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A new  record of more than 350 business people entered the race for this year’s prestigious Digicel Entrepreneur of the Year awards, and the shortlist of 96 finalists has just been chosen – of whom an impressive 20 percent are female entrepreneurs.

That rush to take part is a major vote of confidence for the awards, which are now in their fourth year and have been carefully nurturing a network of alumni – past winners and finalists – with the aim of harnessing their joint energy to boost the economy and create new jobs.

As a result, the theme of this year’s competition is “Together Opportunity Grows”, behind which the awards’ instigators, Digicel, are once again joined by five major sponsors, AIC, Camtel, Coles Group, Cemex and Groupe Jean Vorbe, who have backed their vision of an enterprise-led Haiti.

One powerful sector driving growth is construction, and so this year there is a new construction industry award for building companies, building materials manufacturers and retailers, engineering firms, blockmakers, steel and paint importers – everyone, in fact, involved in this booming business.

“It is really fantastic to see such wholehearted interest from business people in every corner of the country once again”, says Digicel Haiti’s recently-appointed new CEO, Ineke Botter.

“I know we never anticipated this extraordinary level of continuing interest when we began – and it’s truly humbling to see such quality entries, year after year.”

Ms Botter welcomed the large number of entries for the new Construction award, which she said was “evidence that the rebuilding of key elements of the country’s infrastructure is continuing apace, and that entrepreneurs are focusing on the opportunities this burgeoning market is offering.”

She described as “heartening” the number of women competing for the awards in every category this year, which was unusually high even by international standards.

“Not only do women account for 20 percent of our regional finalists, but in the West region, for instance, three out of four finalists in the industry category are female, between them employing 15,000 people directly and indirectly, in everything from water and juice production to fiberglass manufacturing. That is quite remarkable.”

The judges had also noticed, said Ms Botter, an interesting strategic shift in the approach of the entrepreneurs to their businesses, with more emphasis on using better technologies, accounting methods, internet-based development and social media marketing.

The Digicel Entrepreneur of the Year awards aim to identify up-and-coming business people whose drive can help Haiti build new economic foundations. They’re seeking seven key qualities: business competence, leadership, transparency, vision, creativity, environmental awareness and ingenuity.

A total of 352 entries were received this year – a new record, and an increase of more than 50 percent on the 220 received in the competition’s inaugural year.

Having chosen the 96 finalists on the 2013 shortlist, four regional finals will now follow in Port-au-Prince, Cap-Haitian, Côtes des Arcadins and Les Cayes, at which one local winner will be announced in each of the six categories, giving us the names of the 24 national finalists.

With the support of the Clinton Foundation, those lucky 24 will join a special three day executive education at New YorkUniversity’s Stern Berkley Entrepreneurship Centre for Innovation – aimed at giving them a framework for thinking strategically about their companies.

The programme will feature a combination of class interaction, group exercises, guest speakers and panel discussions, as well as an off-site visit to a business featuring innovative best practice.

As ever, this year’s competition is packed with entrepreneurs who experienced that “light bulb moment”, who fought against the odds to keep their businesses open, or who failed in one direction before succeeding in another …

There’s one who built an engineering business from scratch and employed 2,000 people last year; A lady who opened a very successful bakery to avoid travelling to the Dominican Republic; a clever pre-paid medical insurance card business model, facilitating over 100,000 people, and a business minded nun who writes an environmental blog to keep in touch with her customers.

“To say all these stories are inspirational is to understate them”, says Ineke Botter of Digicel Haiti.