There are no ‘silver bullets’ when it comes to closing the gender gaps in economic activity. But there are catalysts. At the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, we believe that mentoring and financial literacy are two powerful tools in the fight for gender equality.
Our mission is to empower women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging economies to access the skills and opportunities they need to build strong, sustainable businesses. In doing so, these women gain financial independence and generate knock-on benefits for others. Research shows, for example, that when a woman controls the family purse strings her children are 20% more likely to survive, and much more likely to thrive.
The road to economic independence is not easy for any entrepreneur – but women entrepreneurs in developing countries face additional barriers, often struggling to access the confidence, capabilities and capital they need to get their enterprises off the ground or take them to the next level.
Of these hurdles, access to capital is perhaps the most difficult to overcome. Women make up the majority of the world’s ‘unbanked’ population and only 10% of women entrepreneurs worldwide have the finance needed to grow their businesses.
Tackling this issue requires a two-pronged approach. First, women need support to manage their finances and understand their financial options. Last year, we partnered with the ExxonMobil Foundation to develop a project called Road to Growth, which delivered financial literacy training to 500 women in Nigeria through a combination of classroom teaching and online modules. Initial results showed that 99% of the women felt they could better assess the financial health of their business, with 92% feeling more comfortable speaking with lenders – proof that information really is power.
Of course, that’s just one side of the equation. Financial institutions also need to play their part. We also work on this front, encouraging banks to recognise the specific needs of women entrepreneurs and tailor products to meet those needs.
Mentoring is another catalyst that can unlock women’s potential. Our Mentoring Women in Business Programme works on precisely this premise, using technology to connect women in developing countries with mentors from across the world. Using online tools to communicate over the course of a year, our mentees work towards achieving specific business goals with the support of their mentor.
To a woman who is living in an isolated area, facing resistance from family members, or negotiating challenging circumstances, this type of support can be nothing less than life-changing.
One of our mentees, Mariela, launched her own logistics company in Argentina after spending years struggling to have her voice heard in a male-dominated industry. However, her business ran into difficulty as a result of import restrictions and the devaluation of the Argentinian peso, so she joined our programme to gain support as she worked to keep her business afloat. Collaborating with her mentor, a Senior Vice President at Bank of America, Mariela managed to retain 50% of her existing customers and gain ten new clients.
Women have an extraordinary capacity to drive change in their own lives and in their communities. It is crucial that we invest in the solutions to catalyse this change.
The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women is currently recruiting mentors for its Mentoring Women in Business Programme. To find out more and apply please visit: http://www.cherieblairfoundation.org/mentor-application-and-selection-process/