We’re delighted to welcome our new Chief Executive, Helen McEachern, who brings over 20 years’ experience working for international NGOs such as ActionAid and Greenpeace.
As she settles in, we took the opportunity to get to know her a bit better.
- When did your passion for gender equality first come about?
I think that I was a feminist long before I knew anything about feminism! Fortunately, I wasn’t brought up to feel as though my life and career choices should be limited by my gender. I’ve always been pretty confident expressing my opinions and was never dissuaded from doing so at home.
My fundamental belief in fairness and social justice has guided my world view and career choices. When I first joined ActionAid in 2004, I was enthused by their focus on women and girls, and my time there gave me the chance to understand gender from both theoretical and programmatic perspectives.
- Why is women’s economic empowerment particularly important to you?
Women’s economic empowerment is such a crucial factor when trying to challenge the power structures that disadvantage women– within homes, communities and societies. The biggest issues women face, like violence or barriers to sexual reproductive health rights, can be linked to a woman’s ability to exercise financial autonomy.
There is no silver bullet for solving gender inequality in all of its guises and contexts, but I believe that supporting women’s economic empowerment is a crucial way of unlocking the ability for women to exercise choice. And the icing on the cake is that it’s great for economies too.
- What do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities for women’s entrepreneurship?
The first challenge that comes to mind is how do we work with women in such a way that enables them to manage any challenges that might arise from their economic independence? Some women face dilemmas as their businesses grow, often related to compromises made to time spent with their families. How do we ensure that the holistic needs of women entrepreneurs (childcare, access to social protection, positively engaging male relatives) are met, as well as supporting them to build thriving enterprises? At the Foundation we have some exciting ideas on how to tackle these challenges, and I look forward to taking these plans forward.
There are so many opportunities for boosting women’s entrepreneurship. For instance, there is some really exciting work taking place in the Fintech space. We’ve seen the revolutionary effect of mobile banking for millions of people in developing and emerging economies, but there’s still a great deal of room for accessible innovations targeted at improving access to finance for women entrepreneurs.
I also think the growth of the values-driven, social impact economy has enormous potential for women entrepreneurs. The face of business is changing – consumers increasingly prefer products and brands that combine social impact with profits. Many of the women entrepreneurs we work with do exactly that, choosing social enterprise over traditional business models.
- What has been your proudest achievement in your career to date?
I was at ActionAid for nearly 13 years, and am really proud of having transformed fundraising at the charity, including overseeing the doubling of their global income and increasing their reach into many more markets.
I also got a great deal of satisfaction from growing the team and developing people. My interest in staff development has provided lots of exposure to mentoring, so I’m really excited to see how we can build on the Foundation’s sector-leading Mentoring Programme.
- Who has been an important mentor to you personally?
Joanna Kerr, the Executive Director of Greenpeace Canada and former CEO of ActionAid International was an important mentor to me. She’s dedicated much of her career to women’s rights and was the first female Chief Executive of ActionAid – where we met. She managed to balance being ambitious and challenging with compassion, and was a source of encouragement and inspirational leadership.
- How would you sum up your leadership style?
I would describe my leadership style as authentic and ambitious. I believe that you get the best out of people by encouraging and inspiring them, and keeping the team connected to our work and mission. I’m very open, honest and collaborative, which helps me to build trust so people are able to be challenged and enable themselves to achieve more.
Judging by feedback I’ve received from colleagues previously, my USP seems to have become my example as a leader who is herself, at all times. There is often pressure on women leaders to adapt to a model of leadership dictated by male-dominated board rooms. I have never questioned my right to ‘have a seat at the table’, so haven’t felt the need to adapt my natural way of being – hard work, ability and passion should be enough.
- What excites you most about joining the Foundation?
I’m excited to be leading an organisation with such a clear specialism and focus on women’s entrepreneurship, and to lead a talented, passionate team. Given our relatively small size in this very fast-moving sector, we’re in an excellent position to innovate, as our size allows us to be more responsive. The Foundation is renowned for being a pioneer, particularly in the way we utilise technology. I want us to continue to build on this legacy as we strengthen and evolve our programmes to have even greater impact for women entrepreneurs.