project team visit once a month, joining a field coordinator and local volunteers based there.

Their fundamental aim is to launch sustainable, locally operated manta tourism that will be commercially valuable, and encourage fishermen and tourists to become citizen scientists who will collect reliable data about giant manta distribution.

The conservation project has so far involved three groups of fishermen collaborating with reports on giant manta sightings for Forsberg’s team; and, so far, about 40 tourists have gone out with fishermen on pilot manta-spotting expeditions.

The Rolex Award will allow Forsberg to strengthen community engagement, expand the number of fishermen taking part in the project, create locally-driven ecological monitoring of mantas, and help to establish a secure legal framework for manta tourism linked to international tourism organizations.

Forsberg is in no doubt about the impact of her Rolex Award. “It’s definitely life-changing, and on so many levels,” she says. “It will allow us to take this project up to the next scale, nationally and internationally.

This recognition is very important. Giant mantas are extremely vulnerable, and, in particular, marine environments are severely threatened. We need to engage more people in conserving them. There’s a lot of work to do.”

Krithi Karanth, at Channagundi in Karnataka State, India, has been passionate about conservation since childhood.

Krithi Karanth
Wild animals are not attuned to human boundaries, with the result that people and their livestock are often injured or killed, crops are destroyed and property damaged. Communities may then exact revenge by killing the wild animals, Krithi Karanth says.

As world population surges towards eight billion, conflicts between people and the planet’s dwindling wildlife over food, resources and space for living are multiplying — but conservationist Karanth is proving that this is a problem that can be mitigated.

In her home country, India, every year there are hundreds of thousands of cases where communities and wildlife, such as leopards, tigers and elephants, clash. The result is damage, injury and death on both sides.

Karanth’s passion for wildlife conservation probably stems from her own DNA as her father is a prominent Indian scientist and conservationist. He often took her on his wildlife expeditions when she was a child. She studied at Duke, Yale and University of Florida for 13 years before returning to India because of her love for India’s wildlife and desire to affect real change.

She says, “I saw tigers and leopards by the time I was two. When I was eight years old, I was tracking tigers with my father, learning to camera trap when I was a teenager. So, I spent the first 17 years of my childhood outdoors in the wild — and I assumed this is what everybody’s childhood was like.”

She found, to her dismay, that this is far from the case. As India heads for the title of the world’s most populous nation, only five per cent of its terrain is reserved for nature — a fraction of that set aside in comparable countries. Yet, it has 70 per cent of the world’s tigers and 50 per cent of its Asian elephants.

The Indian government hands out over US$5 million in compensation to farmers and villagers for wildlife damage every year, but Karanth estimates the 80,000 cases compensated may only represent the tip of the iceberg of actual conflicts between people and wild animals as the government lacks the resources to process claims quickly.

Karanth’s approach to wildlife-human conflict is simple, based on lessons learned and proven techniques. In 2015, she established a toll-free number for villagers to call for assistance in filing for compensation when they suffer losses. Known as Wild Seve, it currently serves half a million people living in 600 villages near Bandipur and Nagarahole parks in the state of Karnataka.

It has filed 15,000 claims for 7,000 families, worth US$555,000. This pragmatic approach has increased trust and reduced hostility towards wildlife in these communities.

She is expanding the Wild Seve project to three more parks and 1,000 more villages. She uses mobile technology to identify conflict hotspots that need particular focus and field-tests measures in 1,000 households in high-conflict zones, such as predator-proof sheds, alternative crops and fences, to reduce crop damage and make people and their livestock safer.

Karanth believes improving local attitudes and awareness is critical. In parallel, she is running Wild Shaale, a conservation education programme in 500 schools in high-conflict areas, reaching 30,000 children. In time, Wild Seve and Wild Shaale could together become a worldwide model for conservation. “I think it could work in Africa, South America and parts of Asia where people and wildlife live in close proximity.”

Miranda Wang at the BioCellection offices, Menlo Park, California – finding uses for the world’s plastic waste.

Miranda Wang
Staggering statistics suggests that the world churns out 340 million tonnes of plastic led Chinese-Canadian tech entrepreneur Miranda Wang to come up with a better idea for what to do with the world’s largest waste headache. Wang turns it into wealth using unique chemical recycling technology developed by her company BioCellection.

“We’re taking plastics that are not recyclable today,” she says. “That means there are currently no economical technologies to turn these plastics into a valuable product. So we take waste like dirty plastic bags, single-use packaging materials, and we transform them into valuable performance materials made with recycled content that have the same properties as virgin materials.”

Wang’s mission to solve one of the world’s greatest pollution problems began as a teenager, when she and her best friend – now co-founder – Jeanny Yao visited a waste processing plant on a school excursion. That sparked their enthusiasm and, after seven years of testing one approach after another, they have made an exciting breakthrough.

While still students, Wang and Yao persuaded researchers at the University of British Columbia to conduct research in a lab. Working with more senior researchers, they discovered two plastic-eating bacteria in the nearby Fraser River.

These early adventures led Wang to raise US$5 million in capital between 2015–2019 and establish BioCellection in Silicon Valley to pioneer fresh answers to the emerging global plastics crisis. Since then, her company has developed recycling technologies that transform soiled, contaminated and unrecyclable plastics into quality materials for 3D printing and consumer products.

During her college days, Wang conducted plastic degradation research at the National Research Council Canada and worked on synthetic biology projects with the University of Pennsylvania’s International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) team. Before graduating in 2016 with a BA from UPenn, where she studied molecular and cell biology, philosophy and engineering entrepreneurship, she co-founded BioCellection Inc, of which she is now CEO and President, in California.

In 2018 alone, Wang’s distinctions included a UN Young Champion of the Earth Award, the 2018 Pritzker Environmental Genius Award, and an Echoing Green Climate Fellowship. She was also named a Forbes “30 Under 30” and was included in the New York Times list of “Visionaries with the Courage to Change the World”. TIME magazine profiled Wang as one of “15 Women Leading the Fight Against Climate Change”.

Among BioCellection Inc achievements is a process that breaks down polyethylene (PE) plastic into precursor chemicals, used as building blocks for materials with potential market value of billions of dollars (PE represents one third of all plastic produced). Wang’s process is much cheaper than extracting the same from fossil fuel resources and results in a hundredfold increase in the value of plastic waste when upcycled into finished materials — providing a real incentive to save plastics, not dump or burn them.

“We’ve invented a new process that’s sustainable and economical for making high value industrial chemicals from these plastics. We’ve been able to use these chemicals to synthesise materials that are now close to matching the performance of virgin grade photopolymers and thermoplastic polyurethanes. Right now the direct application for these materials is in 3D printing and footwear.”

Vreni Häussermann, marine biologist and 2016 Laureate.

Vreni Häussermann
Back in 1997 when Vreni Häussermann was on a research trip with her research partner and later husband, Günter Försterra, they chanced upon an unusual landscape of stormy seas and snow-capped mountains in the deserted southern fjords of Chilean Patagonia. For Häussermann this was the moment she know that her mission was to protect it.

Chilean Patagonia is challenging terrain to explore: the maze of fjords, channels and islands (the coast stretches 90,000 km, though the distance from north to south as the crow flies is just 1,500 km) is home to tempestuous winds and intense storms. Since the region has been poorly mapped, each expedition is literally a voyage of discovery, allowing Häussermann to find dozens of new species over the years.

Contrary to what Häusser- mann learned as a biologist — life is most diverse in the tropics, less so closer to the poles — the fjords are a biodiversity hotspot, teeming with spiky neon-orange sea anemones and blood-red corals. The reason for this seeming paradox, she says, is that the fjords contain a vast range of environ- ments, veering from “highly saline to extremely fresh water, from intense sunlight to dark shadows, from protected bays to wave-battered shores”. All this means an extraordinary variety of species are able to live so closely together.

The fjords Häussermann studies are under threat. Salmon farming, until recently concentrated in northern Patagonia, is moving south. Fish farming is big business: the industry earns US$2.5 billion from salmon exports every year, representing nearly five per cent of the country’s total exports. Farming is generally run unsustainably, releasing vast quantities of waste and chemicals that damage ecosystems and marine species indiscriminately.

This pollution is partly responsible for “destabilising the ecosystem”, Häussermann says, and is probably contributing to an alarming rise in mass die-offs of animals. In 2015, Häussermann’s team discovered 337 dead whales on an expedition to a remote area. More species are experiencing these mass die-offs, including sardines, jellyfish and molluscs.

Häussermann wants the people of Chile to care about their environment as much as she does. She plans to engage them by developing a blog of her expeditions and to create a travelling exhibition on marine life.

This is the right time to involve communities, says Häussermann, since Chileans are becoming sensitised to these issues. Ecological crises are often an “economic disaster”, and since fish and shellfish die-offs mean fishermen increasingly struggle to earn an income, they have been demonstrating against the destruction of the ocean in a bid for government action.

The Rolex Award will allow Häussermann’s team to use a remote-operated vehicle (a metre-square box equipped with thrusters, cameras and sensors) to depths of 500 metres. By uploading photographs and videos of marine life to GoogleEarth and YouTube, Häussermann and her team will be able to document a world never before seen by the human eye.

After two decades in Patagonia, Häussermann’s motto is to expect the unexpected. “I have learned patience here. Things don’t always go to plan, so you always have a plan B.”