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IIC Partners, 11 October 2012

IIC Partners has some competition. Cherie Blair, noted Queen's Counsel and former first lady of the United Kingdom, is recruiting. If you're a c-level executive, a board director - or aspiring to either - Mrs Blair may have a role for you.

Conservative or Labour, Democrat or Republican, socialist, capitalist, communist, monarchist or apathetic, please forget the politics. Mrs Blair is the wife of Tony Blair, UK Prime Minister for 10 years until 2007 and currently Quartet Special Envoy to the Middle East (the Quartet is comprised of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia). Mrs Blair is a professional advocate and an advocate for the Labour Party.

She is also an advocate for millions of disadvantaged women around the world.

The Cherie Blair Foundation was formally established in 2009. Just three years later, it has helped 6000 women in 25 developing or emerging countries to start or grow their own businesses through one-to-one mentoring, access to mobile technology and other business support, including access to networks, training and finance.

And it has ambitious plans. Over the next year, the foundation is aiming to increase the reach of all its programmes. It is soon to launch, in partnership with Nokia, a business support app, which will provide practical advice and support to women entrepreneurs. Initial research suggests the take-up could be as high as 100,000 in the short to medium term.

This month, the foundation will add 150 to its existing pool of 250 mentors. And they need more. Which is why Mrs Blair is headhunting for talented mid to senior business professionals who can spare two hours a month.

It all began in earnest in 2006. Mrs Blair had been asked by the IFC (the International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank Group) to accompany their representatives to launch two programmes to encourage money to be loaned to women entrepreneurs. One was in Tanzania with Exim Bank, the other was in Uganda with the UFCD (a bank set up by the Commonwealth).

"The women did a three-day training course which I came in at the end of. I met these wonderful women entrepreneurs and I could see what they had achieved and what they could do," says Mrs Blair.

"There was a Canadian woman giving marketing training. Many of the women made their own labels for the products they were selling, and they all looked different. The Canadian woman gave an example of how the Coca-Cola brand always looked the same.

"The women had set up a stall outside the hotel where the event was and were selling their wares in the street. One of the women sold beautiful mosquito nets which were hand made by women in her village. Until that point, they had had no packaging. She went back to her village, designed this fancy packaging and left them outside on the stall. The manager of the hotel came in to the course and told us he had just seen these fantastic mosquito nets and wanted to order them for his hotel. He also said he'd speak to the other hotels in his group as he was sure they would want to order some. That was a very powerful example of what a woman entrepreneur could do with a bit of help. She was told about marketing, she took the advice and she got a contract."

Though the foundation is just a few years' old, Mrs Blair said she always wanted to establish an organization to support women.

"I have always been rather driven. When I was 14 I said I was going to be the first female prime minster of Great Britain. I didn't quite make that!

"I am a bolshy scouser. I was brought up in Liverpool and the northwest where Dame Rose Heilbron, the first woman QC and the second woman to become a High Court judge, was from. She was very famous in Liverpool when I was growing up and a role model for me.

"When I was eight my mother was abandoned by my father, leaving her to support us alone. She had been at Rada, [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] and got a summer job touring Wales. She was the juvenile female lead, my father was the juvenile male lead...

"After he dumped her she got a job in the Seaforth Docks area of Liverpool in a fish and chips shop. She hadn't finished her own education and her own mother died when she was 14.

"Lots of people say to me, 'You have achieved a lot', but I sometimes wonder what could my mother and grandmother have done if they had had my opportunities. Not that they didn't achieve great things, but what could they have achieved?"

In many women Mrs Blair met on her international trips, she could see her mother and her grandmother. She knew they too could achieve success with some help.

"Over the 10 years I was at Downing Street we had 75,000 visitors. Every Tuesday, I'd give a charity reception for between 50 to 70 people. I learnt a lot about what was going on around the world and what needed to be done.

"I would hear about a charity doing good work in say Kenya, then in the Middle East another charity would be doing the same good work - but they didn't know about each other and weren't speaking to each other. I knew there were many other others like them, but there was this 'missing middle'.

"So my thought was to set up a foundation to be a facilitator, not a new entity doing work already being done. I wanted to use my advocacy and name to take these organisations to another scale.

"And it was the time to do it because of technology. We have the ability to reach so many women through technology. We are trying to build a community."

The Cherie Blair Foundation works with very carefully selected local partner organizations, already working to support women, in the countries the foundation operates. Its mentors are more widely recruited.

The mentors are successful mid to senior professionals from a variety of sectors, with at least seven years' experience in their chosen fields. Recruited on a rolling basis, they undergo a comprehensive online training programme before being matched with their mentees. The commitment involved is a mere two hours per month via e-mail and video conferencing, yet it has been demonstrably life-changing.

"We really need your help. Consider becoming a mentor if you would like to learn a bit more about an extraordinary woman who needs you to make her business dreams a reality. If you can't commit to this, consider being a member or a patron - or your company can contribute.

"In the original group [of mentees] there was a young woman, Nehaya, I had met during a visit to Palestine. I met all these young women from the university and I asked them, 'What are you going to do next?' They said, 'There is nothing we can do, the boys we have been training with are all going to the [Arabian] Gulf'. Nehaya said to me, 'I am thinking of taking up embroidery!'. It was terrible - not that there is anything wrong with embroidery - but it was such a waste.

"She had a business idea, cooking for the students and she had been doing it at home. We had a business development centre take it out of her home and allow her to open premises near the university.

"A chap called Giles in Birmingham, who was the CEO of a mid-sized manufacturing company, became her mentor. With his help she secured $5000 to expand her business and now she employs two other women."

Why does the foundation bear her name? Mrs Blair is visibly uncomfortable.

"This is not about me. This is about my friends and staff and the women we help. I had a whole debate with myself because I didn't want to call it after myself. I was persuaded otherwise because of how well known the 'Blair' name is, particularly in Africa. I have a terrific team here. It's not about me. I am not the CEO, I am not a trustee, I am just a patron.

"I don't view these women as recipients of our largesse. They are strong women themselves who have the courage to set up a business and see it grow. They do have challenges, or it's the challenge of still not being taken seriously in a man's world.

"Women in many of the countries we work in do not actually have equal rights. In those societies money talks. If she has financial independence, she can make choices for herself and is not at the mercy of her husband or father or brother," says Mrs Blair.

"Women with special needs and the very wealthy and well-educated are fine, but 'middle of the ground' women are not catered for - banks don't take them seriously. In many of these places it's the husband who is the legal owner of property as women are not legally entitled to own property, and banks only lend on collateral of land," Mrs Blair says.

According to research by the United Nations, just 2% of titled land in the world is owned by women.

"In Saudi Arabia, for example, 20 or 30 years ago women would have said that was fine. And yet now we are hearing more and more feisty Saudi women saying,' Give us more rights, more freedom - we can be a huge force for good in this world," Mrs Blair says.

"You know, it still haunts me to think that 70% students going to the university in the Gulf [Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and the Sultanate of Oman] are women - and yet they are only 20% of the workforce."

The interview is coming to an end. Mrs Blair was charming, open, passionate about the foundation that bears her name. She reels off names of women and the business ideas they had, from all over the world, who now have some financial independence and control of their lives due to the work she and her team have done.

And Mr Blair?

"I suppose I should give him some credit. He told me to go ahead and follow my passion. This is my non-legal passion."

Actually, don't forget about the politics.

If you are interested in becoming a mentor for the Cherie Blair Foundation, visit www.cherieblairfoundation.org for more information.

Mrs Blair was interviewed by IIC Partners Chief Marketing & Communications Officer Polly Stewart.

IIC Partners interview: Executive Opportunities