Influencing Change: Mentoring, Role Models and Global Leadership Development
Interview with Allison Kahn, Mentoring Women in Business Programme Director for the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women
[Editor’s Note: I was first introduced to the Cherie Blair Foundation via a former EmpowerWomen.org Global Community Champion for Women’s Economic Empowerment, Caro Cimador, who currently serves as a mentee in the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women Mentoring Programme. An active and gracious partner of UN Women’s EmpowerWomen.org and the #iamwoman campaign, I’m pleased to share the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s perspective on the importance of mentorship in support of women’s empowerment and leadership development world wide.]
(Sharon): Mentorship is at the heart of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s work to develop sustainable solutions in support of women entrepreneurs globally and is widely recognized as essential to women’s advancement. How do you define mentorship? How do you distinguish mentorship from role models, sponsorship, and coaching?
(Allison): Over the last five years, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s Mentoring Women in Business Programme has built a model that approaches mentoring as a supportive and inspirational relationship based on trust and mutual respect, with benefits accruing to both mentees and mentors. Our concept of mentoring is a two-way process where learning is a key outcome for both parties. The focus of the mentoring is on both short- and long-term development, and is tailored specifically for each entrepreneur based on her needs and her mentor’s expertise. This method empowers the mentee to drive the mentoring relationship while encouraging mentors to exercise self-awareness and humility. We provide training on mentoring skills for all mentees and mentors, which builds the foundation for success in our programme and also helps participants gain skills that they can use in their own work and lives. We encourage our mentees to go on and share the knowledge they gain by mentoring others, either through our programme or in other ways.
We think the benefits of mentoring relationships can extend beyond individuals to families, communities, corporations and wider society. Mentoring can play a vital role in international development by supporting women entrepreneurs as they break down barriers that prevent them from sustaining and growing their businesses. Mentoring also supports bright and ambitious women entrepreneurs as they become role models for the next generations. Equally, the mentors themselves often gain a new perspective and global competency that feeds back into their own work and lives, which we hope will inspire them to support women’s economic empowerment as well.
(Sharon): Beyond past performance and other external measures of ‘success’, what character-based criteria do you look for when identifying emerging women leaders to mentor and develop?
(Allison): We see mentoring as valuable for women entrepreneurs at all stages of their entrepreneurial journeys, and have women in the programme who have been in business anywhere from three months to 20 years. This diversity enriches our community and creates endless opportunities for mentees to learn from one another.
Our mentees are women entrepreneurs who are seeking to build their businesses, skills, networks and confidence with the support of an accomplished expert or practitioner. Their businesses range from agriculture to construction, fashion, hospitality, mobile money, renewable energy, education, social enterprises, mining, ICT, law and much, much more. The mentors who join our programme are skilled professionals and entrepreneurs who offer support and guidance. They come from a range of different industries and lines of business.
While we have basic selection criteria that ensure mentees and mentors are able to thrive in the programme, the key really is in the commitment. A mentoring relationship can yield a wealth of rewards, but, just like any other relationship, requires time and energy to see gains at the end. Our team is on hand to assist mentees and mentors every step of the way, and checks in formally with participants during their year-long mentoring relationships. This support is a key part of our model and helps to keep the pairs motivated and on track.
(Sharon): Increasingly, web and mobile technology platforms are being leveraged as effective and important tools and resources to support women’s empowerment, whether related to online training, mentoring, mobile banking, etc. In this way, technology can be a powerful tool, enabling us to reach across geographic and cultural divides.
As Mentoring Women in Business Programme Director for the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, you have been instrumental in developing the Foundation’s pioneering online mentoring model, creating a scalable program that provides mentoring support to women entrepreneurs across 80 countries. It’s an interesting model, because we typically think of mentoring as a 1:1, personal connection, though you’ve had widespread success. Tell me more.
(Allison): In our programme, online technologies enable mentees and mentors to forge connections, support one another and share knowledge across thousands of miles. A woman entrepreneur and her mentor can have a tea or hold a strategy session over video chat, collaborate on projects, brainstorm solutions to challenges and celebrate achievements as if they were in the room together. You might be surprised at the depth of the relationships that mentees and mentors are able to develop, despite never having met in person. We hear time and again that participants share challenges and fears in a way they’d never felt free to before, access critical support, take their skills and confidence to new heights and even gain a friend for life.
To supplement the one-on-one mentoring relationships, we have an online platform that houses a range of resources that mentees and mentors can use. Our peer-to-peer forum is hugely popular and active. It provides a place to amass expertise from mentees and mentors and share it in an active and participatory way. For instance, a mentee from Tanzania recently asked for advice on a presentation that she was due to make to a potential funder. Within a matter of hours, she had feedback from mentees and mentors from Kenya, Spain, Australia and many countries in between.
We know that entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey in any context, but particularly for the women in our programme. Technology allows mentees to access a wealth of varied perspectives and tap into a support system as they forge ahead on their entrepreneurial journeys.
(Sharon): Prior to joining the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, you previously worked within the post-conflict reconciliation and peace-building sectors – both of which require strong emotional intelligence and personal leadership development skills. How has your experience in the former shaped and influenced your work in your current role?
(Allison): My previous work sparked my passion for entrepreneurship. I had the opportunity to work on the launch of a business – a social enterprise that worked to source products and materials from entrepreneurs and artisans working in conflict-affected countries – and to look into how entrepreneurship and employment is essential to building sustainable peace. Following that experience, I was very keen to work directly with entrepreneurs and focus on women’s economic empowerment. I’m able to do just that here at the Foundation and feel lucky that I’m able to get to know the mentees and mentors we work with on a daily basis.
(Sharon): Establishing trust is critical to the effectiveness of any development and training program – especially when it comes to mentoring others. How do you build trust across cultures among the women and within the communities you work with around the world?
(Allison): This is certainly true of mentoring relationships. Strong trust, rapport and commitment are essential to the success of a mentoring relationship, and are topics we cover in depth in our trainings and guides. We encourage mentees and mentors to spend time getting to know each other before they start working on their personalized action plans and to take time in each meeting to talk about what’s happening in their own lives. We also ask each pair to establish ground rules for their mentoring relationship and to check in periodically to chat about how things are going. We have a clear ethical code in the programme, which all mentees and mentors pledge to follow before joining, and carefully monitor the use of our online platform. We’ve been pleased to see how mentees and mentors have become invested in each other’s success and how dedicated, loyal and trusting our online community has become over the years. Mentees and mentors share deeply personal stories and challenges, which the community responds to with great care and support.
I was in Malaysia at the end of last year and had the opportunity to spend some time with Nida, a mentee alumna who runs an event planning company in Kuala Lumpur. She spent a year working with a mentor in Palestine who is a commercial and finance manager. They made tremendous strides together and built a strong rapport through their meetings, which helped Nida refine her financial management skills and gain new courage and confidence. Two years on, she is still in touch with mentees and mentors in the programme and is taking her business from strength to strength. It is striking to see how many relationships extend beyond the formal end of the programme and how mentees and mentors continue to engage with the community. You can read more about her story here.
(Sharon): Who have been some important role models and mentors in your own life and how have their wisdom, experience and guidance influenced your own leadership journey?
I have had a number of informal and formal mentors and mentees that have been instrumental in my own development. In one of my first jobs, I had the opportunity to work with a woman who had built a successful career in my field after spending 15 years as a primary school teacher. In addition to offering words of wisdom and career advice, she would print out emails or documents that I had written, circle even the slightest error with a red pen, write comments in red and leave the papers on my desk each night. When she liked my work, she would do the same. When I asked her why she did this, she told me that success never comes from cutting corners and that opportunities aren’t going to fall in my lap, and that I shouldn’t condition myself to accept less than my best. She taught me the importance of pushing yourself to do better each day and finding opportunities to learn, even in the smallest ways. She also showed me how a slice of lemon cake and cup of tea, when paired with the ear of a mentor or friend, can turn a day around and open up new possibilities.
(Sharon): What advice do you have for women and girls who are just starting out on their own leadership journey?
(Allison): Find a mentor and become a mentor! It’s never too soon to mentor someone else and never too late to get a mentor. Mentoring can be valuable in all stages of your career and life, and can serve so many different purposes. I’d encourage everyone to get involved in mentoring schemes in their communities, at work or globally! Along the way, I have also learned the importance of working hard and constantly pushing yourself, and how useful it is to ask those around you for input and advice. You’ll always find someone who is willing to help and share their ideas, and I’ve gained some of the most valuable insights by talking to my colleagues and associates. To get involved in the Mentoring Women in Business Programme, visit www.cherieblairfoundation.org/mentoring to learn more.