By Cherie Blair CBE, QC, Founder, Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and Anne Finucane, Vice Chairman, Bank of America
Onty Mogofu says she was "born with an entrepreneurial spirit." As a young girl in Botswana, she started plaiting the hair of the women in her village for a small fee, taking her profits home to supplement the family income.
Onty now runs a thriving events management company called 360 Events Affair, which provides training, networking and learning opportunities for women working in traditionally male-dominated fields. She has worked incredibly hard to get where she is, but her journey has not been a solitary one.
In 2012, Onty joined the Mentoring Women in Business Programme, run by the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women. The programme empowers women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging economies to boost their confidence and skills by connecting them with mentors from across the globe. It is supported by a unique partnership between the Foundation and a number of partners, including Bank of America.
To date, the programme has reached nearly 2,000 women entrepreneurs in 80 different countries, and more than 200 of these women have been mentored by Bank of America employees.
Onty is one of those women. After being matched with Cherie Arruda, a Bank of America consumer lending executive based in Boston, the pair worked on a series of goals over the course of a year, focusing on honing Onty's skills in budgeting, business planning, advertising and negotiating.
While mentoring is an age-old practice - Socrates mentored Plato, Giovanni mentored Michelangelo - what made Onty and Cherie's experience unique is that they never once met in person. During their year-long relationship, all of their discussions were conducted via internet, while they were thousands of miles apart.
Technology offers a powerful means of linking people across borders, building relationships and sparking connections that can carry life-changing consequences and may otherwise be difficult. Nowhere is such a catalyst needed more than in the fight to empower women - the world's largest excluded group in the global economy. And the benefits of women's empowerment are exponential. Recent research by McKinsey & Company has shown that advancing women's equality can add $12trillion to the global economy. As much as $28trillion could be added to global annual GDP by 2025 if women have an equal role in labor markets as men.
Entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey in any context, but women entrepreneurs in developing countries face particular challenges. Some live and work in isolated areas. Others face many social and cultural prejudices and pressures, which make it difficult for them to get the resources and skills they need to succeed.
Onty herself struggled to get her business off the ground because sponsors were reluctant to invest in her. "Women in Botswana face discouragement," she said. "When we share our dreams with friends and relatives, people say, '95% of all businesses fail' or 'Aren't you worried about wrecking your life?'"
Confidence is crucial for entrepreneurial success, and having a mentor who can offer encouragement along the way can make a huge difference. But mentoring also helps women develop hard skills that are vital to business growth. Knowing how to write a robust business plan, balance a budget or implement a marketing strategy are competencies that are often out of reach for women living in developing communities but can be refined through Skype chats or Google Hangout sessions with a seasoned mentor.
Of the women supported by Bank of America mentors this year, 93% said they have built key business skills, 87% have revised their business strategies and 97% have found ways to innovate within their business. All of the women said they would recommend the experience to others.
And it's not just mentees who benefit. Our mentors say they feel a huge sense of pride in helping women achieve personal and professional success. Many mentors tell us that their mentoring experience widened their cross-cultural awareness; being able to put yourself in the shoes of a woman working and living in an environment completely unlike your own can be a powerful learning experience, opening up new ways of seeing the world. This is especially relevant to employees of a large global organisation like Bank of America.
Ultimately, the real success stories are the women entrepreneurs themselves. Onty says that working with Cherie enabled her business to break even for the first time. Business growth aside, she's also determined to use her success to help other young women in her community - proof that empowering women generates lasting impacts.