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Five Questions with Cherie Blair, Founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women

Clinton Global Initiative, 27 March 2013

This article was originally published in Clinton Global Initiative

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Cherie Blair on her passion for women's empowerment, the encouragement she received from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and her foundation's 2012 CGI Commitment to Action to provide 1,000 women entrepreneurs from developing nations with virtual access to mentors

CGI: Of all the things you could have focused on, why technology and girls & women? What was the impetus behind your mission?

Blair: Women's empowerment has always been a passion of mine, and in the last few years I've become more and more aware of the power of technology in helping women increase control over their own lives. While my husband was the British Prime Minster, I did a lot of travelling to different parts of the world and I met a lot of impressive women who were working hard to create and sustain their own businesses in order to support themselves and their families. It was striking how financial independence gave these women confidence and the respect of their peers.

However, despite their motivation and diligence, it was clear that many of the women entrepreneurs struggled to grow their businesses because of the number of structural and cultural barriers that they face. Many lacked the business management skills, the networks and access to capital needed to expand. And there was huge gap in the technology at their disposal, technology that could solve many of their problems, enable them to take their businesses to the next level, increase their profits, hire more employees and contribute to their economies. This seemed to me like a sad waste of potential, and I wanted to do something about it.

I fully began to appreciate the power of technology to overcome these kinds of barriers, when I first set up my Foundation. We looked into the challenges that women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging markets face and researched the best ways to address them. We discovered that information and communications technologies are pivotal tools for connecting large numbers of women to valuable information and markets. Being a bit of a techie myself, I was particularly interested in pursuing this research further, so the Foundation invested in research with partners like the ExxonMobil Foundation and the Vodafone Foundation in India and then put that research into practice, developing a number of different mobile services, which specifically addressed the particular needs of women entrepreneurs in whichever country they were doing business.

Thus last year, we launched our 'Business Women' service in Nigeria and Indonesia with the support of the ExxonMobil Foundation and Nokia, which provides business information tailored for women entrepreneurs in each country and has already reached over 15,000 women. And I was in India just a week ago with the Vodafone Foundation to visit a project where we are providings a mobile-based information management system for 2,000 women entrepreneurs in SEWA's distribution network in Gujarat. The women there told me the application has enabled them to save so much time that they are quadrupling their earnings, able to send their children to school without taking out a loan and for some, able to eat more than one meal per day.

Using the power of technology in a different way, we have also developed an online platform with the help of Google which pairs mentors around the world with women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging markets. We have reached more than 550 women and we have made a CGI commitment to reach 1,000 by the end of 2014.

CGI: Could you give us an idea of who these women entrepreneurs are? And who are the experts mentoring them?

Blair: Mentees come from all walks of life, from over 45 different countries, including Malaysia, Kenya, Pakistan and Honduras. These women are either just starting out as entrepreneurs or are looking to expand an existing business. Mentors are men and women who are highly skilled professionals or entrepreneurs with at least seven years work experience. Coming from over 35 different countries, they bring valuable new insights, perspectives and skills to the table, and help their mentees to further develop their own capabilities.

Often mentees will be matched with mentors who not only live at opposite ends of the world but also work in completely different sectors. I always enjoy hearing about how these relationships develop, because at first they seem like unlikely matches but time and time again they prove to be the most successful.

Take, for example, Shyamla in Mumbai, who runs an interior design business. She was paired with Julian from the south coast of England, who works in technology and doesn't even know how to sew. Together they proved to be a thriving team and overtime Julian helped Shyamla to set up an eCommerce site and build her own website.

CGI: Based on what you've learned from your mentorship program, what are the major concerns of women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging economies today, in comparison to the concerns of women entrepreneurs in first world nations?

Blair: The issues that we come across most frequently in the programme are lack of confidence, insufficient training and lack of access to markets and capital. While many women may understand how to run a business, due to cultural restraints they are often unable to take out loans or work across international markets. This dramatically inhibits the growth and prosperity of their businesses.

More broadly speaking, at its most basic level, we find women just asking for support. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely business, and this is true no matter in what part of the world you live. But for women who face opposition from their family or community, or for those trying to do something different, it's especially isolating. Feedback we've had from mentees shows that the support they've been given through the programme, even in the form of encouragement, has had a profound impact on them. This is the great thing about our online mentoring platform - it facilitates a vibrant community where mentors and mentees support one another across thousands of miles.

CGI: Has there been a particular mentor who's had a significant impact on you in your career?

Blair: Mentoring has always played a prominent role in my life. Throughout various stages of my own career I have had many different mentors, formal and informal. During my time as a young lawyer, a senior barrister, Derry Irvine, took me under his wing and really took the time to introduce me to best practice in writing and advocacy, all of which made a huge difference to my self-confidence and the development of my professional skills. In later life, during my time as wife of the Prime Minister and afterwards, when setting up my foundation, Hillary Clinton has been a kind of mentor to me, offering encouragement and support along the way.

In turn, in the later stages of my career, I have found it very rewarding to be able to mentor younger lawyers. One young man who sought me out as a mentor a few years back has since joined the Foundation's mentoring programme as a mentor himself. When you see that happen, you feel the time you spent has had a double benefit.

CGI: What do you consider the greatest challenge to getting girls & women over the tipping point?

Blair: That's a big question. But I guess the challenge is to raise the status of girls and women everywhere. So that in every country in the world there's as much rejoicing for the birth of a daughter as for a son, there's as much effort and money put into a daughter's education as into a son's. It's about women having the same legal rights as men, the same rights to own and inherit property, to work and to own businesses. My Foundation is tackling this challenge in one way – we help women raise their status through their earning power - other non-profits are doing it in their way.

What we need to focus on in order to achieve real impact, is combining our efforts strategically, learning from one another’s mistakes and building on each other’s successes. This is what makes CGI so valuable, facilitating partnerships with topic dinners and forums where organisations across sectors can meet and collaborate on solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.

About Cherie Blair

Leading Queen's Counsel, wife of the former British Prime Minister, and committed campaigner for women's rights, Cherie Blair set up the Foundation in 2008 to help women build small and growing businesses in developing and emerging markets so that they can contribute to their economies and have a stronger voice in their societies. Blair is actively involved in the foundation, generously and tirelessly giving her time and resources to ensure its success. Travelling internationally, visiting projects and speaking on behalf of women around the world, she is an ambassador for women entrepreneurs everywhere, encouraging other nonprofits, corporations, and governments to do more to support women business owners. In 2013, Blair was honored as Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for her services to women's issues and charity in the U.K. and overseas.