Behind the Business Revolution for Women

By Giving List Women   |   May 20, 2024

Cherie Blair CBE, KC is an enormously influential figure at the intersection of business, politics, activism, and law. A renowned British barrister and advocate for gender equity and women’s financial independence, Blair grew up in a family acutely aware of how social and financial systems were stacked against women. Her exceptional academic success and development of a successful legal practice in employment, discrimination, and public law led her to appear in a number of leading cases in the U.K. and at the European Court of Justice.

In 2008, she founded the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, a charity that supports women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging markets. To date, the Foundation has supported more than 250,000 women in over 100 countries, alleviating poverty and contributing to economic growth by building women’s skills, knowledge, and confidence and thereby increasing their access to financial networks and new markets.

As the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Blair has had an opportunity to see how decisions are made at the highest level of power, and the role of women in that process. Some of these insights appear in two books: her autobiography, Speaking for Myself: My Life from Liverpool to Downing Street, and, with Cate Haste, The Goldfish Bowl: Married to the Prime Minister 1955-1997. The latter is a history of the lives of spouses of British prime ministers during the second half of the 20th century.

Blair is currently the co-founder and chair of Omnia Strategy LLP and chancellor of the Asian University for Women.

Giving List Women: Why have you focused your philanthropic efforts, particularly through the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, on female entrepreneurs and financial independence and literacy for women?

Cherie Blair: Our passions are formed by our life experiences. In my case, as a young girl growing up when my father abandoned my mother, my sister, and I, leaving my mother to bring us up on her own with no financial support, but with the support of his mother, my grandmother. That taught me about the resilience and perseverance of women. Neither my mom nor my grandma had the sort of formal education opportunities I had, but they absolutely did us proud. It taught me that, without financial independence, without an ability to earn your own living, so many women are vulnerable and can’t make the right choices for them and their family.

Whereas if you have financial independence, a way of making your own living, you can choose to walk out on an abusive relationship or take a path in a world that says, women don’t usually do these things – whatever that is.

I was lucky. I did get an education and a great career as a lawyer, which gives me that financial independence. So, I’ve always wanted to give back, particularly to women and girls. And in deciding how I might give back after my incredible experience of being at 10 Downing Street, I wanted to focus on women’s economic independence, and particularly entrepreneurship, because so many women find that the world is designed to suit men and not in a way that enables them to fulfill what they want to do. Which is why many women choose to do it for themselves. Women’s entrepreneurship is an important way of helping with development, growing economies, but also giving women that independence and choice. And on top of all that – let’s face it, women are the backbone of their societies. And yet, no country in the world has achieved full gender equality.

GLW: As the spouse of a former prime minister of the United Kingdom, you had a front-row seat to political power. But you also have your own law firm. So, you have your own seat at the table. Do you think it’s important for women to lead differently than the examples we see in systems primarily set up by men?

CB: Women tend to approach things differently. It’s not that women are innately different from men, but society has always treated women differently, and this shapes the way women approach things. What is powerful is when people come together with those different experiences to work together to find more creative solutions.

GLW: Do you think that things are becoming better for women and therefore our world?

CB: Across the world, the rules have been stacked against women for thousands of years. Even today, there are only 14 high-income countries where women have the same rights as men, whether it’s the rights of inheritance, the rights to their children, to the family property, to education. … There’s a lot of leveling up to do.

GLW:Why do you think less than 2% of all philanthropic dollars go toward supporting women and girls?

CB: It’s honestly astonishing because again and again, we see research that says if you invested more in women, particularly women contributing to the economy, trillions more would go to global GDP. That investing in women tends to not only pay back in an economic sense, but also because of the trickle-down effect – the intergenerational [effect], the community effect, of a woman doing well in her community. Investing in women means investing in a whole host of positive outcomes, from health and education to poverty eradication and innovation. It’s extraordinary. But the message doesn’t seem to get through to those who are making the investments.

GLW: Should women and girls be seen as a lens and not just a lane in philanthropy?

CB: Yes. How can you solve environmental or social justice without 50% of the population, often the ones who are on the ground doing the work? But also, if you don’t target your support to women’s actual needs and experiences, it doesn’t necessarily get through to them. So often women are told, “This is not for you.” For example, business training is the same whatever gender you are. At the Foundation, we have a business skills app for women called HerVenture, which is freely downloadable in the countries in which we operate – it’s like a nano-MBA that takes the woman on a journey of setting up and growing her business. She gains the same knowledge that a male entrepreneur would need, but the app is purpose-built for women’s specific needs and so is much more successful at actually supporting women than something designed to be gender-neutral would be, as these often default to favoring men. That’s why our supporters look to give to our specifically women-centered initiatives.

GLW: What advice would you give to young women beginning their entrepreneurial or philanthropic journey?

CB: Historically, money’s been in the hands of men, but women are turning that around. Suddenly there’s a lot more wealth in women’s hands due to women’s economic empowerment and much due to women’s entrepreneurship specifically. We see a movement now of philanthropy led by women who are looking to help the world, understanding that that means ensuring that 50% of that world are getting their fair share. I actually think that when you look at the younger generation, there’s so much that they can teach us about thinking globally rather than just locally, about understanding how the world is so interconnected today. I think they’re strongly aware of that, whether it’s because of their concern for the environment or their familiarity with how technology has brought us all together. This younger generation gets it that men and women working together is the key to a successful family, a successful community, a successful society, and real harmony in the world.