The Cherie Blair Foundation released a report for its Mentoring Women in Business Programme at an event in Johannesburg, South Africa in late June. On the occasion, Blair delivered a keynote address. Sangeeta Haindl asked her about the purpose and effect of this innovative Programme.
SH: Your report highlights the same issues that women in business in the UK face. Do you think more collaboration is needed globally?
CB: You are absolutely right that women in business face similar barriers around the world. The unfortunate truth is that no country in the world has secured gender equality in economic activity. Achieving this milestone will be a huge task—one that cannot be done alone. Collaboration is indeed important, but it doesn’t stop with women’s groups. We need the private sector, public institutions and governments to join forces too. At my Foundation we believe that sharing resources, networks and expertise will be crucial in the struggle to achieve women’s economic empowerment.
SH: What about role models?
CB: To me, a role model is someone who inspires me through their actions – like the women mentees involved in our Programme.
I have been lucky enough to benefit from the support of both male and female mentors during my career. When I started out as a young barrister in the 1970s, for example, the law was a very male-dominated world. It was difficult to find female role models to look up to. In the end, I received support from a fantastic male mentor, who took the time to show me the ropes and offered valuable guidance.
I am a firm believer that we need more men to be involved in the movement for gender equality. I’m very proud that 20% of the mentors in our Programme are men — and we welcome more!
My mother and grandmother were also powerful role models for me when I was growing up. They had very little and they both worked incredibly hard to create a better life for me, to ensure that I was able to make the most of every opportunity. Their resilience and selflessness still inspire me.
SH: Do you think the Internet has given rise to more women entrepreneurs globally?
CB: Technology enables women to access training, information, markets and financial services. That’s why it is so important that we close the persistent gender gap in access to technology. It’s estimated that 200 million fewer women than men are connected to the internet, and that women in low and middle income countries are 14% less likely than men to own a mobile phone.
SH: The report focuses on life-changing mentors. What kind of mentors do you want to attract?
CB: First and foremost, we want to attract mentors who are committed to the Programme and we ask for a commitment of two hours per month, for one year. This is a critical amount of time that allows them to build a relationship and support their mentee to achieve key business goals.
We value mentors who are flexible – people who can deal with changing circumstances. For example, some of women entrepreneurs live in areas with poor electricity and internet connectivity. We need mentors who can adapt and find solutions around these challenges.
SH: Do you think that women in business in the West can also learn from women in emerging economies?
CB: Of course! There is an incredible wealth of knowledge and creativity in many developing and emerging economies, where entrepreneurship is on the rise – particularly among women. The rate of women's entrepreneurship is higher in many African countries than it is in Europe and the US.
We also know from our own Programme that mentoring is always a two-way relationship. Findings from a recent report on our Programme show that our mentors learn a great deal from working closely with a woman entrepreneur from an emerging economy such as South Africa. 93% of mentors reported that the mentoring experience impacted their own personal and professional development and 66% reported that it helped them to gain skills and knowledge.
SH: What hardships do women in the developing world face when setting up businesses?
CB: The barriers facing women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging economies are numerous. At the Foundation, we focus on three key areas. First is around women’s skills and confidence. Educational inequalities often mean women have missed out on gaining the skills to run successful businesses. The second barrier for women is access to networks. Women simply don’t have the same access to business connections that men enjoy, because they are burdened with the lion’s share of household responsibilities. By bringing women together in training classes and we connect ambitious women with one another. Our Programme offers access to a vital network of professionals and experts who can provide tailored support to mentees throughout their journey.
The third barrier is access to finance – women struggle with this issue in a way that their male counterparts do not. Over one billion women around the world, remain ‘unbanked’, lacking access to a simple bank account.
SH: Do women need to be more like men to succeed?
CB: I’ve met many successful women who have achieved great things without needing to imitate men. Recent research from Ernst & Young shows that women business owners are outperforming their male counterparts in the number of jobs they create, while data from Chile shows women to be the safer bets for bank loans over their male counterparts. The business case for having more women on corporate boards lies partly in the fact that they hold 70 to 80% of purchasing power. In order to be successful, companies need to know their customers, so having greater female representation on boards can bring a crucial perspective. The truth is that the world of business needs to be more inclusive and diverse to ensure that everyone—no matter their gender, race, age or ability—is able to participate in the economy in a meaningful way.
SH: Do women in business in the developing world face more gender-related barriers?
CB: Yes, they do. The World Economic Forum compiles a yearly report exploring the gender gaps of 145 countries, looking at the correlation between the income of a country and its level of gender equality. It consistently finds that the group of high income countries is closer to achieving gender equality than countries from the other income groups.
The odds are stacked against women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging economies. It is precisely this fact which inspired me to set up my Foundation. It was clear to me that countless women around the world possessed the potential to be successful business owners and drivers of change in their communities – they just needed the tools to be able to pursue their ambitions.
SH: By giving women entrepreneurs in the developing world more support for their businesses, it will change the economics and the culture of these societies. Will these business women need extra support to navigate their way?
CB: Empowering women to participate in the economy on an equal footing with men carries huge impacts, not just for those individual women, but also for their economies. The McKinsey Institute estimates that closing the gender gap in economic activity would add an incredible $28 trillion to global GDP by 2025. Empowering women entrepreneurs also generates more immediate impacts on local communities. We have data that shows 80% of mentees reported that they had passed along what they had learned to others in their communities and 50% of mentees went on to mentor others.
Entrepreneurship is therefore a territory which is full of opportunity – both for women and for the economy. Our aim is to empower women entrepreneurs with the skills and tools they need to thrive in this territory.
However, there is only so much we can ask women to do. We also need governments and the private sector to stand up and be involved. They need to recognise the barriers facing women entrepreneurs and respond with solutions—things like greater support for women’s training, better investment in digital infrastructure and policies that promote women’s financial inclusion.
SH: What would be a success story for the Foundation?
CB: Since I established the Foundation in 2008 we have reached over 136,000 women in more than 90 countries. I am incredibly proud of this achievement and we have plans to grow our reach and deepen our impact further.
But to me, numbers are less important than the stories of change I hear when I meet the women we work with. After having recently visited some of our mentees in South Africa, I have a renewed sense of the importance of what we do. One woman I met, Tebogo, set up a dance academy for children from underprivileged backgrounds, after having a successful dance career herself. She spoke very powerfully about the need to give these children a space to learn and express themselves safely. Another woman, Nonkululeko, has set up an organisation supporting young people into higher education. These women are doing incredible things for their communities. To me, stories like theirs are what success looks like.
Photos: Cherie Blair Foundation, Alexia Webster