EMPOWERING SISTERPRENEURS GLOBALLY. Cherie Blair CBE, QC, is a leading human rights lawyer, philanthropist and committed campaigner for women’s rights. In 2008, she established the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, inspired by her experiences of meeting women across the world during her time in Downing Street as the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women empowers women to build small and growing businesses in low and middle income countries so that they can contribute to their economies and have a stronger voice in their societies. Pioneers in using technology to drive women’s economic empowerment, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women has supported over 140,000 women across 105 countries.

StellaRe is the name of the Award that since 2006 the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo assigns to women who with their work, their commitment and their ideas, have traced new paths in the most diverse fields of knowledge, with particular attention to addressing the most complex cultural, political, economic and scientific issues that arise in contemporary society. In 2018 the recipient is Cherie Blair.

Mrs Blair, you will receive the prestigious Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Premio StellaRe award in Turin on October 11th for your brilliant achievements. When and why did you set up your Foundation, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women?

I set up the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women in 2008, and the inspiration behind it comes quite simply from my personal experience, my background in Liverpool in the North of England, where I grew up. My father deserted our family when I was young, so my mother and my grandmother, with whom we lived, had to work incredibly hard to make ends meet. They both had to leave school at the age of 14, and were determined that my sister and I would have a better start in life. The example they set about how important it is for women to be independent, to be self-sufficient and earn their own money, not only inspires me to this day, but it also created a passion in me, a drive to try and support other women to achieve this goal.

I was also inspired by my time in Downing Street. As the wife of the Prime Minister I was able to travel abroad and meet many women in less developed parts of the world who were clearly talented and ambitious, and who were striving to set up businesses to create a better life for themselves and their families. But they were often doing this in the face of huge hurdles – resistance from family members, for example, or a lack of capital and investment or knowledge about how to run a business. I knew there was no reason why these women could not achieve their goals if they only had the right skills and tools at their disposal.

What kind of achievements is your Foundation for Women making today?

The best way to answer that question is probably to tell you about some of the incredible women we’ve worked with. Olusola runs a design business and college of fashion in Nigeria. When she started our Road to Growth business training programme in 2016, she was horrified because the early lessons made her realise that she’d been wasting money on materials they didn’t need. She went back, re-calculated all of her profitability ratios and made the necessary changes to her operations. As a result, her business has been able to have a steady growth of 15-20% over the last two years. Olusola is now passing on her new-found knowledge by mentoring other young women.

Or take Azza – one of the women who has joined our Mentoring Programme. After a successful career with a leading pharmaceutical company in Egypt, Azza opened a health and wellness pharmacy in Alexandria. The business is now very successful, with 40 staff at three branches across the city, but the volatile economic environment in Egypt in recent years, with inflation rates reaching 100%, put the survival of her pharmacies at serious risk. Azza’s mentor Ksenija – a Serbian entrepreneur with expertise in financial planning – supported her to change the company’s accounting system and currency from Egyptian Pounds to US Dollars. They also reviewed Azza’s pricing and looked at strategies to ensure her products remained profitable. Instead of using her own personal savings, Ksenija encouraged Azza to finance her business through a third party by applying for a bank loan. Azza secured the loan and was able to keep all of her pharmacies open. She’s now working with Ksenija for a second year in the programme.

Is there in your view a considerable improvement for women in our society since you started your activity?

I don’t think I can claim that ‘my activity’ has brought a noticeable change in society! But the UK has certainly come a long way since the Equal Pay Act came into force back in 1975. I remember thinking at that time that pay inequality would be ‘fixed’ within a matter of years. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Despite the gains that have been made, estimates predict that if we continue at today’s rate of progress, parity between the pay of men and women will not be reached for another 100 years. And that’s in the UK, one of the most developed economies in the world.

Many things continue to hinder progress. Gender stereotypes are still a problem and domestic duties are still primarily placed on women’s shoulders. This can have a huge and detrimental impact on their ability to participate in the economy – whether as employees or entrepreneurs. On the plus side, in the UK and many other parts of the world, it’s great to see a gradual shift away from the binary roles of men as breadwinners and women as homemakers. I can see this in my own family. Since becoming a grandmother, I’ve been very encouraged to see how my son wants to spend as much time as he can with his young children.

The barriers facing would-be women entrepreneurs in places like the UK are very slight compared to those for women in low and middle income countries, where many women work in isolated areas, far from the services and infrastructure that we take for granted. But with the right support, these women can go on to build thriving businesses and achieve amazing things – not just for themselves, but for their families, communities and economies too. That’s what my Foundation has worked towards for the last 10 years.

“I want to use my energy and my voice to raise as much awareness and generate as much social change as I can.”

Dhanashree, the proud owner of a grocery and milk shop, participated in the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s ‘Driving Women’s Business Growth in India’ programme. Pictured here with the Foundation’s Founder Cherie Blair. Photo: Atul Loke

How are networks significant for women entrepreneurs?

I have seen first-hand the immense power that is unleashed when women come together to form networks. Whether in person or online, a community of women can share specific practical skills and inspire and support each other to achieve their goals. One of the women in one of our programmes in Nigeria described it perfectly – she called her fellow participants ‘sisterpreneurs’.

Sometimes networking creates partnerships when two women decide to collaborate on a business venture. Networks can also go beyond business training and provide opportunities to access capital. In Sierra Leone we supported 450 women by establishing the nation’s first network of women entrepreneurs (OWNERS). The network of support didn’t just increase the women’s knowledge or confidence, it also increased their profits.

What’s been the most rewarding moment for you in the Foundation to date? And the most challenging?

There’s no one moment I could single out. I’m always inspired by the huge ripple effect that so many women entrepreneurs I’ve met around the world have triggered. Many go on to become leaders in their communities, creating jobs and sharing their knowledge and skills with others. In Rwanda, for example, 3,000 new jobs were created through one of our projects, which provided financial literacy and investment readiness training to over 16,000 women.

As for the most challenging… Tackling gender related barriers, without a doubt. We are trying to find creative ways of engaging men in women’s economic empowerment. After running one of our programmes in Nigeria, we realised that future versions of the programme needed to include joint sessions for women and their partners (or other male family members) to discuss the role that men can play in supporting their business plans. Recruiting men as mentors in our Mentoring Programme is also an ongoing challenge. We’re not yet entirely clear why.

Have you ever mentored or been mentored by anyone? How was this experience?

Yes I have, and it was of great importance to me in establishing my career as a lawyer. As a junior barrister, you need a senior barrister to bring you into the right cases – someone to champion you. When I started out in 1976, it was a real struggle to find female barristers at a senior level, but I was lucky to receive support from men in my profession and that made a huge difference to me.

The relationship between a mentee and a mentor can take many forms – whether it’s a formal relationship lasting for a set period of time or whether it’s simply having someone in your corner, helping you tough out life’s battles. Having the right mentor can help you build confidence, expand your networks and improve yourself in ways you may not have realised were possible.

Would you consider yourself a feminist and at what stage is the feminist movement today? What do you say to people who say feminism has gone too far?

Absolutely I consider myself to be a feminist, although I’m not sure I would agree that there is a single, cohesive ‘feminist movement’. Across the world there are countless women – and men – who are fighting battles for justice on a wide range of fronts. In Tunisia in August, for example, thousands of women took to the streets in support of a new bill which would grant equal inheritance rights to men and women. Also in August, a record number of 185 women were nominated for House seats in the US, surpassing the previous record of 167. And in Italy, the issue of violence against women – ‘femminicidio’ in particular – is very much in the spotlight thanks to the relentless efforts of feminist campaigning groups.

To people who question whether feminism has gone too far – well, as a lawyer there is nothing better I enjoy doing than arguing a case, so I would ask them to consider the facts. Globally, women make up 23% of national parliamentarians, 27% of judges, 25% of senior managers and 15% of corporate board members. Estimates indicate that about one in three (35%) women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Women and girls account for 71% of all trafficking victims, with girls representing nearly three out of every four child trafficking victims. In 2015 the World Economic Forum estimated that the economic gender gap would be closed by 2133. In 2017 they revised this estimate to 2234. Rather than having gone ‘too far’, I think these figures show with stark clarity just how far the feminist struggle has yet to go before we gain true equality.

“With the right support, these women can go on to build thriving businesses and achieve amazing things.”

How do you regard what is going on in the Brexit question and how it will affect women’s empowerment?

It’s definitely a cause for concern. Earlier this summer the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the UK published a report which highlighted the fact that many international treaties which affect the rights of women are not a binding part of the UK’s domestic legal framework and therefore are at risk of being lost when we leave the EU. As a result, women in the UK may lose certain human rights, especially in the areas of employment rights and funding for women’s services. It’s imperative that these protections are not lost in whatever final Brexit outcome is negotiated.

You are involved in various other humanitarian foundations. Why is it important to you to be involved in so many charities? Should we say that your major concern is to try to bring justice in this world?

I’ve always believed very strongly that equality isn’t just a ‘nice to have’. It’s a ‘must have’. Aside from my work on women’s economic empowerment with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, I am patron of a number of other incredible charities working on other issues I care deeply about, including domestic violence, disability and healthcare. I want to use my energy and my voice to raise as much awareness and generate as much social change as I can. I’m so honoured to accept the esteemed Premio StellaRe award from the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin in recognition of my achievements. My work on equality and social justice is something I am particularly proud of, and I hope this award raises awareness of the issues I have championed throughout my career.

Only 54 CEOs are women in Fortune 1000 companies. If this ratio were reversed overnight, what do you think would happen?

The world would be a better place! Study after study shows that diverse companies are more profitable. McKinsey, an American worldwide management consulting firm, have compiled research on companies across a range of industries in Canada, Latin America, the UK, and the US, showing that businesses in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. But it’s not just gender diversity that matters. The same research shows that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

Globally, women own less than 40% of formal businesses. The underrepresentation of women in entrepreneurship is not only costing the global economy tens of billions of dollars, but is also preventing us from tackling many of the world’s most intractable social problems. Imagine all of the ideas, innovations, products and services which would be unleashed if women were able to establish and grow businesses on an equal footing with men. Women’s economic empowerment has a disproportionately greater impact on society. When women earn their own money, they reinvest 90 cents on the dollar back into their families. This compares to around 30 cents on the dollar for men. Women-owned businesses are often more sustainable, with better working conditions, working cultures and practices.

Ejiroghene is the Creative Director of an eponymous fashion house with four branches in Lagos. She joined the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s ‘Road to Growth’ programme in Nigeria in 2015. Photo: Ben Langdon – Mile 91

One of the participants of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s ‘Road to Growth’ Nigeria programme at a training session.

Nidhi (right) with a colleague is the co-founder of healthy food brand DesiVDesi and was a participant in ‘WE Can India’, a programme launched across 5 cities in India by the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.

Staff working at Mix n’ Bake, a bakery owned by Ikeolu Biobaku who graduated from our ‘Road to Growth’ programme in Nigeria. Photo: Ben Langdon – Mile 91

One of the women entrepreneurs participating in a training session for the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s ‘Road to Growth’ Nigeria programme.

Rana, a women entrepreneur and participant in the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s ‘Women’s Economic Empowerment in Lebanon’ programme.

“Working towards women’s economic empowerment at the global level is the single most important battle we will fight in our lifetime.”

What were the best experiences at Downing Street?

It was an amazing privilege to be the wife of the Prime Minister. It meant being able to meet and talk to Nelson Mandela, for example, to the Queen, to two US Presidents, and – a special privilege for me as a Catholic – being able to meet two Popes. But the constant highlight of my time in Downing Street was the opportunity to meet ordinary people from many different countries, and to learn about the extraordinary lives that people lead everywhere, the good that they do and the myriad difficulties they suffer too.

Was it difficult for a career woman like you so much involved in humanitarian work to be the wife of a Prime Minister?

Life in No 10 was always a balancing act. Obviously I tried to support my husband in the things he held to be important, but I was also determined to pursue some of the things I cared about, including, of course, the women’s issues that I still work on today. Alongside that, I still had my own career to keep going! I was the first wife of a Prime Minister to continue my day job, and in 2000 I became the first wife of a Prime Minister in over 150 years to have a child. So yes, at times, it could be difficult juggling it all! And of course sometimes I felt guilty, as I think women often feel guilty for juggling their careers with family life in a way that men often don’t.

How do you find the time to do all this?

Technology saved me from total chaos and has been a crucial enabler for me, both throughout the course of my career but particularly during our time at Number 10. Travelling the world whilst balancing my case load wouldn’t have been possible were it not for technology. At the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, technology is a vital factor, whether it’s using the internet to connect women entrepreneurs with life-changing mentors across the world, or using mobile phones to deliver business tips and training to thousands of women, or providing online learning modules, technology opens up opportunities for women entrepreneurs on a scale like never before.

What can we expect to see from the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women over the next 10 or 20 years?

More programmes. And more impact. I absolutely believe that fostering women’s entrepreneurship is the most powerful way we know of driving change, not just for individual women and their families – giving them more money and freedom to spend on things like healthcare and nutrition, for example – but also for communities and economies. A huge amount of research shows that empowering women economically can reduce poverty, unleash social change, and create more equal, fair and secure societies.

Working towards women’s economic empowerment at the global level is the single most important battle we will fight in our lifetime and it will be a privilege to continue that fight long into the future.

London, September 2018