Twelve months on from joining the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, CEO Helen McEachern shares her highlights and learnings from the past year, as well as her ambitions for the future.
What’s been the greatest highlight of your first year with the Foundation?
Definitely meeting the women entrepreneurs. I’ve been fortunate to spend some time in India and Mexico with women who have participated in programmes we’ve designed and I’ve also met many mentees and mentors from our Mentoring Programme. Although our work is incredibly practical and has real tangible economic impacts, when you meet the women who we’ve worked with, or people who’ve had the chance to have an impact on the life of a woman as a mentor, what comes across is an incredible transformation as the women are living and breathing empowerment. The process of training, mentoring, establishing networks, increasing their ability to navigate markets and access to finance is so transformative it makes the women in our programmes realise their own agency and power to guide their future. That is inspiring!
What aspect of your role do you wish you could spend more time on?
That’s a tough question. I love so many parts of the role. I’d love to spend more time getting to know the women entrepreneurs we work with and our partners. Understanding the issues they face and the opportunities we can help them access is critical for me to keep my perspective fresh. I’d also love to spend more time working with the Foundation’s teams designing initiatives that could have an even deeper and more far-reaching impact. It’s amazing when you see how we bring together technology in the form of social networks, mobile apps and virtual classrooms to support women entrepreneurs.
Moving from a large charity to a smaller non-profit, what have been your biggest learnings?
You have to really focus and make choices. Trying to get things done with less money and less people can be tough, but I think it makes us pretty lean and efficient and helps ensure we don’t waste time or money not achieving our mission.
This is your first role as a CEO – how is and isn’t it different to what you expected?
That’s a hard question. I try not to approach new things with too many expectations. I guess I hoped I’d like the new role and I really do. I like the breadth – working across all of our teams rather than being focussed in a particular area. I’ve always loved variety and have been interested in the whole picture of the organisation wherever I’ve worked, but it is only now as a CEO that I really get that full picture. Sometimes it is hard to prioritise between competing demands, but there is a great philosophy – ‘the beautiful constraint’. Whatever you’ve got to do in work or life, you’ve got to it within constraints. Running a charity that wants to change the world for women – make it more equal and economically just – is no small mission, so the challenge and the joy is actually in how you do that with limited resources. I have my bad days (don’t we all!) but generally I enjoy the challenge.
The Foundation works with stakeholders across many sectors: private, non-profit, government. Why is that important?
Diversity is always important – in nature, in the work place and, I would argue, in successful partnerships. We find that, where we bring a cross section of expertise and different perspectives together focussed on a clear objective, we achieve greater impact. The diversity of perspectives makes programme design stronger. An advantage of working with a variety of locals partners means we have the flexibility to choose who is best placed to deliver a particular project in a particular place and we don’t always have go to the same organisation. In this way we also build local capacity for the betterment of the community after the completion our programme in any given place. Our work and perspectives to stay fresh and this approach ensures continuous learning and innovation.
Who do you think has been the most influential voice for women’s empowerment this year?
During the US presidential campaign I thought Michelle Obama was incredibly inspiring – but that’s not this year. A voice I’ve enjoyed listening to lately has been Emma Thompson. She spoke out around Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo, but more recently about her own daughter being assaulted on the underground. I thought she really got into the heart of how powerless women can feel. We know this isn’t just an issue around violence. Many women feel powerless in many parts of their lives. The social norms and cultural practices that surround all of us are constantly reinforcing our roles and limitations. When there is a voice that speaks out and captures our imagination it is wonderful to see.
One of the challenges for women entrepreneurs you mentioned in your last piece was around how to ensure that the holistic needs of women are met. How have you been able to make progress on this so far? Have you created any plans to tackle this?
Our new strategy coming out in a few months will prioritise the capturing of our model for entrepreneurship. We have ten years’ experience and now we have a chance to really articulate an analytical framework that we hope will strengthen the holistic nature of our programmes and others. We have also been looking more deeply at how we engage men and boys in our work and how we use evaluation reports at the end of a project to assess if and how the Foundation is meeting holistic needs. I hope we will see greater evidence and learning around this in the coming year. I would love to do more research around childcare needs and the approaches women entrepreneurs use to meet these, and to also better understand how the needs of their families could be better met to enable women to fulfil their potential.
How have you been able to build on the Foundation’s legacy for utilising technology in women’s economic empowerment?
We have a great new smartphone learning app called HerVenture which was launched in Vietnam over the summer. I’d really love to see that go global. It could benefit women everywhere. We also have the content to create more low cost and free open source training. We’re hoping to pilot it in Nigeria next year so I think that could be another fantastic opportunity for the future.
Where are you most excited to take the Foundation’s work to next?
We have been talking about whether we can extend our work into providing entrepreneurship skills training for vulnerable younger women and even adolescent girls. We know that there aren’t the jobs available – particularly in Africa – to meet the needs of the millions of young people who will need livelihoods in the coming decade. Entrepreneurship is often the last resort and young women and girls usually haven’t had the same opportunities to develop the skills they need to fulfil these opportunities. I’d love to understand the needs better and see if we can help.
You’re working on a new organisational strategy at the moment. Why? When can we expect to learn more?
The women’s economic empowerment space has changed enormously over the last few years. The UN launched its first-ever High-level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, and the private sector is becoming much more gender aware, with many companies like ExxonMobil taking the economic potential of women very seriously. We felt that things had changed too much to not undertake a review to see where we should go next. We’ve done that and early next year we will be able to start talking about our evolving direction.