About this Episode
Cherie Blair and Helen McEachern join Alberto Lidji to discuss closing the gender gap in entrepreneurship, why mentorship matters and reaching 175,000 women via the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.
We hear Cherie’s personal story, from the positive influence of her mother and grandmother, to starting out as a lawyer in the 1970s when it was still rare for women to be actively involved in the workforce, to her time living in 10 Downing Street where she was lucky enough to travel the world and meet many great women across the world.
Cherie felt that there was a gap in women's economic independence — women and girls — and if they could fill that gap by giving women skills, networks and the mentoring that they needed they could really make a difference. She set up the foundation in 2008 and now have reached approximately 175,000 women and girls in over 100 countries.
We hear how if women had the same opportunity to be entrepreneurs as men, global GDP could rise by about $5 trillion dollars.
Helen McEachern, the Foundation’s CEO, explains why they focus on low and middle-income countries, where the lack of economic parity is particularly pronounced. We also learn how they leverage technology to remove barriers and of the invaluable role of their global online mentoring programme. Helen notes how the social norms that women face that hold them back are different in different countries and so they tailor their approach accordingly.
This is a fascinating conversation for anyone who cares about gender equality and embraces the entrepreneurial spirit. The conversation airs as the world marks International Women’s Day 2021.
This is a transcript of the conversation:
Alberto Lidji: A big heartfelt welcome on to The Do One Better! Podcast today.
Cherie Blair: Delighted to be here and to talk about our work.
Alberto Lidji: Excellent. I guess we could start by finding out a little bit about the foundation. What is the foundation doing? What's it all about? How did it come about?
Cherie Blair: Well, maybe if I talk first about how it came about. It came about really for two reasons. One is partly to do with me and my life story because I was brought up by two very strong women, my mom and my grandma. My father abandoned us. My mother who had left school at 14 because her own mother had died, had to pull herself up by her bootstraps because she had no education, to go out and work and support myself and my sister. I learned very early on that women's financial independence is really important. And then of course, in my own life, I became a financially independent woman and ended up living in 10 Downing Street. And when I was living in 10 Downing Street, I was lucky enough to travel the world either with or without my husband. And I got to meet many great women across the world, some of whom were experiencing the sort of society, a situation that my mother had experienced in her time. And others were perhaps more like the sort of society and experience that I had experienced in the 70s, when I started as a lawyer, when it was still very rare for women to be actively in the workforce, certainly in the sorts of jobs that I was doing. And I felt that there was a gap, if you like, in women's economic independence, women and girls, and if we could fill that gap by giving women skills, the networks, the mentoring that they needed, using technology, we could really make a difference. And we could reach many women and girls and give them the tools to enable them to redefine their future. And so, it would accelerate the process of development, which was already happening, but which was missing out on those particular talents and skills and half the population. And so, we set up the foundation in 2008. We’ve been going to be 12 years now we have reached approximately 170,000 - 175,000… women and girls, over 100 countries because of the kinds of services we deliver, which of course because we use technology means we can reach out to people who otherwise we would not be able to reach. And this year in the pandemic, we found that our services have been even more vital. Helped women entrepreneurs, work out how to adapt to this damaging virus, both to their health, but also to their economies. And so, we have been focusing a lot on resilience, and how to shift to selling online. And we have been very lucky because actually, we already had services about that. And we were able to adapt them to react very speedily to the sort of things that the women we are working with said they needed. So, it is partly about my own experience, and my own mother and grandmother and partly about what I saw when I was privileged enough to be married to the Prime Minister.
Alberto Lidji: Of course. And when did you decide….. when you think ‘Okay, this is not just an area I feel passionate about, but this is where we could actually structure this….we could actually set up a foundation and start getting serious about tackling something that I’m passionate about’?
Cherie Blair: Well, I think it was because, you know, it was after 10 years in Downing Street, I had this front row seat in history, it had been an amazing experience. But was this just something great for me? Or was it something that I could use to really give back. And I felt that as an entrepreneur myself, as a self-employed lawyer, I knew a little bit about what it is like to run your own business. And I felt this was somewhere I could contribute, and at that time, people were talking, not as much about the contribution women can make, to development through the economy and the opportunities there are for women, and the terrible waste there is if women aren’t allowed to participate, I mean, waste, obviously, in terms of the impact on the global economy, and the figures are phenomenal in relation to that. But also, in the waste of not hearing from the women themselves, self-respect that you get, women's leadership. So, we want… we very much focus on helping women to find their voices, and through the businesses that they grow and expand and set up.
Alberto Lidji: Excellent. And I was reading on your website, you referenced the global economy, I was reading that if women have the same opportunity to be entrepreneurs as men, global GDP could rise by about $5 trillion dollars.
Cherie Blair: That is exactly... that is absolutely the figure. And the other thing that has been very interesting is, I think there has been more interest in this area, and the World Economic Forum do their global gender gap report. And every year they measure four things: whether there's parity of treatment between women and men across the world in education, health, political engagement, and economic engagement. And last year, the last year they did it… actually, the only one that had slipped back was economic engagement. And so, the latest statistic is it is going to take 257 years before women and men equally participate in the world economy. Obviously, different paces in different countries, but overall, that is the position and that is gone back 55 years from the year before. So, when I started in the workforce as a young woman in the 1970s, I thought things were going to improve much quicker than that. And it is not acceptable that it is not just in not in my lifetime, not in my granddaughter's lifetime because I now have two little granddaughters aged four and six months. And actually it is going to be in their granddaughter’s lifetime. It is not acceptable. I am sure it is not acceptable to you with your 7-year-old and five-year-old.
Alberto Lidji: Exactly. And we are certainly not going to wait 257 years. So, it is great that you are both active and trying to change the reality on the ground. Helen, tell me a little bit about the work, how you decide which countries you go into. I understand again, it is low- and middle-income countries, how you operate. I know that the work is a range of things from research and advocacy. Give us a really great flavor of how the foundation is operating?
Helen McEachern: Thanks, Alberto. Yes, so we focus on low and middle-income countries. And really for the reason Cherie said that although there is not economic parity in any country, to be clear, that problem is not solved anywhere. It is much less solved in low and middle-income countries. And so, we focus our efforts and the resources that donors entrust us with in low and middle-income countries. Because Cherie herself is very passionate about technology and how technology can be used to remove barriers, so the foundation has always used technology. So, one of our programs is a global online mentoring program where we link women entrepreneurs that could live in any lower middle income country. We have women who are running businesses under conflict in Yemen, we have women that are running businesses in very remote locations who are able through that online global program to participate and find a mentor with our support, who could be a man or a woman who could live anywhere in the world. And they together work for a year to see how they can develop that woman's business and take it to the next level. So that is one of our Programs. And that is one of the reasons why we have that very wide spread of countries where we work. But we also deliver programs in more depth within certain countries. Right now, we are running programs in depth, in Kenya, in Nigeria, in Mexico, in Indonesia, and Vietnam. And we have plans to expand this year, we plan to expand to South Africa and Guyana in the Caribbean. And we have great aspirations to go further in Southeast Asia and Sub Saharan Africa. So what we do in those places is we work with local partners. We bring out legal expertise, which is very much about developing women’s skills, their networks, advising them around access to finance, access to markets, and making sure they have the business skills, the financial literacy that they need to be able to grow their business. And we have programs that we run, which I can talk about. And we work with a local partner in-country to run those programs. So, we bring the technical expertise. We bring this sort of tried and tested products. And the local partner has local knowledge. We do research with women in the country to understand their needs, and we adapt those programs. So, we don’t sort helicopter in and do a program and not understand the context. It is incredibly different everywhere you live. The laws are different, the banks are different. How you register a business is different. The social norms that women face that hold them back are different in different countries. So, we take out products and services and adapt them to those countries. A couple of programs, for example, we have a mobile learning app, which women can download in those countries and allows them to get bite sized lessons. The reason why a mobile app is great for a woman entrepreneur is because they tend to be very busy. They are running their families, they are running, sometimes multiple businesses. So, sitting in a classroom is just not really feasible for many women entrepreneurs. They need learning that comes to them. So, we have a mobile app, it is called Her Venture. And then we have another program called Road to Growth, which is blended learning. So, you do a little bit of classroom at the beginning and the end, but that rest of the learning comes to you facilitated, but online learning that you can do at your own pace. And so, they are the kinds of things that we are running in those countries to really help women entrepreneurs move their businesses to the next level.
Alberto Lidji: Fascinating, really fascinating. And so, you mentioned the technology side and then briefly you also touched on the reality that social norms differ drastically in different countries, different continents. And let me ask you, how are you tackling the behaviors and attitudes in so many places that maybe aren't...they are not like they are here in the UK.
Helen McEachern: So, that is a massive challenge for any kind of social change you have to live with but also respond to and try to change the environment. So, that is why it makes sense for us as an organization to be gender-focus, to be focused on women, firstly. Because women have different needs. So, our programs are designed for women, and understanding what their needs are. So that’s everything from… they have less time available because they do more unpaid care, which maybe we will come back to around COVID. Big change there. But also, the barriers that they face. So, when they are going to a bank, what is going to happen when a woman in a particular country goes to a bank and how is she going to be treated? And how does she prepare herself for that? Technically, how does she prepare her books so that she can access a loan? But also, how does she influence? How does she have the confidence to respond to some of the attitudes that she is going to meet some of the stereotypes she is going to face? So, the training uses case studies and examples to help women both prepare technically, which actually many need those skills, actually, and this… with the skills comes confidence, but also looks at those influencing those leadership skills that you need to work in a - what could be a fairly hostile environment. The other thing is, what's seen across research in this area is how important things that may be taken for granted for many men - networks, business networks - both support networks, people, you can go to a sounding board for advice and guidance. Advice and guidance of how you are managing your life as well as your business, but also access to what is happening that will help your business. So those networks are really important glue for women and help them overcome those social norms or at least improve their position in light of them. And then the other thing is mentoring, and Cherie can speak about the impact of that on her life, I have certainly had the impact of that. And you will see women leaders everywhere from Kamala Harris, who we saw become the first woman Vice President, you know we’ll talk about the impact of mentoring and these women entrepreneurs that we work with whatever level they are at currently, in terms of their business and society, mentoring will have an impact. Local mentoring, global mentoring, finding someone with a safe space, who works with you to develop yourself, and in this case, your business. So, I think those things really help. They don’t remove them. Patriarchy is a big system to break. But that is a little bit of help.
Alberto Lidji: That is really great insight. Well, Cherie, with regards to mentoring, I know it is an area close to your heart. Tell us a little bit about how mentoring has impacted you and how improving the world can all be better by sharing knowledge and having people who have done the journey impart some of that wisdom with others?
Cherie Blair: Well, one of the things I feel very strongly about in our mentoring platform is that the mentees are all women, actually, we have men and women mentors. And I think that is partly because obviously, when I first started as a lawyer, and I qualified in 1976, only 10% of women and people at the Bar were women. So, most of the time, I saw men as barristers, and I relied on men to help me progress in my career. And I did find men who were perfectly willing to assist a young woman on her career. We specifically engage with women because of their particular issues. But we certainly are looking for men as well to come and join our mentoring platform, and be volunteers in that. And the interesting thing about that is that sometimes remote mentoring, doing it over the internet, does enable a man to mentor a woman when he would not be able to do so in reality. And a real example of that is way back when we first started, and the pilots of the mentoring platform in 2010, and then there was a man called Giles, who had a small manufacturing company in Birmingham and he mentored a young woman, in Nablus, in the Palestinian territories. And she just graduated with an economics degree and had found she could not go anywhere with that because the young men were going over to the Gulf states but a single muslim woman could travel to the Gulf States alone. But she turned out to be quite good at baking and she saw a market within the University for a traditional Palestinian food restaurant and she wanted to set that up, and Giles was able to help her to do that. And he would never have been able to talk with her and assist her in person. In fact, the first time they met was when we went over to New York to launch the platform with the help of the UN Development Program, and that was the first time they actually met face to face. We follow our mentees, by the way, and in that case, she eventually after 18 months, did find a job using her economics degree in the Palestinian Authority government, and her mother continues to this day with the business and the business is still going. So, I think that is a great story. But one of the reasons I love the mentoring program is that when I was thinking about these ideas, and as I was traveling around, you meet people who do just want to give money. Yes, money is really important but there are plenty of people, plenty of successful people who want to give back and the mentoring platform is a very personal way to develop a relationship with somebody across the world. One of our mentees described her mentor as my invisible friend who walks beside me on my journey. The platform also allows you, as mentors and mentees, both to be trained. We train our mentors, so that you have, as we develop their listening skills. And you can participate in the chat rooms and forums and the learning programs that we have as well. So, there is a real community there, I think, which people really enjoy. And so, I gave you one example, a recent example, for example, and this is why the mentoring platform is so exciting because we are in over 100 countries, our local partners identify women entrepreneurs for us, and our mentors come from all over too. So one mentee we have is called Ifoma, she has a skincare business in Nigeria. It is not small…. The women on the mentoring platform obviously have to speak English and have to be able to have access to the internet, so they are not the poorest of the poor. We have other programs for them, but they are women who employ others, and who can really stand out as role models and people who can help their country. And her mentor was Suba, and Suba was from India. So, this is an example of someone from India helping someone in Nigeria. And one of the things they did in their yearlong mentoring relationship was help Ifoma apply to MasterCard, because MasterCard has funding for women in business. And at the end of that year, just recently, at the end of 2020, we have got news that actually it had been accepted, securing the future of her business. She has got the MasterCard funding and she employs and will continue to be able to employ and expand on 100 low-income women. So, that is a huge benefit. And I think over the cohort of last year's mentoring platform, I think, on average, they each employed two more women in the program, now obviously not all of them did. But it went really well.
Alberto Lidji: I love the cross-cultural angle and how you can have mentors and mentees in different corners of the world, which can only be a good thing.
Cherie Blair: One of the things we do with our mentoring platform is we have previously relied heavily on employers. So, we worked with employers who are interested in different countries and we place their employees. For example, Bank of America, one of our… Marsh & McLennan. These are big companies that have been long term sponsors of ours, and they like it because it enables their employees across the world to engage in a volunteering program, wherever they are, whichever office they are in. This is open to them all because it is global. And they like it. Also, because it enables their employees to get an understanding of what it is really like to live and work in some of the countries where perhaps they are transacting business. But this year, we have started a new experiment to allow people to actually self fund and to join if you want to… because it costs obviously to maintain it.… We have got a great new brand new interactive bells and whistles platform and that costs. So I think a little over £1,000, you can actually get trained as a mentor and participate in the program as an individual and we are looking forward to encouraging people who want to make a donation in that way. In money, and in time to donate, and give two hours a month, because that is what we ask about approximately, to really get to know and support a woman entrepreneur. Did I get some of that well, Helen?
Helen McEachern: Absolutely. And just to add… I mean, my experience I have met, as Cherie has, many mentees and mentors. But the impact on the mentor is enormous, because you have this experience of getting to know someone from a different culture of having different life experiences and you work together with them, it is very much a partnership, to change their life. And that is incredibly satisfying. So, the mentor really gets a sort of life changing experience. And it isn’t very time intensive. And it is really difficult for lots of business people, whether they are in companies or whether they work for themselves to find time to volunteer and to give back. And many people want to do that. But it is difficult to find that time in your life because of other demands. And the wonderful thing I think about this program, and there are lots of great volunteer programs out there, but this is extremely flexible, because we can match you with someone so that the time zone works for your availability. We match you with someone that fits with your skills, if you have got a finance background, work with a woman who needs to work on the finances of her business. And you can make the time work when you are going to meet when it suits you in your life. And as Cherie says the minimum is two hours a month, many give more than that. But that is the minimum. So, over a year, you have this big impact for really a few days of work. So, I think it is a really powerful opportunity.
Alberto Lidji: Great. And I imagine as the program goes on and grows, you may very well have some of those women who are mentees becoming mentors?
Helen McEachern: We have. Absolutely.
Cherie Blair: It happens already, actually. So…
Alberto Lidji: That is wonderful.
Cherie Blair: We are very pleased with that. It does not just happen… the women coming onto our own platform. Actually, we have discovered that it is informally 80% of it… because we survey… I should say we are not a matchmaking agency, we do not just team you up and let you get on with it. We have a whole infrastructure of support, help setting goals, we monitor the relationship, and we ask and get feedback about what is working and what is not working. And because of that feedback, and we follow up afterwards, as well. We know that 80% of the women on the program and mentees actually, informally, are mentors of some kind, and 50% of them actually do some kind of formal in-country mentoring, as well. So, these women are both getting and giving back at the same time.
Alberto Lidji: I am sure quite a few people listening to this might think to themselves, this sounds fascinating. How do I get involved? How do I… where do I go? So, you briefly mentioned the app, but give me the name of the app again. And also, how do they get in touch with the foundation if somebody is interested in mentoring or seeking possibly, to have the wisdom from a mentor. What are the steps that somebody needs to take and bear in mind, they may be anywhere on this planet so.
Cherie Blair: Well, we definitely will welcome that. I mean, our Foundation website, cherieblairfoundation.org, is where you would go first, the mentoring program has different intakes, so we do some training, and then we start the relationship. The next intake, if you like… The applications for that open on the 8th of March of this year, and the application form is there. We have algorithms so that we assess people's skills, and the needs and we match them together. So it is quite an intensive process from our side. Hopefully, we try and make it as easy as possible for those who are applying. So, if people are interested, this is a good time to start looking at what we are doing. Helen, is there anything else?
Helen McEachern: And also, you will find on the website - the email addresses, if you are interested in getting in touch with one of our teams, it is firstname.lastname@example.org. So, the email address if you just have a general question, if you would like to donate. Of course, we love that there is a Donate button on the website. But if you are more interested in a partnership, a deeper relationship, you want to get to know us please contact us at email@example.com. That is definitely the best way to get in touch with us.
Alberto Lidji: Great and if somebody is interested, they need to have an internet connection, they need to speak English. And in terms of how advanced or otherwise they are in their actual business venture, they could be at…
Cherie Blair: Seven years plus we usually ask, 7+ years’ experience. And the other thing is if some of them actually also speak another language… I mean the platform is in English, we have great ambitions to translate that platform into other languages - French, Spanish, Arabic, … we need funding for that. But obviously, some of our mentees, if you do have language skills, then, the people in South America who speak English, if you can also speak Spanish, it is certainly not a disadvantage. And similarly, in Africa with the French speaking countries there.
Alberto Lidji: Great. And so, also, if there are any philanthropists listening to this, which I have a feeling there might be one or two, may be worthwhile taking a look at the foundation as well. Sounds like fascinating work. Tell me in terms of success for the next 10 years, which dovetails quite nicely with the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. If we are all having a coffee, the three of us hopefully not under pandemic conditions in lockdown, but in a proper cafe. What is it we’d love to be looking back on and say, “Wow, this was really great. We succeeded.”
Helen McEachern: I would like to be able to point to a number of women that we have helped, I mean, as you know we have reached about 175,000 but we have really scaled our impact in the last couple of years, where we have gone from reaching a few thousand a year to reaching 20,000 to 30,000 a year. So, I would love to be able to reach more people, so ambitious in terms of scale. But also, there are some things we really want to help tackle. One of them is the stereotypes that you sort of alluded to earlier. And we really love to have an impact on the stereotypes that women face and challenge them. Because when you meet these women entrepreneurs that we work with, they are changing the world, they are incredible. They are skilled, they are knowledgeable. They are creating amazing, innovative businesses. And I think the world needs to notice that. And we love to be a part of making sure that happens in the next 10 years.
Alberto Lidji: Great! Here’s to your success on that front. And, Cherie, what would be the key takeaway that you’d love for our audience to keep in mind after they finish listening to today's episode.
Cherie Blair: Look, the world is not going to succeed, we are not going to get over this pandemic, we are not going to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, if we ignore 50% of the population that are women and women have so much to offer. This is the time I am determined when women's voices will be heard and women's contribution will be acknowledged. And to make that happen, we need to ensure that women have the skills, the confidence, the networks, to enable them to define their futures. That is what it is about. That is why last year, we set up our 100,000 women campaign. It was a campaign we launched in Davos, we have programs all developed and of course, the pandemic came. Luckily, we were able to pivot on to the internet. But we obviously have ambitions this year, to do some in-person events to highlight that, and the plan is we want to raise 10 million over the next three years to reach 100,000 more women and really show the world what women can do.
Alberto Lidji: Excellent. Well, again, much luck to both of you, as you are driving forward this venture, this philanthropic venture — you’ve been listening to the wonderful Cherie Blair, of the Cherie Blair foundation for Women and the foundation’s CEO Helen McEachern. It sincerely has been a pleasure speaking with both of you, learning from you and helping spread the word a little bit about your wonderful work. And to our listeners, thank you as ever for tuning in, for following, and for sharing. Cherie, Helen, really thank you. It is such an enjoyable way to spend this morning.
Cherie Blair: It is our pleasure and I'm really grateful to those of you who take the trouble to listen to us.
Helen McEachern: Thank you, Alberto!
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