I remember walking into the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women office for the first time, six years ago. There was just one other employee; we chatted in a small room as the IT guy tried to get the internet up and running. I knew then that I was entering the world of a start-up.
I began my Foundation career as the Manager of the Mentoring Programme. Six years later, I am leaving my post as Strategy Director. These six years have been an incredible journey, starting from an idea driven by the passion of a small group of people to a global brand that is fighting for women’s rights around the world.
When we started out, our mission to promote women’s economic empowerment wasn’t always well received. Some people didn’t understand why Mrs Blair wasn’t just concentrating on human rights – the focus of her legal career – whilst others assumed we were just another microfinance organisation. To some, supporting women to become successful entrepreneurs and contribute to their economies sounded more like private sector than charity work.
Now, however, the picture is very different. Now, supporting women to achieve their full potential has become a key priority for governments, NGOs and corporations. Gender equality is a core pillar of the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals, and a crucial focus of the UN’s latest Human Development Report. It has become an established truth that empowering women to become financially independent creates meaningful change.
It’s been incredible to witness this paradigm shift. Slowly, I’ve seen the values and work of the Foundation being adopted into the mainstream discourse on international development. Alongside this, the Foundation itself has blossomed from a fledging enterprise born out of Mrs Blair’s vision, into a growing organisation with over 20 projects, which has reached over 125,000 women in more than 80 countries to date.
It’s been even more incredible to witness the resilience and ambition of the women entrepreneurs we support. I remember speaking to one of the first mentees in our programme, a woman from Malaysia. She cried, telling me she felt powerless and isolated. She had a small business baking cakes from home, but she felt very lonely and was struggling to sell her products beyond her small circle of friends and family. We matched her with a mentor from the UK to help strengthen her marketing skills, and as a result, she gained in courage and confidence. Her revenue increased 13-fold and she brought on one part-time employee.
My overall reflection is simple: never let anyone make you doubt yourself when you know something is right. The Foundation was established on the belief that financial independence is the key to giving women choices – and this belief sustains our work today. We have worked hard, raised funds, built a strong team, forged amazing collaborations with dedicated funders and partners, and used technology in innovative ways to reach more women entrepreneurs. NGO workers rarely think of themselves as entrepreneurs, but we are. We had that ‘fire in the belly’ and we acted on it.
Thanks to countless other individuals and organisations who have also acted on their beliefs, women’s economic empowerment has become a major global issue. It is not just a trend. Gender inequality now needs to stay where it belongs: at the top of the development agenda.
Globally, women are paid less than men, earning on average 60-75% of men’s wages. Women undertake 75% of all unpaid care work. Worldwide, women are shut out of political processes, silenced, marginalised and brutalised by horrifying levels of male violence, with over a third of women experiencing domestic or sexual violence.
It’s important that women’s voices are heard, even when people are tired of hearing them. The only way this will happen is if we keep being courageous entrepreneurs, learn from our mistakes, never stop looking for innovative ways to support women and invest in projects that are working to change women’s lives.
I wish the Foundation all the luck in the world in its mission to empower women entrepreneurs. For me, it is time to find new ways to raise awareness and advocate for the rights of women and girls to live safe, fulfilled lives.