A mobile phone, Cherie Blair reminded us last week, is often a poor person’s computer.
Cherie made that point during a visit to ExxonMobil’s Houston campus, where she spoke to employees about the work the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women does to promote women’s economic empowerment around the globe – work that ExxonMobil is proud to help support.
I had the honor of engaging Cherie in a wide-ranging discussion about her foundation’s activities. Some of the most interesting parts focused on women using mobile phones to build businesses and better their lives. “Mobile,” after all, essentially means your phone is a piece of technology you can use just about anywhere, even in remote areas.
Cherie offered an interesting personal reflection, too. She said she really began to appreciate the virtues of mobile technology when her husband, Tony Blair, became Great Britain’s prime minister and their family moved to 10 Downing Street. That’s not a “remote” location in the conventional sense. But as a self-employed barrister, she was able to break out from the isolated confines of 10 Downing Street and continue her own entrepreneurial career precisely because of her access to technology.
In 2011, ExxonMobil partnered with the Cherie Blair Foundation to study how mobile phone technology can enhance women’s economic opportunities and entrepreneurship. What this research found is that the mobile phone can be a transformative tool for women, particularly in terms of mobile banking and as a tool for education and training.
The Cherie Blair Foundation has taken this research and run with it. Cherie described a program to develop a smartphone app that regularly texts practical tips to small business owners. More than 100,000 women have taken advantage of this app. Every few days a new tip pops up that offers a simple suggestion to trigger ideas for improvement in starting and building a business.
Likewise, the research showed the efficacy of using mobile technology to impart skills and offer training from educators and mentors, particularly in on-the-spot situations. Cherie talked about new web-based platforms that allow women to interact with knowledgeable teachers and experienced business leaders.
In particular, she mentioned her foundation’s Road to Growth project, working with 500 women business leaders in Nigeria. Part of the program’s instruction is classroom-based, but most is delivered on the web, limiting the need for women to take off time from work or families to participate. They can tailor their learning to times that suit them.
I loved the story she told about a woman in Lagos who had opened a mental health clinic. She told Cherie, “In medical school they didn’t teach me how to run a business.” This program will help her learn those essential business skills, and in doing so will benefit her entire community.
As Cherie noted, empowering women economically can have two advantages. First, of course, is the direct improvement in the financial status of a woman that aids her family and neighbors – studies show that women invest 90 percent of their income back into the health, education, and well-being of their communities.
Beyond that, though, you can have a subtle but very positive influence on the status of women around the world when you make them agents of economic betterment. This will, in turn, yield positive benefits going forward.