Cherie Blair Foundation for Women
We think women entrepreneurs are special. And today - on Women's Entrepreneurship Day - I'd like to take a moment to explain why we should be celebrating these unsung heroes of development.
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... 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.
What struck me most about the march was the sheer diversity of participants. There were women, men, children, young feminists as well as more seasoned campaigners, political figures and global leaders as well as representatives from civil society groups and countless individuals who turned up simply because they had something to shout about.
I firmly believe that women possess a wonderful ability to get things done, which is why the theme of this year's International Women's Day - 'Make It Happen' - feels so fitting. I set up my Foundation for Women in 2008, with a focus on empowering women in developing and emerging economies to create and grow their own businesses. I settled on this particular issue because I believe that economic security unlocks huge opportunities for women, enabling them to make positive choices over their own lives and the lives of their children.
Businesswomen in developing countries face countless barriers on their path to economic and social empowerment. However, SMS on mobile phones can literally transform lives as it is a cost effective and efficient way to deliver information and skills to women entrepreneurs in rural areas.
We all know time is our most precious commodity. We all struggle to find enough time to dedicate to our families, hobbies, interest, work and friends. So when it comes time to embark on something new, we often get scared by the time commitment involved.
The Middle East is a key region of interest because although increasing numbers of women are receiving a good standard of education, the region still lags behind on the core issue of economic equality. On a global scale, the latest figures from the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report show that although the gender gap in education is 93% closed, the gap in economic equality has closed by only 60%.
Two years ago, when I decided to leave my job as VP of Sales for a public company, many people told me "don't do it/that's the end of your career/such a risky move" because I didn't have another job lined up. They saw what I was doing as the end of my world, whilst for me it was the beginning of a new one.
Sitting on the rooftop of Gladys's juice bar in Freetown, I was having an informal chat with some of the women my foundation supports. This wasn't my first trip to Sierra Leone. I was there for International Women's Day in March and had spoken then to some of the women. But this time I got to have a long, in depth conversation with them about the difficulties they have faced as women entrepreneurs and what benefits they get from participating in the country's first network for women entrepreneurs, which is what the Foundation has helped to set up here.
Only 4% of women in Tanzania work in formal employment and only 5% have access to financing from banks, leaving them with fewer resources to invest in their businesses. These challenges stem from a number of gaps where women tend to be left behind in East Africa, such as insufficient business management skills, marketing know-how, networks and access to capital. Often women are pushed into running a business as a last resort rather than making the choice themselves. There are huge demands placed on women in East Africa in particular and yet they are offered little support.