Global Risk Insights sat down with Allison Kahn, Director of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s Mentoring Women in Business Programme, to discuss the interplay between female empowerment, mentoring and technology.
“There is one crucial factor that affects whether we can sign up a prospective mentee – and that’s internet and mobile connectivity.”
GRI: Do you find it easier to find women to sign up to mentoring programmes in some countries over others? Why so? Is there a link between the readiness for women to sign up for this mentoring programme and the political systems they live in?
Kahn: We receive extraordinary interest in our Mentoring Programme from women all over the world. I started working on the programme in 2012 and at that time we had just 100 mentees from six countries. Now, just four years later, we’ve supported over 2,000 mentees in more than 90 countries. I think this shows that mentoring has huge universal appeal for women entrepreneurs across the globe.
Being an entrepreneur can be a lonely journey – that’s true whether you are in the U.S. or Uzbekistan. We support mentees who live in areas which are affected by conflict, such as Azerbaijan, as well as those who live in more peaceful nations. Each year the World Economic Forum ranks countries in terms of how they are faring on gender equality. It’s interesting that we have mentees from both Rwanda, which is the top-ranked developing country in the list, and Yemen, which is the lowest-ranked developing country. We see that there is a strong appetite and need for mentoring in many different contexts and for women entrepreneurs at many different stages of business growth.
There is one crucial factor that affects whether we can sign up a prospective mentee – and that’s internet and mobile connectivity. Because our Mentoring Programme uses technology to connect people across borders, it’s vital that women are able to get online regularly. Our mentees and mentors meet using a range of online and mobile communication tools, such as Skype, Google Hangouts, Viber, WhatsApp, etc. While our mentees and mentors are often creative and flexible in the tools they use to communicate, the infrastructure and total lack of connection can prohibit some women from joining us as mentees.
We recognise how important this connectivity is, both for participation in our programme and for broader access to information and services. There is definitely a role for governments to play in improving digital infrastructure and securing internet access for even the most remote communities. And they will also need to make sure that it is affordable. As a member of the Alliance for Affordable Internet, we try and raise awareness of this issue.
And, of course, political systems can affect women entrepreneurs and the barriers they face more widely. Government can, for example, influence policies and laws that impact women’s access to resources – for example, their right to own and inherit land, or to access a loan. According to the World Bank, in 35 countries women still don’t have the same inheritance rights as men. And only 46 countries have a legal requirement that protects women from discrimination when they try to access credit.
“First and foremost, women won’t be able to access technology if governments don’t invest in the necessary infrastructure to make it accessible and affordable for everyone.”
GRI: Will technology be the driving force behind female empowerment? Is it enough? Don’t you also require positive government policy and improved cultural norms? Do you have an example where these three elements (technology, government policy, improving cultural attitudes) are going hand in hand?
Kahn: Technology definitely holds huge promise for women’s empowerment. It opens doors to learning opportunities, new networks and employment prospects. Our Mentoring Programme uses technology to connect mentees with mentors who can be, literally, at the opposite end of the earth. We have a jewellery seller in Malaysia being mentored by an entrepreneur in Sweden, for example, and a mining engineer in South Africa being mentored by a banking executive in the U.S.
But whenever we talk about technology we must be cautious. Technology isn’t a silver bullet – it’s just one part of the equation. You mention the need for positive government policy and improved cultural norms – and that’s crucial.
First and foremost, women won’t be able to access technology if governments don’t invest in the necessary infrastructure to make it accessible and affordable for everyone. Second, we need to tackle those social attitudes and norms which are limiting women’s access to mobile phones and the internet. Earlier this year, for example, several villages in the Indian state of Gujarat banned unmarried women from owing mobile phones. Figures from the GSMA suggest that, globally, 200 million fewer women than men own mobile phones.
Of course, wider government policies and social expectations have an impact on women’s empowerment more generally – affecting their rights to access to quality work, receive fair pay and be protected from harm or exploitation.
I think it’s telling that no country in the world has yet achieved full economic equality for women. But I am optimistic that by bringing technology into the equation we can speed up progress on this front.
“Putri started the business after getting divorced and struggling to find a job to support her children. She’s an incredibly vivacious woman with real energy and determination.”
GRI: We would be interested to hear a personal story which demonstrates how a woman or a group of women have benefited from technology and mentoring in the developing world.
Kahn: From 2012 to 2015, we ran a special mentoring project in Malaysia in partnership with Qualcomm® Wireless Reach™. Prior to starting their mentoring relationships, the 200 mentees we worked with received intensive training on business, ICT and English skills. They were also given tablets powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon™, as well as a Tune Talk data plan, to help them access the internet and take part in online mentoring relationships.
Using the tablets, the mentees worked with their mentors over the course of a year. They set out personalised goals and action plans, and worked one-to-one with their mentors to make strides in their businesses and develop themselves as leaders. The women also used their tablets to access our bespoke web platform, which lets them connect with our global community of entrepreneurs and tap into a huge range of learning resources.
Last year, I was able to meet one of these women, Putri (on the cover picture of the article – she is seated at the very front of the photo in the middle, wearing glasses), who runs a tailoring company from her home in Kuala Lumpur. Putri started the business after getting divorced and struggling to find a job to support her children. She’s an incredibly vivacious woman with real energy and determination. She was matched with Philippe, a professor from Lebanon, and together they worked on Putri’s goals to grow her fledgling enterprise and start marketing her clothes online. Putri used her tablet to promote her designs on Facebook and Instagram. She told us that during her time in the programme she went from having five clients to over 30, and her revenue increased by 86%. She also suffered from some difficult health problems during this time, which affected her business and confidence. She told me that her mentor – and the programme’s online community – really helped her rebound from these setbacks. I was so proud to hear her story. The resilience of women like Putri is what makes our programme such a success!
Allison Kahn joined the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women in 2011. She has scaled their pioneering mentoring model to reach thousands of women, mentors and partners in over 90 countries, developed web applications to support participants and enable knowledge-sharing, and ensured the programme impacts the women entrepreneurs the foundation supports. Allison brings over a decade of experience in the non-profit sector, with expertise in strategy, M&E, partnership development, communications, volunteer engagement and project management. She holds degrees from the London School of Economics and Macalester College.