How the Former First Lady of the U.K. Is Using Mobile Phones to Mentor Female Entrepreneurs
As First Lady of the U.K., Cherie Blair spent time in some of the poshest pockets of London society. But that’s not the only environment that made her who she is today.
In fact, it’s her background as a poor girl from Liverpool, England that was truly the inspiration behind the Cherie Blair Foundation For Women, an organization she founded in 2008 that seeks to help women become economically independent through mentorship programs, technology, networking, access to financial services, business training, and more.
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“I can say quite clearly that the main impetus of me starting it was almost a selfish one— it was about my own story, about how amazing it was that a girl of my background from a working class family in Liverpool ended up in 10 Downing Street,” she tells Fortune in an exclusive interview.
Blair was the first in her family to go to university—something that she was constantly encouraged to do by her grandmother and mother, both of whom left school at a young age, she says.
She now attributes the “power of education” to her successes—and is a true believer that women, regardless of where they come from, can achieve economic independence if given the chance.
And providing that shot at economic independence is how her foundation has helped 136,000 women throughout countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, Blair says.
Although the foundation also includes an Enterprise Development and Mentoring Women in Business program, it’s the Mobile Technology initiative—which has already helped some 115,000 women—that’s been in the news lately. As part of the $70 million “Girls, Women and the Global Goals” commitment announced by Chelsea Clinton at the annual Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) in New York last Tuesday, Blair’s foundation will expand its Business Women mobile learning program with a new app targeted at female entrepreneurs.
The foundation’s original Business Women service, which is a partnership with the ExxonMobil Foundation and Nokia, was launched in 2012 and delivers business training and business tips via text messages to more than 100,000 women in Nigeria, Tanzania, and Indonesia.
The new CGI pledge will take the program “to the next level with Business Women 2.0,” says Blair. Her foundation has committed to developing a smartphone app that will help “10,000 women entrepreneurs to gain access to digital channels, mentoring, and the valuable information they need to grow their businesses,” according to the CGI announcement.
After identifying one country to implement the project, the foundation will work with in-country partners, including NGOs (non-governmental organizations), as well as a mobile network operator to bring the app to local women.
“[The commitment] is trying to reach even more women through the power of mobile phone, [as well as] combining business knowledge and skills to help people improve their businesses where they are,” says Blair.
The initiative will take two years and is estimated to cost about $400,000.
We know technology is a key factor in determining a woman’s economic independence, says Blair. Yet many people in developing countries—and especially women—don’t always have much access to it.
“When I started, I thought ‘technology is the key’ but I soon realized that most people in the developing world technology isn’t about computers, it’s about mobile phones,” says Blair. “The mobile phone for the poor in the world is their first contact with an amazing source of wealth of information, which is the web. Then I thought, ‘are women getting the same opportunities to have a mobile phone, to use a mobile phone, as men?'”
Working with the GMSA Development Fund, the foundation began to investigate that question. It found that as of 2010, 300 million women in developing countries were missing out on the mobile technology revolution, and by consequence, mobile operators were missing out on a $13 billion revenue opportunity. The findings were published in the foundation’s report, Women & Mobile: A Global Opportunity, and prompted it to create a Mobile Technology program.
Closing the mobile phone gender gap would bring significant benefits to women and their families, the report found. And according to a follow-up report conducted five years later, that is beginning to happen: In 2015, the number of women without access to mobile tech had shrunk to 200 million.
Blair says that as First Lady, she wanted to “do something positive to channel the experience and energy” that she had access to as a result of her position. She was keenly aware women across the world were not all getting the same opportunities to grow and expand their businesses, learn good business techniques, or access capital—and that could be the perfect place to channel those resources.
“I knew if we could help these women,” she says, “they would also be the catalysts for social change.”