Laura, from Texas, joined the Mentoring Women in Business programme through her employer Bank of America. She was paired with Emma, from Malawi, who was a mentee on the programme from March 2019 to March 2020. They told us about the positive impact the programme had on their personal and professional lives.
Laura Olson has always been determined to support women in her workplace. Prominent in Diversity and Inclusion initiatives in her role at Bank of America, and having previously worked with the International Justice Mission to help end modern slavery, she is driven by a desire to elevate women.
One day, having heard from a colleague about the opportunity to spend a year in a one-on-one mentoring relationship with a women entrepreneur from a low or middle income country, Laura signed up to the Mentoring Women in Business Programme at the Cherie Blair Foundation. Having herself been mentored by a woman, Laura wanted to pay forward an experience that had been invaluable to her.
A year later, Laura and her mentee, Emma, graduated from the programme with a sense of perspective, an array of new skills, and a caring mutual respect and friendship.
Setting out on the programme in March 2019, the Cherie Blair Foundation matched Laura with Emma, a woman entrepreneur from Lilongwe, Malawi. Emma’s business Girls Go Green works with primary and secondary school girls to educate and provide resources on reproductive health, while also providing them with opportunities and encouragement to recycle. Emma also works to support older women in her community pursue methods of crop-harvesting tomatoes. This mutual dedication and commitment to women’s empowerment helped Laura and Emma form a strong connection instantly.
Hoping for support in professional skills such as marketing and funding applications; and in personal skills such as confidence and communicability, Emma found her conversations with Laura helpful from the start. With Emma driving the relationship, reliably setting agendas and scheduling, their half-hour meetings each week quickly became a regular fixture that both women looked forward to.
In their weekly video chats, Laura would reflect with Emma on the week’s developments, provide guidance, and set out the next steps for Emma before the next meeting. For Emma this structure gave her accountability and a close monitoring of progress. By providing an external perspective, and a dependable, encouraging voice, Laura helped Emma’s confidence blossom as the relationship developed.
Through her institutional experience and transferrable skills, Laura was able to act as a thought partner for Emma’s development of marketing skills and applications for funding. Laura would make suggestions, review applications and reflect on solutions to the obstacles that arose.
Having spent a large part of their relationship on marketing tools for Girls Go Green, Emma was able to develop a more robust strategy, increasing the number of schools she was able to visit and therefore the girls she could support. Emma was also able to hire a website developer to build a more professional online platform for the initiative, including e-commerce capabilities, providing her with further growth opportunities.
Developing her confidence, communication, and leadership skills within her mentoring relationship, Emma spearheaded efforts to equip women in her community grow and harvest tomatoes.
In response to their funding constraints, Laura suggested Emma formed a Women’s Co-operative. Laura felt that a community of women pulling together and sharing their resources would be an equitable and efficient way of becoming stronger. Emma responded with characteristic dedication, and quickly established the co-operative in her community. The result was both a solidarity between Emma and her fellow women entrepreneurs, as well as an increase in resources allowing them to purchase new machinery, helping the whole community thrive. With further consultation from Laura, Emma was able to successfully apply for a grant for the co-operative, which allowed her community of farmers to access far more advanced machinery, as well as training on manufacturing processes and financial management.
Reflecting on the relationship, Laura felt that establishing an openness early on helped form a deep connection. The early sessions spent getting to know one another personally and professionally shaped a mutual understanding and respect that drove the relationship forward.
Throughout the process, Laura was reminded of her own privilege. Seeing Emma deal with frequent internet blackouts, persistent resource challenges and an at times a difficult social backdrop of resistance to a woman entrepreneur in parts of Emma’s community, Laura accessed a glimpse of the lived realities that Emma dealt with on a daily basis.
Emma was able to develop her confidence and leadership skills, and when Laura’s 12 months with her was ended, she found that Emma’s community had rallied around her to form a support base for her leadership.
Laura came away from the relationship inspired by Emma’s achievements. Understanding pervasive threats to women’s empowerment in contexts where she had previously known little, Laura sees this perspective as invaluable to her: reflecting: “[the relationship] emotionally moved me and shifted my world view”. In speaking regularly with her daughters about the experience, Laura is hoping to engender a passion for women’s empowerment amongst the next generation of her family.
Professionally, Laura is even more passionate about working to achieve diversity and Inclusion initiatives at Bank of America. Reflecting on the dedication and sheer-mindedness that Emma brought to her business pursuits, she feels more able to pursue her goals professionally. She says “I have emerged as a stronger leader because of Emma’s experience.”
Not only has Emma seen her profits, her standing in the local community, and her confidence grow, but she has used the experience to develop her own mentoring journey, using the skills developed in mentoring relationships with both the young girls she helps educate, and the women in the co-operative. She says that the experience was “life changing for me and my community.”
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