The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women empowers women in low- and middle-income countries to start and grow successful businesses – and to redefine the future for themselves and those around them.
Advancing the rights, opportunities, and full participation of women and girls is the great unfinished business of the 21st century”: the unmistakable voice of Hillary Rodham Clinton rang out, at the January 2020 launch of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s 100,000 Women Campaign at the Global Citizen Forum Lounge, Davos.
By then, we had directly supported over 160,000 women entrepreneurs across more than 100 low- and middle-income countries through a range of skills building and learning programmes. Building on these successes, the Campaign represented a bold new goal: to reach 100,000 more women in just three years–raising £10 million in the same time to do so-and to make significant strides towards creating a more enabling global ecosystem for women entrepreneurs.
Women’s economic equality is not only an issue of gender justice but is a smart, sustainable investment with long-term returns for us all. It changes health and education outcomes for children, creates safer, more prosperous societies, and brings greater innovation and creativity. And yet, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, women face huge barriers to entrepreneurship such as gender stereotypes, legal challenges, and a lack of access to finance.
Our Campaign called upon companies, leaders, and philanthropists everywhere to support us to tackle these barriers by empowering and equipping women with the necessary skills, resources and networks to start, grow and sustain successful businesses. We made a flying start… Then the world changed.
With a massive, unprecedented global pandemic came an unforeseen and potentially devastating challenge compounding all existing barriers holding women back. With a rapidly escalating crisis on our hands, we spoke to the women in our programmes and, overwhelmingly, heard the need to protect their businesses–and in turn their livelihoods and their families’ futures.
Fortunately, the tech-based, online nature of our services helped us adapt rapidly to meet this need and provide relevant support and resources, equipping women to emerge as well as possible from the crisis. And thankfully, many others also recognised the importance of our work and our ability to combat the pandemic’s impacts on women.
In addition to our existing corporate supporters, 2020 saw us form a host of new partnerships with PayPal, DHL, USAID and Salesforce, bringing our business training programmes to Kenya, Indonesia, Vietnam, Nigeria and Mexico. We made our entrepreneurship skills app HerVenture available on iOS for the first time, with new learning resources focusing on digital marketing and e-commerce to meet emerging needs. We also upscaled and redeveloped our global, online professional mentoring programme.
Joining Hillary Rodham Clinton in supporting our Campaign we were delighted to welcome Olivia Colman, Toyin Saraki, First Lady of Paraguay Silvana Abdo, Indra Nooyi, Noella Coursaris, First Lady of Serbia Tamara Vucié, Sheryl Sandberg, June Sarpong, First Lady of Albania Linda Rama, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Fadé Ogunro, Tessy Antony de Nassau and Cécile Reinaud, offering their time, knowledge, influence and experience to further our work and promote the voices of women entrepreneurs around the world.
But of course, the beating heart of the 100,000 Women Campaign and the purpose of everything that we do is the women themselves. We are now halfway through our Campaign and are proud that with our supporters’ backing we reached over 24,000 women in 2020, despite an unprecedented global heath and economic crisis, and this number has continued to grow throughout 2021. In Kenya, for example, over 1,100 women entrepreneurs used HerVenture in 2020. Within just a few months, and despite COVID-19, 38% of users reported an increase in sales, 31% grew their customers and 68% felt optimistic that the financial situation of their families would improve as a result. Now this year we’ve brought another of our flagship programmes, Road to Growth, to the country to train another 3,500 women.
Meanwhile, of our 2020 graduating mentees, 100% were either satisfied or very satisfied, 96% built skills in strategy and 88% in marketing. 95% reported increased confidence levels, 95% became more innovative, and crucially 88% reported that they kept their business from going under during the pandemic thanks to the programme.
While we celebrate our successes, however, we must also take stock. The Campaign’s second year also sees us publishing our second annual audit report, with shocking findings relating to COVID 19. A huge majority (83.8%) of women surveyed report that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their businesses. Nearly four in ten (38.5%) said their business will or may have to close as a result, and nearly one in ten (9.2%) reported that the pandemic was the single greatest challenge they had ever faced. The implications are startling: nearly half (46.9%) of those whose businesses are at risk of closing say they would struggle to support themselves if that happened, 43.8% would struggle to support their families, and over a third (34.4%) would struggle to afford basic necessities, like food. 18.6% also felt that they would be very unlikely to become a business owner again.
The report also uncovers further unacceptable challenges relating to access to finance, gender stereotypes and discriminatory legal and policy barriers. And so, while we know that it’s absolutely vital women get the support they need right now, and it makes more economic sense than ever to close the gender gap in entrepreneurship, it seems we have our work cut out for us.
This past year and a half has thrown into sharper relief the importance of our work in supporting women to keep their businesses afloat and, in turn, support themselves, their families and communities. And so, we redouble our urgent call to the global community to invest in women entrepreneurs in low-and middle-income countries, both to support a speedy and equitable recovery from this crisis and work towards the full realisation of women’s human rights.
By the end of this year, we’re aiming to have reached at least 35,000 more women through our programmes across Vietnam, Indonesia, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Guyana, while our online Mentoring programme will continue to support women in over 100 countries. We’re now welcoming businesspeople everywhere to become a professional mentor, and we’re also thrilled to begin new advocacy capacity building work in multiple countries so women entrepreneurs can influence their own local policy environments for the better. And next year-our Campaign’s final year–will launch with a bang in November with a huge online global summit on women’s entrepreneurship. As our ambitions continue to grow even further, it’s with this in mind that we invite you, whether as a corporate partner, an advocate, a mentor, or a transformational donor, to attend our Women Entrepreneurs Mean Business summit. Join our 100,000 Women Campaign
today and be part of global history. Full details are on our website and tickets are free.
We’d like you to meet some of the women our Campaign’s reached so far:
Ilgin Ozdemir Yazgan is a graduate mentee of the Foundation’s Mentoring Women in Business programme, and the founder of maternity and nursing business wear brand Accouchée. She joined us in Davos at our Campaign’s launch, sharing her thoughts and experiences in a moving speech that embodied women entrepreneurs’ flare, creativity, and collaborative spirit, highlighting the additional barriers to entrepreneurship that Turkish women face. She praised our Mentoring programme as not only supporting her to gain skills, confidence, structure, and clarity, but also serving as a “rubber stamp of approval” which enabled her to soar into new markets and gain major opportunities.
And she has gone from strength to strength: since her mentoring experience, Ilgin just became one of three finalists for Turkey’s Woman Entrepreneur of the year. She told us, “I believe that giving a speech in Davos was a pivotal event in Accouchée’s story. The rubber stamp you provided me with took me all the way, so I wanted to tell you all to show your impact on women’s lives”.
Ngozi Oyewole is another of the 100,000 women we’re supporting over these three years. A participant in our Road to Growth programme in Nigeria, she runs office furniture manufacturer Noxie Ltd, facing her fair share of gender discrimination in a male-dominated industry: “You’ll have
people thinking ‘oh she’s a woman, what can she do” she told us, “so you are faced with snide remarks, with people not taking you seriously, with the banks telling you ‘I wish you came with your husband’, with people walking into your organization, looking at you and going “oh, we were expecting a man”.
Fortunately, Road to Growth has already helped her release her potential and thrive in the face of these barriers. Calling it “a literal road to growth”, Ngozi used the marketing knowledge she acquired through the programme to boost her business during the pandemic. And the ripple effect of supporting women entrepreneurs, which we see every day at the Foundation, is clear to Ngozi: “when you empower a woman, you empower a nation. If I am doing well, then everyone around me from my family to my community will be empowered, especially the women”.
Asilia Otieno exemplifies the ambitious, resilient, driven nature which we see in so many of the women we work with. She owns a grocery shop in Kenya. As the global pandemic hit, we brought our business skills training app HerVenture to Kenya for the first time, with new learning ‘tracks’ to help women’s businesses remain strong and to provide training that would help them thrive in a post-pandemic, more digital world Asilia quickly took advantage of the app: owning her shop changed her life for the better, and the pandemic could easily have changed things back again. But thanks to HerVenture, she was able strengthen her business, stay open even through a huge downturn, and put food on the table after her husband has lost his job-which could easily have turned into a crisis for her family. She remarks, “people wonder how I have been able to stay open even when sales have been down”, but the app taught her how to navigate the loss of customers caused by the pandemic.
Our work in Kenya grows even bigger this year: not only are we targeting thousands more women with HerVenture, but we’re also bringing Road to Growth to the country for the first time! We can’t wait to see what these women achieve. We know that when women are economically empowered, everyone benefits. We also know that when the clock turns back on women’s empowerment, it isn’t just women who suffer but families, communities, economies, and entire societies. It’s devastating to think that four in ten of our incredible, resilient, ambitious, talented women entrepreneurs are now facing business closure, crushed dreams, and hungry children.
What’s more, our new report reveals the magnitude of impacts that COVID-19 stands to have not only on individual women entrepreneurs, but on women’s human rights more broadly and on entire economies as a result, potentially far into the future.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we can all come together governments and institutions, corporations and NGOs, communities and indeed individuals–to put women to put women entrepreneurs front and center of our thinking around COVID-19 recovery and economic policy, we can turn things around. Not only will we see a huge boost in the global economy by doing so, but we will be doing our bit to ensure there is no further rolling back of women’s access to their rights and protections as business owners and that women have a fighting chance of equal economic participation. So, it’s imperative, now more than ever, that we see ourselves as global citizens and act accordingly in response, together, harnessing the power we have to make real change.
It’s in this spirit of collaboration and progress that our Foundation operates, it’s in this spirit that we launched the 100,000 Women Campaign with Global Citizen Forum at Davos a year and a half ago, calling to all of you to join, and it’s in this spirit that we need to act now to “build back better” from the pandemic. While our report uncovers the stark threat women entrepreneurs are facing, our Campaign can help mitigate this, provide resilience, and contribute to an equitable and
swift rebuild of a better world for women. And so I repeat the call to action I made at Davos in 2020: if you won’t stand for the ongoing crisis of missed potential that women’s economic
inequality represents, and if you share our vision for a better, more equal, more prosperous world, join our mission today and help change the lives not just of 100,000 more women but
also their families, communities and economies, and support human rights, global prosperity and ultimately a better post- pandemic world for us all.