By Allison Kahn, Director of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s Mentoring Women in Business Programme
What does a Malaysian dress-maker who works from home have in common with a Lebanese university professor?
Not much, you’d think. And yet this is one of the thousands of unusual alliances created through our Mentoring Women in Business Programme , which harnesses the power of technology to connect women entrepreneurs in low and middle income countries with mentors from across the globe. Since the programme launched in 2011, thousands of men and women have volunteered their time and skills to mentor a woman for 12 months, working online to support her to achieve specific goals.
Imagine this. During her lunch break, a Nigerian entrepreneur who designs renewable energy products switches on her phone to start a business planning session with a marketing executive in the US who’s just making breakfast. Or a robotics company owner in Malaysia who who opens up her laptop at the end of her working day for a session on investment opportunities with a senior manager in the UK.
I believe these global alliances can be life-changing for both mentee and mentor, for three reasons.
Firstly, our approach revolves around skills and focus-based matching, rather than connecting people who work in the same or similar sector. This brings several benefits. It sets out the mentee as the expert in her field, creating a more empowering approach to mentoring. Matching people from different sectors also allows for innovation, since it enables mentees to access ideas, skills and perspectives they might not normally encounter, which in turn helps to spark insights and creativity. Kirk Vallis, Head of Creativity and Innovation at Google, explains, “Mentoring works best for creative thinking when the mentor isn’t drawn into the detail of the context around your issue… This is why having mentors from different sectors, worlds and backgrounds, to you is so important.” We find that strategies and insights which work in one field of business may be applied to a totally different field, with positive results. Mentoring also creates space for mentors to grasp the full extent of their skills and learn how valuable they can be to someone else – building their own confidence and motivation.
Let me give you an example. On the face of it, Aleksandra, an entrepreneur in Serbia whose business makes firefighting equipment, had very little in common with her mentor, Radostina, a senior manager in the cosmetics industry in Bulgaria. However as the two started working together Radostina found that though their business sectors were polar opposites, their similar objectives and interest areas made them an ideal match and helped to create a space for learning and growth within the mentoring relationship. The two used their mentoring sessions to review Aleksandra’s business plan and identify her long-term goals for the company, which gained her new clients including an airport and an industrial complex. For Radostina, the opportunity to work with a woman entrepreneur who was succeeding despite huge hurdles was inspiring.
Secondly, mentoring can open your eyes to a completely different reality, as Julian Stodd from the UK found out when he was matched with a woman entrepreneur who runs a digital agency in Azerbaijan. “Bad news,” she said during one Skype session. “We are at war again.” Julian would listen to her stories of conflict, of young lives lost that week and the people displaced from their homes. He said, “Whilst I spent the weekend trying to drill a hole to hang a picture, she listened to the news of diplomacy failing and conflict taking over, gunfire over a border and tanks rolling forward.”
For Eric, a Senior VP at Bank of America in the US, one of the great challenges of mentoring was putting himself in the shoes of his mentee, Mariela, an Argentinian entrepreneur. Unlike himself, Mariela operated her business in a challenging economic climate and was one of the few women in a very male-dominated logistics industry. This different perspective helped Eric appreciate how difficult it is for women entrepreneurs to build a business in the face of significant social and economic barriers.
Finally, creating these cross-border mentoring relationships is a fantastic way of creating a huge ripple effect. After all, research shows that empowering women is one of the smartest investments we can make – because when women earn an income, they spend 90% of that income on the health and wellbeing of their families.
Nina, who runs a business that exports grapes from India, was matched with her mentor Tracy, a research analyst from the UK. For Nina, who was self-professedly ‘scared of numbers’, this partnership was invaluable because it allowed her to build her financial literacy skills, which in turn empowered her to grow her enterprise. As a result, she expanded her business to the Balkans and grew her profits by over 30%. Nina says, “Tracy has always been very encouraging and supportive. She asks all the right questions which get me thinking.”
But this exchange of skills hasn’t just benefitted Nina – it’s helped her community too. Women make up the majority of Nina’s workforce, and she is determined to ensure that every single one of her employees has a bank account in order to increase their financial security – so that they can invest more in their families.
Whichever way you look at it, it’s a winning formula. These unusual partnerships are good for everyone – the mentor, the mentee, her family and her society. They show the enormous creativity and change that can be unleashed by celebrating our differences.