Meet Cartier’s 2021 Women’s Initiative Fellow Christina Gyenge

The Cartier Women’s Initiative, an annual spotlight on female ingenuity across various industries, presents its 2021 edition recognizing an exciting new selection of trailblazers. The current nominees operate within a variety of organizations and enterprises, from responsible consumption and industrial sustainability to philanthropic endeavours aiming to end famine and create gender equality. Each year, a new crop of women is given invaluable mentorship by Cartier to help elevate their altruistic aspirations and create an impact on a global scale. We spoke with Christina Gyenge, a Canadian CWI fellow and founder of Agora Energy Technologies, who has developed a metal-free CO2-based battery for long duration energy storage, and Mercedes Abramo, President and CEO, Cartier North America, about the power of recognition and the future of female entrepreneurship.

Christina Gyenge, Founder of Agora Energy Technologies

Christina Gyenge

What was the experimental process like when creating your innovative energy solution?

“In order to develop and validate a totally new concept in the field of energy storage, a very rigorous scientific and engineering experimental process must be followed and successfully executed. This multi-step process involves discovery and testing of novel advanced materials—in many cases nano-materials—acting as catalysts for the electrode reactions, followed by devising methods to incorporate these novel materials into functional devices. Afterwards, it undergoes a range of long-term performance durability tests of the CO2 flow battery on different scales from single-cell to multi-cell stacks. Along the way there is lots of trial and error, serendipitous moments and learning from both failed and successful experiments. Such a strategy requires an excellent team of scientists and engineers, no single person can do this alone. At Agora Energy Technologies we assembled an outstanding team that pushes the boundaries of what’s known to be possible.”

In what ways can your non-metal CO2-based batteries better the environment, as well as society?

“Consider that all the batteries used today for renewable energy storage are metal-based, among them lithium and vanadium-based batteries are the leading technologies. However, due to the exponential increase in demand for diverse metals—including also rear-earth metals—used in batteries, electric vehicles and other renewable energy related technologies, the mining capacity and associated mineral processing capacity must keep pace to sustain the battery giga-factories. There are studies showing up to two-orders of magnitude increase in mining and processing of certain metals during the next decades. Mining puts extreme pressure on the environment in terms of energy intensity and CO2 emissions per ton of metal produced, in addition to large amounts of fresh water used and contaminated waste water produced. This is a problem that is not adequately addressed at present, mainly because it is out of sight for most people since mining takes place in remote locations. Therefore, having a technology like Agora’s that is not only non-metal based but consumes CO2 directly, represents a paradigm shift in batteries and has the potential to be a game changer for the industry.

“Furthermore, by using CO2 instead of metals as the active species in the battery, there is also a tremendous cost advantage. There is no shortage of carbon dioxide and the price of CO2 for our battery excluding any carbon tax, is between 50 to 150 USD per ton, dependent on the CO2 capture and purification method employed. Having up to two-orders of magnitude cheaper raw material combined with other lower cost components, will accelerate the adoption of Agora’s storage technology with tremendous benefits for the environment and society.”

What does recognition from CWI mean to you personally, as well as professionally?

“Personally, it is exhilarating to have the opportunity to be part of the CWI network of outstanding and highly-accomplished women. The energy, passion and determination these women have for their diverse and high-impact work around the globe is a great source of inspiration and motivation. CWI is unique by providing a significant support platform to all of us to exchange ideas and experiences that will no doubt propel me to even greater achievements. CWI attests to the fact that if you want to make a change you have to be the change. And how will the change happen? First slowly and then suddenly.

“Professionally, I would like to note that the energy field would highly benefit from broadening gender diversity at every level including engineering, management and high-level executives. The selection as a finalist of the CWI Science and Technology Pioneers gives me the opportunity to breakthrough some of the glass ceilings in this field and also to enhance the visibility of many aspirational women beyond the boundaries of my field. I would like to take this opportunity to be a professional role model to other women who aspire to enter and excel in STEM. I would also like to encourage them to be bold, authentic and fearless in exploring a future of possibilities; it’s really limitless.”

Mercedes Abramo, President and CEO, Cartier North America

Mercedes Abramo

Did you ever envision yourself in a role of such prominence when starting off in your professional life?

“As I look back on what I’ve accomplished professionally, I’ve tended to take the not-so-obvious route. I started my career in hospitality, where I loved the element of personal interaction, and where I came to appreciate and understand excellence in service.

“When I finished business school, it seemed like all my classmates were taking more traditional roles in marketing or strategy, and I could absolutely see the appeal of those types of jobs. But through my experiences working in hospitality, I knew that I was happiest in a job that had a more human element—an opportunity to build deep and lasting relationships. I think this is what ultimately led me to retail and where I am today.”

How does it feel being the first woman and first American to hold the position as Cartier’s North American CEO?

“I’ve had the honour of serving in this role since 2014. At the time, it was a bit of a culture shock for some, but an incredible opportunity I was excited to take on. Being the first at anything carries with it enormous privilege and responsibility, but I also saw it as a chance to share my unique perspectives, experiences and insights.

“Though there has been a shift surrounding women leaders since then, we still have a long way to go in supporting diverse profiles and narratives in leadership. The women of the Cartier Women’s Initiative (CWI) are the perfect example of this shift. They give me continued hope—and renewed inspiration—that the best is yet to come. These women are not only serving as change makers within their own communities, the work they’re doing and the impact they’re making resonates around the world.”

How important is the Cartier Women’s Initiative to you? What can such a recognition mean both personally and professionally to other female innovators?

“The Cartier Women’s Initiative is a program that’s very close to my heart. As ambitious, hardworking women, we face similar challenges in blazing our own trails in industries often dominated by men. I felt an even more personal stake in the initiative when we had the privilege of hosting the annual CWI awards ceremony in North America for the first time in 2019.

“After being held in Europe for more than a decade and then in Singapore for two years, it was a tremendous honour to bring the program into our own backyard. It also brought me so much closer to the program, as I was able to get to know the fellows on a much deeper level.

“In terms of the recognition that comes with being named a CWI fellow, it goes so far beyond the financial grant. Each of this year’s 24 finalists will participate in the fellowship program, which aims to equip them with the necessary skills to grow their businesses and to build their leadership capacity by drawing upon the experience and expertise of a vast community of past CWI fellows, coaches, jury members, ecosystem partners, advisors and investors. In short, these women will be ensconced in a network of the best possible supporters and become part of a legacy of extraordinary women who are changing the world for the better.” 

Photography courtesy of Cartier & Cartier Women’s Initiative

Join the celebration from Monday 24 May – Wednesday 26 May here.