That’s why Rolex supports unusual people
The header of a notice spelled “WANTED” in capital letters. The text below explained that Rolex, the Swiss luxury manufacturer was looking for five exceptional people. For something new: the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. Five awards were to be given to those “with the most original and imaginative projects related to exploration, applied science, innovation or the environment”.
This was in 1976. That year, the Rolex Awards for Enterprise was initiated — 50 years after the introduction of the Rolex Oyster, the first water- and dust-proof watch in the world. “We have created the Rolex Awards for Enterprise out of the conviction that we as an enterprise are obliged to take a keen interest in the improvement of the living conditions on our planet,” said Rolex CEO André J. Heiniger at the time about the innovative awards. And that their purpose was “to promote the values that are important to us: quality, inventiveness, determination and, in particular, entrepreneurial spirit”.
A worldwide competition of ideas, accessible to everybody
A competition of ideas, announced worldwide, accessible to everybody and with the declared aim to make a contribution to the well-being of humanity and/or the preservation of our planet: that was new. By now, the Rolex Awards for Enterprise have been around for over 40 years. They are awarded in five areas: environment, science & health, applied technology, cultural heritage and exploration.
The Rolex Awards for Enterprise are an important part of the “Perpetual Planet” campaign that was launched by Rolex in 2019 and also includes an extended partnership with the National Geographic Society to study the effects of climate change and with the “Mission Blue” marine protection initiative of Sylvia Earle. The goal is, as it was in 1976, to support exceptional people in finding answers to the big question: how can we sustain our planet?
Public invitation with enormous resonance
For Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of the company, the world was akin to a test laboratory. He repeatedly supported special research projects right from the beginning and has exposed his watches to the most extreme conditions — for example on Mount Everest during the first ascent by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953 or in the Mariana Trench during the expedition of the Trieste diving vessel with Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh in 1960. The watches passed this rigorous exposure test because Wilsdorf had developed and patented the Oyster case, which is screwed down and has a screw-down crown. The sensitive movement is thus optimally protected against humidity and dust.
Rolex has since then been supporting research, development and discovery all over the world for almost 100 years. The Rolex Awards for Enterprise were originally intended as a one-off project. But the resonance was enormous. Rolex therefore transformed the awards into a long-term programme. Prizes are now awarded approximately every two years. 34,000 applications have been received since the start of 1976, representing 191 nations. A total of 150 people have received an award and support for their projects.
The award for visionary concepts
A speciality of the awards is that they do not honour an achievement already completed or a concluded project. The awards are intended for new ideas, pioneering concepts, innovative methods, ongoing projects — work in progress that is supported by recognition and financial means so that it can be continued or extended. The award winners also get access to the Rolex network.
Everyone is free to take part in the competition. Naturally there are no restrictions by gender, sexual orientation or nationality. Furthermore, academic background, special professional training or similar qualifications are not required. This ensures that Rolex Awards for Enterprise continue to support important and visionary projects of people who are outside the academic sector and cannot make use of conventional project funding. Rolex fills this gap.
Formal scientific education: not necessary
As for Forrest Mims III: the US engineer and author has no formal scientific training, but developed methods and portable devices for measuring ozone. This Texan, who has recorded important environmental data in the Earth’s atmosphere for decades, was honoured with the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 1993. Eduardo Llerenas, a Mexican scientist, was also among the award winners in 1981. The biochemist had become increasingly involved with Mexican folk music and was in the process of establishing an archive of original folk song recordings. This effort finally developed into the Corason music label, which still offers a varied repertoire of traditional Mexican music that might otherwise have been lost.
Luc Jean-François Debecker was one of the first five award winners in 1978: he was born in Belgium, worked as an industrial surveyor in Switzerland and had already started to research and catalogue prehistoric cave paintings as a student. After receiving the Rolex award, Debecker continued to research prehistoric art for another 20 years. He visited 150 caves in Europe and Africa and documented the ancient paintings.
International experts evaluate the applications
All applications for Rolex Awards for Enterprise are collected, checked and professionally evaluated at the Rolex headquarters in Geneva. The best submissions are then reviewed by experts in the respective disciplines. Thereafter, the finalists and their projects are presented to a jury.
Previous jury members have included Everest first-ascender Sir Edmund Hillary and Junko Tabei, the first woman to reach the summit of the world's highest mountain, as well as environmentalist and former WWF president Yolanda Kakabadse, Chris Hadfield, a former commander of the International Space Station ISS, geneticist Steve Jones and oceanographer and Rolex Testimonee Sylvia Earle.
The jury is reconstituted each time Rolex Awards for Enterprise are presented and usually consists of researchers, conservationists, scientists, physicians, educators and innovative thinkers. In this way, an independent, interdisciplinary, international and diverse panel of experts is assembled in each case; 146 renowned experts have had a seat on the jury since the Rolex Awards for Enterprise were launched.
The members of the jury in 2019 were the Nigerian media entrepreneur and philanthropist Mosunmola Abudu, the Canadian zoologist and chief scientist of the National Geographic Society Jonathan Baillie, the French mountaineer Laurence de la Ferrière, the Argentinian Juan Dumas, an expert on conflict resolution and development policy in Latin America, the US marine biologist David Gruber, the Kenyan conservationist Paula Kahumbu, the British geneticist Adam Rutherford, the Swedish golfer Annika Sörenstam, the Indian entrepreneur and philanthropist Ravi Venkatesan and the US investor and entrepreneur Ling Wong.
Entrepreneurial spirit, originality and impact are essential
The jury makes its decision mainly based on three criteria: entrepreneurial spirit — the project is driven with determination, bravery and endurance; originality — the project is innovative and breaks new ground; impact — the project has a positive effect on society. Since 2019, the result of a public vote on the finalists has been included in the final decision on awarding the prize, in addition to the jury’s assessment.
Miranda Wang was 25 years old when she received a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2019. The Canadian biochemist has developed a process that turns plastic waste into useful raw materials. The aim is to turn plastic waste, which has so far been hardly recyclable and constitutes a problem, from being the end point of the production chain into a part of a closed recycling economy.
Entrepreneurial spirit does not depend on age. This is also expressed by the motto of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise: “Anyone can change anything.”
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