Monday 24 February 2020 5:55 am

Like a boss: Cherie Blair on helping women start their own business

Annabel Denham is director of communications at the Institute of Economic Affairs

We tend to associate entrepreneurship with opportunistic founders operating out of bustling Silicon Valley hubs — or perhaps more specifically the five American tech giants whose combined market value, it was reported recently, has increased by $1.3 trillion in the past year.

In fact, entrepreneurship exists wherever you are. The sharing economy is producing millions of micro-entrepreneurs who are putting dormant assets to good use. Necessity entrepreneurs in the developing world are supplementing incomes, boosting economic growth, and extending products or services to those who need them. 

And some — like Cherie Blair — will find other ways to be their own boss.

Mrs Blair is one of few “First Ladies” to convincingly step out of her husband’s shadow. Perhaps that’s because she was never in it: in the same year they met, she became a barrister, and was the only wife of a Prime Minister to work full-time while her husband was in office. She was a founding member of Matrix Chambers, and more recently set up Omnia Strategy. 

Though the list of accolades is exhaustive, one senses that she is most proud of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, which was set up in 2008 to unleash the potential of female entrepreneurs in developing nations.

Life after Number 10

If the Blair family felt melancholic on 27 June 2007, as removal men emptied their belongings from Downing Street in front of a huddle of cameramen and reporters, it did not show. Tony Blair himself had that day received an unprecedented standing ovation in the Commons. Opportunity awaited.

For Mrs Blair, the decision to set up a foundation focused on women’s economic empowerment had personal experience at its core. 

“I was brought up by a mother who was a single parent with help from my paternal grandmother,” she recalls. “I witnessed how difficult it was for her when my father abandoned us. From a very early age I understood that a woman needs to be in control of her own money. I did it through the law — as a self-employed barrister I’ve essentially always been an entrepreneur.”

Mrs Blair was a beneficiary of her time: the first of her family to go to university, where she thrived, taking first-class honours. During Tony’s tenure as PM, she toured the globe visiting women’s projects, and quickly realised the challenges that many faced.

“All those personal reasons made me aware of this gap in the women’s entrepreneurial space. If you can give women the ability to earn and spend their own money, then we see a transformative effect,” she says emphatically. “Help a woman and you tend to help a family. More than that — a community.”

Changing times

The foundation has supported over 160,000 businesswomen across more than 100 countries since 2008. It creates teaching videos, internet forums and apps to help women who would otherwise not have access to training. 

As Mrs Blair is acutely aware, the quantity and quality of entrepreneurship still rests on the rules in place that support or hinder it. This is especially true for female entrepreneurs.

In the UK, women are behind roughly one in three businesses, and the rate of entrepreneurialism has grown faster in the past decade among women than men. While this is encouraging — after all, entrepreneurship offers an accelerated route to economic empowerment and gender equality — we know that women-led firms tend not to reach the same scale as those led by men.

The barriers to growth, according to Mrs Blair, are the same regardless of geography. Just as we hear horror stories of venture capitalists asking female founders what their husbands think of the business here in the UK, two thirds of the women in the countries where the foundation operates have experienced stereotyping and discriminatory remarks.

The foundation’s chief executive, Helen McEachern, formerly of Action Aid, points to the “enormous” structural issues in many of these nations. The odds are stacked against women, and when it comes to economic power, we are moving backwards. 

In fact, based on the current rate of progress, it will take well over 200 years to close the economic gender gap completely. To Mrs Blair, this is simply not good enough. 

“Automation has affected men, but also jobs traditionally held by women. New roles are more STEM orientated (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), where women are underrepresented. There is the perennial issue of childcare, against a backdrop of systemic views on what women and men should do.”

British former prime minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie (BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)

The foundation is less concerned by the problem than its potential solutions. We are seeing more women enter what has historically been a male preserve. But while many developing nations have equal or higher rates of entrepreneurial activity among women than men, these are often vulnerable, informal micro-businesses. 

Which is where the foundation comes in, to provide training, organise mentoring, and share knowledge, inspired by women across the world and supported by partners, donors and collaborators. 

Bright future

The opportunity here is huge, according to Mrs Blair. “Women entrepreneurs could open new frontiers in every field of business, bringing us closer to solutions for the world’s most pressing problems, and transforming the way we live our lives.” 

Mrs Blair’s understated offices, nestled in a quiet street in W1, are worlds apart from the nations where the foundation works. Sitting in her yoga gear, the trailblazing barrister, campaigner and author reels off statistics and anecdotes passionately. 

She is inspired near-daily by the women she has encountered, but one touched her more profoundly than most. Dhanashree, an Indian micro-entrepreneur, lost her hand operating a noodle-making machine in her grocery store several years ago. The foundation’s workshops equipped her with the skills and confidence she needed to take her aspirations forward. She now runs a number of small-scale enterprises including dress-making and milk-selling. 

The success of the foundation hinges on a willingness from mentors to give up precious time to support these women. But “they are passionate to the point of gushing,” McEachern says. Mentoring has long been viewed as one of the best vehicles for encouraging and supporting entrepreneurship, and has acted as a boon to female founders across the globe. 

Nor is it a one-way street. With technology rapidly advancing, for instance, it’s not uncommon for mentors to be mentored by their mentee in areas such as coding, the hottest new apps, and social media.

Mrs Blair adds: “Bank of America Merrill Lynch gives us over 100 mentors every year. They see it as talent development. And if you’re a company doing business across the world, it gives employees insight into what life is really like in a given country.”

Earlier this year, it was announced that the foundation would launch a new phase: a £10m mentoring campaign to help 100,000 female entrepreneurs in just three years. The 100,000 Women campaign was unveiled at Davos and has the backing of Hillary Clinton. Mentors will be paired with an aspiring entrepreneur in another country, provided with training, and asked to give two hours a month. 

Their goal is ambitious, but as Clinton has said of the foundation’s work, “it is the right thing to do.”

Main image credit: Getty

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