As an international human-rights barrister, Cherie Blair has traveled around the world and met women in impoverished areas. Many had business ideas but lacked the resources and assistance necessary to get them off the ground. She always thought there had to be a better way to help them than the ubiquitous two- or three-day conference.
“I wanted to do something that used technology and targeted a particular group of women who were not the poorest of the poor, but who had businesses that were employing other people,” she says. If she could help those business owners succeed, not only would each woman and her family have a better life, but she would also be able to employ others and encourage the economic development of her region and country.
It was an ambitious goal, but Blair is no stranger to tackling big challenges. She came from humble beginnings, raised by her single mother and her grandmother, each of whom had only attended school until age 14. Having made the journey from her modest Liverpool home to accomplished professional and resident of 10 Downing Street, she was determined to use her experience and considerable platform to help other women achieve success.
In 2008, she created the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, based in London. Programs focus on helping women achieve financial success so they have more options and are able to contribute economically to their families and communities. To help them launch and grow their businesses, the foundation provides support in four key areas: business skills, technology, networks, and access to capital.
One of the foundation’s programs, the Mentoring Women in Business Programme, pairs aspiring and current women entrepreneurs around the world with seasoned mentors. Using videoconferencing technology, mentors and protégés meet virtually with impressive results. The platform now supports roughly 1,800 women entrepreneurs who report they feel more confident (96%), achieve their key business goals (98%), and gain access to new markets (81%), because of the support and advice they receive.
The technology-based model even allows pairings that wouldn’t be possible otherwise, such as connecting a young Palestinian woman with a male mentor in the U.K. Twenty percent of the foundation’s mentors are men and, while a number of the women in the program would never be able to meet face-to-face with a male mentor because of religious or cultural factors, they can work together virtually with little issue. Another mentor is a university professor in Lebanon who was paired with a woman who owned a home tailoring business in Malaysia.
“Can you imagine? Someone in Kuala Lumpur and someone in Lebanon, brought together by the Internet,” she says. “She started off with five clients, and now she’s got 30 after just a few months on the platform.”
Among her own mentors, Blair counts former Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine, Hillary Clinton, and women from her foundation’s mentoring program. For example, Comfort Aku Adjahoe-Jennings, a Ghanaian entrepreneur, started a shea butter products business with a few hundred dollars. With help from her mentor, it has grown into an enterprise that works with more than 300 producers across the country, including women-led shea processing cooperatives and more than 5,000 shea nut pickers, who receive fair trade prices. Now, she’s a mentor with the program, helping other business owners. Such stories give Blair energy to keep up the frenetic pace of her philanthropy.
Developing these programs with her team and an array of public and private partners has taught Blair a great deal about what it takes to be a good mentor—and how important mentors are in every area of life.
“It’s not just about helping people in big companies get promotions or pay raises. It’s an amazing tool for international development and women’s empowerment,” she says. And she identifies several key attributes that good mentors share.
Flexibility. Rigid mentors aren’t as effective as those who can deal with changing circumstances. In the foundation program, for example, an entrepreneur may live in an area where electricity service isn’t consistent. That can interfere with everything from production to mentor meetings. While you want to ensure that you’re imposing a level of accountability, you also have to understand that such things happen and find solutions, she says.
Creativity. One of the greatest benefits a mentor can give a protégé is support for her vision. That may require a measure of creative thinking. That can help a mentor see the vision when it isn’t clear, and help the entrepreneur explore new ideas and solutions.
Cultural sensitivity. In both the foundation’s mentoring program and in the world at large, mentors and protégés may come from profoundly different backgrounds. Good mentors take time to understand differences, she says. For example, one Rwandan entrepreneur employed an older man who wasn’t performing well. However, in her culture, older people are to be respected, so she struggled with how to redirect him and help him perform better. Her mentor helped her come up with strategies to address the problem without insulting him.
Commitment. Good mentors are ready to devote the time it takes to cultivate the relationship, Blair says. The foundation asks mentors—who are accepted into the program twice a year, in May and November—to commit to spending two hours per month with their protégés for one year. That’s enough time for them to form a relationship, set goals, and make progress towards results, she says. Mentors should be committed enough to the relationship to share their knowledge, and become vested in the relationship so they truly care about the protégé’s success.
Blair says the last attribute is probably the most important. The commitment is what makes mentoring relationships work on both sides—and such dedication is bringing her vision to life.
“There are so many competent, capable women out there who, if you just give them the tools and a little bit of support, will get on and do amazing things,” she says.