Technology is involving entrepreneurs in development
—‘When we first spoke on the phone, I was nervous. More nervous than at an interview, more nervous than when presenting at a conference. More nervous even than when I had to sing at the school play aged 12. I was nervous because it was all unknown and, most of all, I was terrified about mispronouncing my mentee’s name.’
This is Julian, one of my foundation’s mentors, talking about how he felt as he prepared for his first conversation with Shyamla, an interior designer in India. He might be running a successful business in Bournemouth, but the prospect of mentoring a would-be entrepreneur on another continent over the internet was daunting. Yet he did it, and we need more people like him.
What is the purpose of our Mentoring Women in Business programme at the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women? Put simply, it is to help women entrepreneurs get more of a foothold in their economy. Women make up half the population, so if we want to encourage entrepreneurial activity anywhere in the world, it is vital that women are included in the process. In Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, where my foundation’s mentoring programmes operate, supporting a woman entrepreneur can make a significant and lasting change not just to her life but also to that of her family and her community.
How does it work? With the help of Google, we have developed an online platform for mentors and mentees to meet over the internet. We match entrepreneurs in developing and emerging markets with successful men and women from around the world. Many successful people want to give back in some way, and of course we rely on donations from individuals and corporations to support mentoring, as it is a non-profit programme. But sometimes people want to give back in a non-monetary form, and they are attracted to our mentoring programme because they can engage directly with the women they are supporting.
The backgrounds of both mentors and mentees vary tremendously, prompting a rich intercultural exchange of perspectives over the internet. Fred, an entrepreneur in Israel, mentors Eva, an internet café owner in Malaysia, whose business was struggling. He discovered to his surprise that there was no photocopying machine in her town and suggested to her it might be a good way to bring in more customers. She took his advice and it has been a success in helping her to market her business. It is sometimes these simple outside perspectives that can make a real difference.
Through the programme, mentors themselves reported widening their networks, increasing their confidence and improving their leadership abilities. Meanwhile, the women entrepreneurs in the programme relate being able to expand their businesses, hire more employees, write business plans, and build confidence. And, of course, the ultimate rewarding experience for the mentors is when they see the women entrepreneurs they support succeed and grow. Here is Julian again, some time after that first nervous call: ‘Our weekly phonecall has become something I look forward to in my week, a fixed island in the ever-shifting seas of project work. When you learn, you change. Your view of the world is different because the eyes you look through have changed. And that’s when I realised I had changed: when I looked forward to our call.’
We need to find innovative ways of engaging everyone in international development. We need to find ways to make what is happening in Kenya meaningful to someone in London, ways to make what is happening in India meaningful to someone in Newcastle, and such programmes do just that.
Cherie Blair is founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women
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