What do you do after life in Number 10? Cherie Blair decided to help businesswomen in the developing world, using a technology platform developed by Google.
In the mid-’90s, two women redrew the role of First Lady on either side of the Atlantic. In the US, Hillary Clinton became an integral part of her husband’s administration, while in the UK, Cherie Blair entered 10 Downing Street as a powerful, independent woman determined to pursue her own interests and career unhindered by husband Tony’s new job as Prime Minister.
And why not? After graduating with first-class honours from the London School of Economics, Cherie became a barrister in 1976 and joined the select band of royally appointed Queen’s Counsels in ’95. She founded her own chambers focused on human rights five years later, and remained the family’s major breadwinner until Tony left office in 2007.
The demise of New Labour marked a major shift for the Blairs. Released from the constraints of office, Cherie seized on her long association with women’s charities to set up the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.
The Foundation’s aim is to use technology to unlock the economic potential of women in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East by working alongside local NGOs and partners to help women grow their businesses and contribute to society. The idea is to develop skills, build confidence and establish networks that will offer women in developing countries the targeted support they need to compete and succeed on their own.
Although mobile internet channels and Google’s own ecosystem form a bedrock that can support growth and innovation, however, it’s people – not products – that will define the Foundation’s success, as Cherie herself explains.
“My interest in technology came from a mixture of necessity and coincidence. I was a barrister, writing all my opinions by longhand, which would then go into the chambers’ typing pool. When I went on maternity leave with my third child, we had an accounts package that came into chambers and they threw in some Olivetti PCs and WordPerfect 5. I thought, ‘This is my opportunity – let’s see if I can work out how to use this word processing thing.’ Within two years I was chair of the Bar’s IT committee. I realised that technology really could transform my life because it made me much more self-sufficient and much more portable.
“I thought, ‘If this works for me, surely it can work for women who aren’t as lucky as I am.’ So when I came out of Number 10 my initial idea was to use the internet to link up women. Then I thought, ‘How stupid!’ Because it’s easy to talk about the internet here, but if you’re in the middle of rural India or Africa, where you don’t have electric light, how are you going to get access to a computer and the internet? Then I realised the answer was obvious because it was there already – it’s the mobile phone.”
On Starting the Foundation
“When I came out of Number 10, I’d learned a number of things. One is that no one has a monopoly on wisdom. Secondly, you need to be sympathetic to the local conditions. There’s no point me telling you how to run your business in the Middle East, because how could I know the particular nuances? The thing is to work with people on the ground who are actually connected. There are so many charities in this sector that do fantastic work, but often the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. There must be a better way of sharing resources and coming together – not so that you’re swallowed up by a big predator; but so that you can work cooperatively.
“That’s the idea of our business centres, where we partner with local NGOs. We can help them do what they’re doing better, get access to finance and also give them a sort of kite-mark. They become part of a community, a network, where people can be sure that there’s a basic level of quality. The Foundation itself has three core purposes: confidence, capability and capital for the businesswomen we’re trying to help.”
On the Missing Middle
“I wanted to concentrate my efforts in a place where I could make a difference, and it was the ‘missing middle’ that seemed to me to be important.
“If we’re talking about making sure women play their roles in development, you have to look for the leaders. The growth of business comes from SMEs, and yet we know that women who are represented in their thousands in microfinancing don’t make that leap [to starting a business]. They’re told by society that this is not their place – they don’t have the confidence in themselves to think that they can do it. This is the missing middle.
“there’s nothing like talking to someone and really having a relationship with them to get an idea of what it’s really like to live in Nablus in Palestine, or the Western Galilee in Israel, or Bangladesh.”
“Of course, not everybody who has a small business has the capacity to grow it. That’s why we need our partners: because they can identify for us those women who they can’t help any longer but who, with intensive support from the Foundation, will have a chance to succeed and give back to their society by employing others.”
“A lot of people say to me, ‘There are women in business in the UK who could do with help. Why don’t you help them?’ The answer is because a lot of good organisations are already doing that – and I certainly have a lot of associations with them.
“We work with people here by encouraging them to become mentors. So many women are worried about IT because they don’t know how to use it, so being able to access freely available Google tools is a fantastic start. But it’s not just a start for a woman in the Middle East; it’s actually also a start for someone here who wants to help a woman in the Middle East because you’re using common tools, you’ve got training to show you how to get the best out of your internet experience.
“It’s also about expanding your world view – because there’s nothing like talking to someone and really having a relationship with them to get an idea of what it’s really like to live in Nablus in Palestine, or the Western Galilee in Israel, or Bangladesh and Chittagong with the girls in university there.”
On Lessons Learned
“People wonder, ‘Does remote mentoring actually work?’ But this way, a man can mentor a woman in Palestine, for example, in a way that he couldn’t face-to-face. I’m not sure we really appreciated just how significant that might be until we did our first pilot.
“The other thing we’ve learned is how to make it feel like a community. We’ve developed this matching software with Google [to place mentors with businesswomen], but at the end of the day, what counts is the human touch, which actually says, ‘I know that match says 92 percent but actually the 84 percent match is a better one…’ Many people have mentoring platforms with more technological whizzes and bells, but our platform is driven by the relationships.”
On the Future
“I’m determined that the twenty-first century is going to be the time when women and men reach that fabled equality that we’ve been seeking for so long.
“We know what to do: we’ve got report after report after report that says investing in women makes sense; girls are doing better than boys at school, girls are doing better at university, and yet within five years of leaving university, a gap has opened up between girls’ earnings and boys’ earnings.
“It all comes back to this question of work-life balance. Women always want to show that we can do it all, but the one thing I’ve learned is that nobody can do it all. The truth is, for generations men have known it’s not possible, so they’ve put all the nurturing, family things into a box labelled ‘wife’, and that way they pretend they can have it all, but of course they don’t. It has to be technology that helps us deal with that one, just as it was technology in the form of the vacuum cleaner or washing machine that enabled women to get into the workforce in the first place.”
Cherie on Cherie
“It is difficult to juggle everything: there’s always a disaster around the corner waiting to drop on you. I’m really lucky – I have a supportive husband for a start.”
“My mum used to play a huge part in supporting me, but now she’s 78 maybe it’s more my role to look after her than her to look after me.”
“You have to accept that you can’t have it all. You have to prioritise and sometimes just accept that you can’t do everything, and not beat yourself up about it.”
“I can’t be without my books.”
“For a long, long time I was the main breadwinner in our household. Now I’m in a slightly strange position where [Tony’s] making more than me. I’m enjoying spending it on good things like my Foundation.”
“I do like my gadgets. I’ve got an iPhone, an Android, an iPad, an eBook reader, a laptop and two desktops. I have Football Manager. Leo and I think we’re pretty good”