In conversation with Cherie Blair CBE KC and Dhivya O’Connor

Our Founder, Cherie Blair CBE KC appeared on The Charity CEO Podcast, hosted by our CEO, Dhivya O'Connor. Listen to the interview here!

Ahead of International Women’s Day, our Founder, Cherie Blair CBE KC, sat down with Dhivya O’Connor, the Foundation’s CEO and host of The Charity CEO Podcast, for a special joint-interview. In it, they discuss our latest landmark research, women’s economic justice, and more.

Dhivya O’Connor: We are going to start with some icebreaker questions just to give our listeners a little bit of a glimpse into who you are.

Question one: What was your first job?

Cherie Blair CBE KC: My first job was as a shop assistant in Lewis’s Liverpool. My mum worked as a manager in the travel bureau there. I was working in the school uniform section.

Wow. Question two: as a child, what did you dream of becoming when you grew up?

When I was 14, I told the girls in class when we were talking about what we wanted to do that I was going to be the first woman Prime Minister.

Brilliant, I love that. Question three: what would you say is your professional superpower?

I think persistence.

Question four: what hobby or activity do you turn to when you want to disconnect from work?

I think really two things: One is I like to do some exercise every day, whether it’s yoga or pilates or some personal training. And secondly, from a very early age, I was a very young reader. I still love reading novels, which I do every night.

Lovely, and the final icebreaker question, if you had the opportunity to interview anyone in the world, dead or alive? Who would it be? And what one question would you like to ask them?

I’d like to interview Queen Elizabeth the first and ask her how she coped being the only woman in such a man’s world.

Cherie Blair, CBE KC, sits with her arms crossed on a desk. She is wearing a black blouse with teal flowers on it. In the background is a painting in a large gold frame and a white lamp.
Cherie Blair CBE KC, Founder, Cherie Blair Foundation for Women

When I set up the Foundation, I realised that technology was key.

Cherie Blair CBE KC, Founder, Cherie Blair Foundation for Women

Brilliant question and very topical and relevant for what we are going to come to talk about in this conversation.

So, Cherie, you set up the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women in 2008. And I’m absolutely delighted to have recently joined as the Foundation’s new CEO. Take us back to 2008. What led you to set up the Foundation? What was your motivation?

Well, I think my motivation came from my own professional journey as a woman in a man’s world; growing up from a one parent family brought up by women. My mum, as I mentioned, worked in a store. I mean, she was the only breadwinner in our household. So, from a very early age, I learned that for a woman to have economic independence gave her the right to make choices. I also learned from a very early age that it’s not that easy being a woman, and certainly not in the 50s and 60s, when my mom was trying to support her family. It seemed to be a little easier when I was at school.

Then when I first entered the legal profession and tried to find my own job, I discovered that in the 1970s, in the UK, and indeed, in Western Europe, there was still a feeling that women really didn’t have a place in the workforce, or if they did, it certainly wasn’t at the top of their profession. That feeling of being so fortunate, of being someone who managed to come into the workforce at a time when things were changing, when there were opportunities for women, I was lucky enough to take up those opportunities. And then of course, lucky enough that my husband became prime minister and I spent 10 years with this front row seat on what was going on in the world and travelled around the world. And when that all came to an end, I felt pretty strongly that I wanted to do something with those experiences and to give something back.

It was natural, I think, that I would look at women’s economic empowerment because of my own personal history and because as I travelled around the world, particularly to low and middle income countries, I met many women whose position was more similar to those of my mother and my grandmother in their societies. I thought, we’ve learned so much about how far women can come. If we can use that learning to help other women accelerate that process so that they can gain economic independence that allows them to make their choices for themselves and their families, then we could really change the world.

For listeners who may not be that familiar with the Foundation’s work, give us a sense of the scale of the problem globally for women and for women’s economic empowerment, as well as how specifically the Foundation helps.

Business has a problem. The world has a problem, because we’re not utilising the talents, the ambitions, the drive of half the world’s population, that being the female half. Economic gender justice is essential both for women’s freedom and equality, but also for the development of the world. 2.4 billion women of working age are not afforded equal economic opportunity and 178 countries maintain legal barriers that prevent women from fully participating in the economy. According to the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report, it’s going to take 169 years to reach economic gender parity between men and women. That’s a figure that in the last few years has actually gone backwards, not forwards.

Then you look at women entrepreneurs and what is needed for a business to grow and expand: it needs investment, it needs finance, it needs access to capital. But the fact is, there’s a 1.7 trillion US dollar gap for women led small and medium sized enterprises. We actually did a survey of the women we work with, and 44% of them said they didn’t have equal access to formal investment opportunities. Globally, more than 70% of the women who owned formal, small and medium size businesses don’t have any access or very inadequate access to financial services. It just doesn’t make sense.

It’s been estimated by various bodies that if women and men participated equally as entrepreneurs, then global GDP would rise by 6%, boosting the world economy from between two point half to $5 trillion. So, this is not just something about women themselves. It’s about everybody, because we could all do with that additional money going through the economy, enabling us to improve the lives for all people.

You spoke there about the need to invest in women and as we are approaching International Women’s Day, this year’s theme is actually on the need to invest in women to accelerate progress. 169 years to reach gender equality; that is so far away, unfortunately, from the Sustainable Development Goal five of gender equality by 2030. There is such a huge deficit in spending on gender equality measures across the world and I know that you and all of us at the Foundation are certainly not prepared to wait 169 years. This is why we do the work that we do.

Well the 169 figure, of course, is about economic participation. There’s no doubt at all, that investing in women isn’t just about investing in their businesses, it’s also about their education and their health. On those levels, the figures are a bit more encouraging, but when you talk about where the power lies in the world, in the economy, and in politics, those figures are much less encouraging, including the 169 years of economic equality.

I’ve heard you speak quite openly about the gendered challenges that you’ve faced in your career and in your role as the wife of the former Prime Minister of the UK, Tony Blair. What do you see as some of the key areas still requiring progress for women that you feel absolutely need to be focused on right now?

Well, the Foundation’s vision remains really the same as it was in 2008, which is for women to enjoy equal economic opportunities, so they can fulfil their potential. We’re still working on that mission, particularly through our programmes.

When I set up the Foundation, I realised that technology was key. We wanted to set up the Foundation to use technology  to take our programmes to scale to reach many more women than we could face to face. Technology is still a huge part of the programmes.

The other thing we were we were convinced about is that it’s not something that you necessarily have to do yourself as a Foundation. It’s all about working in partnership. We’ve always wanted to have a lean organisation, which is innovative, which goes in and works with local partners in order to achieve women’s economic empowerment. And we have done that as well. We don’t, as a foundation, set up organisations on the ground ourselves, we partner with local organisations who know the area much better than we do, and give our expertise to help them promote women’s economic empowerment.

We do that through our programmes. The first one is our global mentoring programme, which is one that we set up from the very beginning. It matches men and women mentors around the world to have a personal, ongoing, year-long relationship with a woman entrepreneur that we have identified through our partners who is ready for the next stage of their business. By using the internet and meeting over the internet once or twice a month, they set goals and then they are assessed on whether they achieved that goals.

The mentoring programme has gone from strength to strength and it’s also gold accredited by an European organisation. So, at the end of the day, the mentors get a qualification and the mentees get accreditation as a former mentee of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.

Obviously, the mentoring platform is wholly driven by technology and people. Then we have our “Road to” programmes, which are a mixture of blended learning programmes. We bring together women in groups to learn. There’s Road to Leadership, Road to Growth, Road to Finance, and they bring them together to learn both in person and online. These programmes are for a shorter time, a couple of months, and then at the end of the women tend to be able to then go through almost like a Dragon’s Den process where they can show what they’ve learned and hopefully attract some investment into their business.

Then the final programme we have and the one where we really do go to scale is our HerVenture app. I sometimes call it a nano MBA. You download it from the internet, it’s available through our partners, and it takes you on an internet assisted journey to learn. Whether you’re a beginner whose thinking about setting up a business, or an existing business, wanting to expand.

During the COVID pandemic, we introduced resources about internet marketing and resilience. It’s a very flexible tool.

We’ve reached 100,000 women with the HerVenture app since it’s been launched. In some countries it is in the local language. Like in Nigeria, it’s in English, but in Vietnam, it’s in Vietnamese. Translating the app has enabled us to reach out and share our knowledge and expertise with so many more women.

We are very ambitious about ensuring that the programme continues to expand because the information is there, the knowledge, the learning is there, it’s just a question of finding the right partners to be able to distribute it to as many women as possible.

A woman entrepreneur, Ivonne Ocrospoma, sits in a wooden chair in front of a window. She is wearing a black and white dress with plant patterns on it. She is holding out a phone with the HerVenture app on the screen and she is smiling.
Ivonne Ocrospoma, Managing Director of L&L translation services and HerVenture user, Guyana

Yes, it’s very exciting that we have now reached 100,000 users through the HerVenture app, which is fantastic. And talking about technology theory, how can the Foundation continue to remain relevant? How do you see us continuing to harness technology in order to lead us into the future?

Well, this is the most relevant question, I think, for the Foundation. Because as I said, we’ve always wanted to be innovators, we don’t want to have a huge organisation. What we want to do is to take a concept, prove the concept, and then share it. Technology changes all the time, so we have to also adapt our technology.

Now, of course, because we’re working in low and middle income countries, there is a bit of a lag. But on the other hand, sometimes in lower middle income countries, I think, for example, mobile money, they can actually be ahead of using mobile money, because they haven’t had the traditional banking system, for example. So, it’s not always the case when working in low and middle income countries, that the latest technology isn’t available.

At the moment, of course, everybody’s talking about AI. We are looking at how we can incorporate AI and whatever else this ever changing tech landscape throws us to improve the offer that we make to women entrepreneurs. We’re also very conscious that there’s a huge technology gap, particularly between men and women in all countries, more so I think in low and middle income countries. So we also want to make sure our technology is broadly available.

One example of that is what we did with HerVenture app in South Africa. Data can be hugely expensive there, so we worked with our partners to ensure that the apps learning modules could be available offline. You can just download them in one go, and then slowly work your way through them. That’s very helpful, particularly in rural areas.

I saw for myself when I went to Guyana recently, our local technology partner there, a mobile phone operator, actually took mobile hubs into the rural areas. They provided internet access, which allowed the local people to come and download our app for free. Then they could go away and use it in a way that suited them, in the time that they had available. There’s this balance of bringing in technology whilst recognising that the expense of technology isn’t always available to people on low income.

We’ve actually just released our new research with partners at Intuit. It highlights the vital importance of ensuring women entrepreneurs are able to fully harness and utilise generative AI to their advantage. Many of your people have used chat GPT, I’ve even used it myself. But research has shown that more men than women use AI in their professional or personal lives, 54% to 35%. We wanted to look and see how women entrepreneurs are using AI or how they are even getting access to it. We found that many of the women already use AI to create marketing materials, generate new ideas or write content for emails or other communications. But then the women responded to us that they want more training and support so they can use the opportunities that AI offers to support their businesses.

We’re going to use this research to help us join in the conversations at the UN Commission on the Status of Women and other key global platforms to look at how we can ensure that women’s Digital Inclusion encompasses AI.

At the same time, of course, we always have to remember that there are disadvantages to technology for women. I only need to mention safe spaces, harassment, trolling, and other online abuses. So again, it’s about developing programmes and help through our app for women entrepreneurs to get the best out of technology and the new AI that’s coming through, while also being able to manage the disadvantages and be able to understand how you can avoid abuse or exploitation, including financial exploitation. Being led to believe you’re getting some sort of business relationship, when in fact, what they’re doing is taking your money. This happens too often. So this is the latest way that the Foundation uses its expertise in technology, and its knowledge of what women entrepreneurs want or need to try and shape the agenda and give them voices and opportunity to participate in the discussions.

I know that you are incredibly active in your support for the organisation, and that you have visited many of our programme countries. I mean, you mentioned Guyana a few months ago. Are there any stories or conversations that you’ve had with women entrepreneurs that have really brought home the impact of our work? I would love to hear some of your favourite stories or anecdotes.

I absolutely love going and visiting our programmes and meeting the fantastic women that we work with. I was lucky enough, just last summer, to go to Guyana, where we’re running three of our programmes. It’s been a tremendous success.

I was able to tour three businesses of the women entrepreneurs that we were working with in Georgetown, and they were incredible businesses. One was a vegetarian restaurant. One was a woman in that very man’s world of engineering and building works, which there’s a lot of in Guyana because it suddenly got this oil wealth, and the third one was someone called Carlotta John. She has a business called Children R Us, which provides quality childcare, and is now expanding into nursery education and beyond. She was such an amazing, inspirational woman. She had come on our Road to Growth and Road to Leadership programmes. After her first experience on the programmes, she actually offered and we took up the opportunity, for her business to provide childcare for the women who were on the programme. That was particularly helpful because we did find in the first programme that some women dropped out just because they couldn’t find childcare. Now we’re providing childcare as well. I actually gave out the certificates for one of the programmes and there were eight pregnant women on that course, of whom seven graduated, the eighth was unable to continue because she had an early pregnancy and had to stop. One woman came with her tiny baby strapped to her to receive her award, which was amazing.

But I’ll always remember what Carlotta said to me. She said, “Before I did the programme, I was busy. But now I have a business.” And that’s really at the heart of what we do. We hear that from so many of the women entrepreneurs that we work with. They’ll tell us they were spending more hours but they didn’t seem to be earning any more. It’s about giving that business training, that rigor of a course in how you run a business that enables the women to turn being busy into actually having a viable business. So thank you, Carlotta, for that. I’ll always remember it.

I talked about our work in Africa. I mentioned South Africa. We’ve also done a lot of work in Nigeria. Nigeria is one of the first countries we were in and we still work in Nigeria. Nigerian women are incredible entrepreneurs and so inspirational. When I meet them, they always give me such a buzz.

One woman I met recently, is called Sola Adesakin. She is a former Road to Growth participant and her company is called Smart Stewards. It wants to help middle class Africans to build their wealth. She also started a junior club for children after the Road to Growth programme, because she realised there was a need for children and young adults to learn about financial literacy.

If you go on our website, you can see her and hear what she says. It’s truly inspirational to see the ripple effect that women entrepreneurs are having throughout their communities and how so many of them are always looking at ways to give back.

What love about those stories, and particularly the one about Carlotta, is that it really highlights that one of the key benefits is also the aspect of collaboration and facilitating the networks between women entrepreneurs, so that they can essentially support each other as they are growing their own businesses and enabling other women in their communities as well.

Carlotta John, a participant in the Road to Growth program outside of her childcare centre in Guyana
Carlotta John, owner of Children R Us and Road to Growth and Road to Leadership alumna, Guyana

We have so many local partners, some more recent, some going back for years. Without them, we would not have been able to achieve the reach that we have, which is now over a quarter of a million women entrepreneurs.

Cherie Blair CBE KC, Founder, Cherie Blair Foundation for Women

I can remember another cohort of Road to Growth participants that I met several years ago in Nigeria. They told me that they decided to call themselves “sisterpreneurs”. They keep in touch even now. In our “Road to” programmes, we set up small groups, and they have WhatsApp groups. And We’ve found every time we go back, they’re still participating in those WhatsApp groups, giving each other support and encouragement, and sometimes trading with each other.

So it is genuinely creating this ripple effect of empowering women in the communities.


I’d like to touch upon mentoring, I know that you are a huge advocate for the transformational power of mentoring and you spoke there about our Mentoring Women in Business programme. I would love to hear whether in your own career you had a mentor, and what impact they had on your career?

Well, I certainly did. Most of them will men, in fact, because when I first became a lawyer I remember the first year of training, you do an apprenticeship, I don’t think I ever saw a single woman speak in court. But I was very lucky. There is a tradition in the English bar for older senior barristers to take under their wing more junior barristers. I was very lucky to have a number of amazing QC’s, whether it was Alexander Irvine, or Michael Beloff, or Frederick Reynolds, all of whom mentored and sponsored me and brought me into their cases and promoted me to their clients. That was an amazing thing.

Then when Tony became prime minister, of course, Hillary Clinton was an amazing help to me just both as an inspirational role model, but also with some practical advice that she gave me. In 2008, when we set up the Foundation, Hillary was at that point was Secretary of State. She was very keen on women’s empowerment in general and economic empowerment in particular and she and the State Department also helped with the early years of the Foundation.

I’d like to come back to talking about partnerships, which are very much at the heart of the Foundation’s work, as you mentioned. In each of our programme countries, we work with local partners to deliver expert entrepreneurship, training and resources. They really help us customise the content to the local context. We also have a number of long-term funding relationships, which have over the years helped the foundation to develop new services and evolve our existing programmes. What do partnerships enable for the Foundation that would not be possible without them?

Well, I don’t think the Foundation would be possible without them. I said earlier that it has never been our ambition to sort of reinvent the wheel. It’s been our ambition to develop an expertise and then bring that expertise to work with others to achieve that elusive goal, and it is is getting more and more elusive, of women’s economic equality and the development goals that are supposed to be achieved by 2030. Which we are not anywhere near achieving, at the moment.

Without our in-country partners, we would just be outsiders coming in to a community, and trying to tell them what to do. That is not the model that we use. We know what we know, but we also know that the people we work with who are in the country know so much more about how things will work in their contexts. In country partners help us design and modify our work and then they help us deliver our work. By working closely together, we can really ensure that what we’re offering is relevant to the communities with whom we work. They know about the women’s entrepreneurship landscape, they know what women need in their country, and they of course are also the ones who have access to the women who can participate in our programmes.

We have so many local partners, some more recent, some going back for years. Without them, we would not have been able to achieve the reach that we have, which is now over a quarter of a million women entrepreneurs. It’s great to be able to take this opportunity to say thank you to all of them.

But of course, we also have on the other side, our long term dedicated partnerships with funders, with companies with high-net-worth individuals and with institutions that have funded us to create bespoke projects and enable us to experiment sometimes with our programmes. We want to be at the cutting edge and often our funders who offer unrestricted funds can enable us to do new things. For example, working with the mentoring programme to see if it’s actually possible to have a mentoring relationship when you’re not in the same room. It absolutely is, and it has some advantages. Or is it possible to use technology to run training courses? These things would not have been possible, but for the funders, who had the faith in us to fund what we were doing.

Our funders provide us with a big picture, a global vision, their own expertise and experiences as businesses and as people who’ve been fortunate enough to be successful. They enable us to develop year on and year on and build knowledge to create impact at a regional and global level. Those long-term partnerships are very important. Let me give an example of a recent one: our work in South Africa,  thanks to the funding by DHL Express, who we’ve had a long term partnership with in Kenya and other places. They had this long-term vision for South Africa and we have developed a project in South Africa with Gordon Institute of Business Science, which is part of the University of Pretoria. We partner with universities, because they have the expertise in business teaching, and also with the South African government through their Small Enterprise Development Agency, so that we are working hand in hand with the government, as we are in Guyana, as we are in Vietnam, as we are in Kenya and in some of the other parts of the world where we work.

Through that, we supported over 5,000 South African women entrepreneurs and DHL has just rekindled our partnership for another three years, which will enable us to reach even more women in South Africa. The potential there is enormous. Again, South African women entrepreneurs do amazing things, whether it’s in the mining sector or engineering, in finance, or indeed in fashion or in film, in cooking, whatever it is, even ballet. I remember one South African entrepreneur who ran a tremendous ballet school and she herself had been a participant in the South African equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing

Queen Mokulubete, a Black South African woman with black hair in long braids up in a bun and glasses, She is wearing a white blazer, black blouse and black trousers. She is smiling as she poses on a pink sofa in her office in front of a wall covered in black and white line drawings.
Queen Mokulubete, founder of Somila Engineering and former mentee, South Africa

Well it’s really fascinating to hear about how partnerships have played such an important role and how the programmes and partnerships have evolved over the over the past years. I think, perhaps less so 15 years ago, but certainly today, there are a number of other organisations that also operate in the women’s economic empowerment space. What do you see as unique about the foundation’s offering?

I think we’re unique for three reasons. Firstly, we are women-centred. We’re about women’s entrepreneurship and our aim is to speak and listen to women and use their knowledge needs to inform the programmes that we build. And also, to inform the advocacy to take this issue to the international stage. We use our platforms to uplift their voices and experiences and if you go to our website,, you will see it is dominated by the stories of the women themselves and their voices in the videos that we make, an offer which allows them to come alive I think, to anyone who looks at our programme.

Technology is very much a key part of what we do. We harness the power of technology to support women. They’re all tech-based programmes in some way or another and it means that we constantly are capitalising on new developments and opportunities to support women. To do that, we also need to stay up to date. It’s a big incentive to us to make sure that we’re always looking for the new opportunities to use the benefits of technology to help women entrepreneurs.

Finally, we collaborate with a huge global network of expert partners across the public and private sector and civil service. Our aim is to enable knowledge sharing, programme design and delivery, and particularly, to press for an enact change.

Our latest campaign is to reach a million women by 2030. I don’t pretend the Cherie Blair foundation for Women can do that on their own. But I do know that by partnering with likeminded experts and organisations, philanthropists and everybody in this field, that together, we can reach that one million target. I think that the most important thing is not who reaches the target, but how do we all together reach that target.

You spoke earlier about the barriers that women entrepreneurs in low and middle income countries face over the past 15 years. What do you think have been some of the biggest recurring challenges or barriers that the organisation has faced in its work to advance women’s economic empowerment in these countries? What are some of the themes that keep coming up again, and again, for women in low and middle income countries?

Well, you won’t be surprised, and I’m sure the listeners won’t be surprised, to know that the biggest theme whenever I meet a woman entrepreneur is access to finance. It’s due to a plethora of reasons. I’ve already talked about the statistics, it’s pathetically small. With venture capital, it’s pathetic, it’s less than 2% given to small, medium sized enterprises just trying to gain access to banks to give them some kind of loan, or overdraft or financial product that can enable them to expand their business. Access to finance is so crucial.

I think it links to the second thing, because one of the reasons, as far as we can tell from our research, why women aren’t getting access to finance is terrible gender stereotypes and bias. Stereotypes impact how much women are taken seriously as businesswomen. We’ve done many surveys of women we work with and they all say that time and time again. Financial institutions are sort of saying that women can’t really do business, or “what does your husband think about this?”, or “well, it’s too risky, because women don’t understand how to manage money”. We can’t understand how anyone can think that. These stereotypes actually mean that sometimes even financial institutions and banking officers were screening out women without thinking about it, because they’re affected by these unconscious biases.

That also leads to another thing, which is that financial products often don’t appeal to women. This is one of the things I’m very proud of that the Foundation does. All our programmes, our HerVenture app, it’s all about women entrepreneurs. Too often, when one talks about entrepreneurship training, when one talks about entrepreneurship products, the default is a man. Now, the interesting thing to me is, when women see these men doing this work, then they kind of think it can’t be meant for me.

When we look at our HerVenture app, which is available for free, we actually find it’s been a common theme that approximately 10% of the people who download it are men. Now that’s fine for us, because the information we give is available to everyone. But it’s interesting, isn’t it, the men see a programme for women with examples of women doing things and don’t think “that’s got nothing to do with me”. Yet, women do tend to think that. So, I think the fact that everything is women’s centred is very important.

You can’t really achieve women’s economic empowerment and equality without ensuring that you tailor your programmes to meet the reality of being a woman in today’s world, which is why our programmes not only talk about profit and loss accounts and capital and income, how you raise finance, they also talk about how do you cope with work life balance? How do you cope with gender stereotypes and violence? We’re not an anti-domestic violence charity, but we focus on the impact it may have in their lives. For many suddenly starting to stand on their own two feet can lead to resistance from within their homes, within their families and within their communities. Delivering programmes that are relevant to women is so, so important.

At the same time, I think there’s a supply issue, because women often don’t get the same education, or are not encouraged to go into STEM, and there is a lack of financial literacy. It’s a key barrier for accessing finance for women. So, you know, our financial literacy programmes are very much key.

Before the pandemic, the best estimate was that women owned about 30% of global businesses, but they only got 5% of the conventional business loans from banks. Recently, the World Bank estimated that this number has probably fallen by half today. So it was 5% before the pandemic, and it’s now down to 2.5%. It’s not surprising that the World Economic Forum figure is getting worse, rather than better. We have to ensure that we work together to overcome those obstacles, by working always with women at the heart of everything we do. They know best what’s going to work for them.

It’s so interesting that gender stereotypes are so deeply rooted. I know that in certain countries in Africa, women can’t take out a loan from a bank without having a male relative cosign as a guarantor. We are piloting some work with women entrepreneurs in Guyana to actually help them access microfinance and micro loans. So that is certainly a key area for us at the Foundation.

Absolutely. It always has a resonance for me, because way back in the 1960s, my mother tried to get a loan from a bank to buy a house because she was living with her mother in law. She was told by them that unless her husband, who had abandoned her 10 years before and who was a quite a famous person in the UK, known for the fact that he was a boozy womanizer and a reckless person, could guarantee and signed for her, then she couldn’t get one. His word as a man was worth more than hers.

That is so fascinating. And indeed, to share a personal story, my mother in law is Irish, and grew up in Ireland in the 60s. At that time, once a woman got married, she was not legally allowed to be employed or to work. She was fine to work before she got married, but as a married woman you were not allowed to work in Ireland. So my mother in law actually set up a business with her husband, my father in law, and became an entrepreneur. She had a very successful business. And my father in law always said that she was the brains behind the business.

I’m sure she was. So many times when the world of work doesn’t suit the reality of women’s lives, entrepreneurship is a way out of that dilemma. It’s a way of saying “if the system won’t change to meet me then I’m just going to go out and set up my own way of doing things”.

That’s kind of what I did with both the Foundation and indeed with my law firm, Omnia strategy.

This podcast is listened to by thousands of charity and nonprofit sector leaders across the world. Given your considerable experience to date, both in the legal profession and engaging with leaders on the global stage. What would you say are three key attributes of great leaders?

I think they have to have a vision, they have to have compassion, and they absolutely have to listen.

Vision, compassion, and the ability to listen. Thank you.

Tell us about a woman perhaps an entrepreneur or leader who inspires you and why.

You mentioned Hillary Clinton before. Is there anybody else in the arc of your journey that has been inspiring to you?

The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women's team stands in a line with Hillary Clinton, Cherie Blair CBE KC, and Anna Stoecklein, host of The Story of Woman podcast.
Podcast Host, Anna Stoecklein, and Foundation staff pose with Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair CBE KC after their first ever joint interview on The Story of Woman podcast.

Championing education, empowerment and elevating women and girls has been a through line in my career. I now have a young daughter and I truly want to help create a world that is fairer and more equitable for her and her generation.

Dhivya O’Connor, CEO, Cherie Blair Foundation for Women

Well, apart from all the amazing women that I could go on for ages about that I’ve met, of course, if I go back to my early years and think about who inspired me then, I would say it was Rose Heilbron. Rose Heilbron was the first woman QC. She was made a QC, at the time it was KC, in 1949 and she came from Liverpool, which is where I was brought up when my grandmother, my mother’s mother-in-law, was a great admirer. Liverpool was very proud of Rose Heilbron. She became a KC, she defended people facing the death penalty, she became a high court judge. I actually appeared in front of her later on her life.

I think somehow that idea that she was a mother and her daughter is a friend of mine, in the back of my mind, it was like, if this woman from Liverpool can make it, then maybe so can I.

I love that story. And looking back to when you were first starting that journey, is there any advice you would give to yourself that perhaps you didn’t know back then?

I mean, honestly, we’ve grown so much, we’ve learned so much over time. I can’t believe that we started off with me and a few friends of mine, who share my passion for women’s economic empowerment, sitting around my kitchen table thinking, what can we do?

Humility maybe? Don’t assume that you have all the answers. Listen, and make sure that what you’re doing is for the benefit of the people you’re hoping to benefit, not just so that you feel better.

And indeed, many of our listeners are folks who are absolutely dedicated to improving people’s lives and making their lives better. In those roles, you often need to influence policymakers and people in power to do so. Do you have any advice to share with listeners with respect to influencing and persuading stakeholders who may actually not want to be influenced in the first place?

Well, I think I’m very lucky in a sense that I have been able to get access to people, which maybe not everybody can. Especially at the moment with the Crown series going on, people are curious to meet me. So, getting my foot in the door always helps, but you know, I think one has to be realistic. I was just talking to somebody yesterday about this. Generally speaking, people will be interested if they can see that there is a benefit to them. Supporting women entrepreneurs may not be on everyone’s agenda, but if you can explain how it’s a great way to boost economies, to create jobs, to boost community health and education, then they stop to think about it.

That figure of the two and a half to $5 trillion increase in global GDP when women participate equally in the economy, it does mean something. When we first started working with mobile phone companies, one of the things they were interested in was getting more subscribers and getting people to use more data. These days, everyone has a phone, but data and giving them programmes to use that phone for is the key. So that was a very compelling message that we were able to give to the mobile phone, people.

We also need to talk about changing who these powerful people are, because they are overwhelmingly men. Women make decisions based on their experiences. Brenda Hale, who was the first woman to head our Supreme Court always says that it’s not that wise women and wise men may come to different decisions, but the way they come to them is based on the different experiences, which is why it is so important for diversity and getting the right decisions, that we have more women leaders in every field. We need to ensure that we, as men and women, believe in that need to support and encourage women leaders. As I said before about the World Economic Forum report, education and health are going in the right way, but they’re sort of in some ways easing. Power is about business and politics. They’re not doing so well on that index, so the more we enable women to actually take positions of power, and I don’t just mean as prime ministers or MPs; it’s in the local area, it’s in business, it’s in the academic area, and in professions. The more that we have on diversity of views, men and women, different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different life experiences, different ages, different abilities, the better our decision making will become.

Finally, looking at the world today, what gives you hope for the future?

The power of women and the persistence and the resilience of women around the world. When everything else is going pear shaped, somehow they stand up, plant their feet on the ground and say, “we’re going to get through this and we’re going to make things better”.

Okay, Divya, I’m not going to miss this opportunity to put you on the spot and ask you a little bit as the Foundation’s new CEO. I want to know what inspired you to want to come and be the Chief Executive of the Foundation? What was it in your life that has led you here today?

So I grew up in India, in the city of Chennai. India, still today is a fairly patriarchal society and culture and that’s an understatement. Certainly, 30 plus years ago, when I was growing up, that was much more prevalent.

I experienced discrimination as a young woman and faced all the subtle and often not so subtle ways that women and girls are treated differently. That really fired in me a passion and drive towards gender equality and social justice. So, championing education, empowerment and elevating women and girls has been a through line in my career. I now have a young daughter and I truly want to help create a world that is fairer and more equitable for her and her generation.

I share your vision of a future where women enjoy equal opportunities, particularly economic opportunities, to be able to take control of their own destinies and fulfil their potential in their lives.

It’s a combination of all of those factors that has led me to the Foundation.

Dhivya O'Connor, Cherie Blair Foundation for Women's CEO, stands in front of rose bushes wearing a red floral blouse.
Dhivya O'Connor, CEO, Cherie Blair Foundation for Women

How would you approach working in partnership? How do we get more people to come on board with this campaign?

I’ve been reflecting on the Foundation’s role as an entity in the global north supporting women entrepreneurs in the global south, and how we can leverage that position in the most effective and equitable way. You spoke a little bit about this earlier. I think the Foundation has a really important role to play as an intermediary to channel funds from the global north, to really give women entrepreneurs a voice, to advocate on their behalf, and to help dismantle some of the barriers that hold them back. I think we are extremely privileged at the Foundation, given our networks and of course, your incredible personal profile, to be able to access those global platforms and spaces of influence, that perhaps our local partners and the women entrepreneurs that we support, can’t access.

It really is incumbent on us to use our voice in the most effective way to help better the lives of women entrepreneurs in low and middle income countries. I would really, to that end, like to see the Foundation play a much bigger role in this convening and influencing space and, at the same time, recognising issues of structural inequality that exists more widely in the international development sector; really working in deeper solidarity with our in-country partners. I believe taking that approach will hopefully encourage more partnerships and collaborations to drive forward the mission.

Absolutely. That’s at the heart of our one million women target for sure.

What are you most excited about for this next year? Here we are at the beginning of the year. What have you got on your agenda in the short term?

Well, personally, I’m very excited to visit some of the programme countries. I’m off to Kenya next month and I hope to get to South Africa later in the year potentially, with our partners, DHL Express. I think it’s so important to be able to see touch and feel the impact of our work. I’m really looking forward to meeting some of the women entrepreneurs and the local partners that the Foundation works with.

I’m excited to have joined at this time, as we look to scale our work to reach one million women entrepreneurs by 2030. As you said, the Foundation just launched this new strategy last year. I’m excited to work with the team as we start to map out what that really looks like and begin to hone in on what’s genuinely going to make a difference in the lives of women entrepreneurs, and therefore how we build the pathways and partnerships to enable us to reach one million women entrepreneurs by 2030. We certainly can’t do it alone. I’m so looking forward to creating that partnership map to scale.

Well, let’s get on with it then.

Absolutely. And on that note, I should bring us to a close. I mean, this has been a really fun podcast experience. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

I absolutely have.

Thank you so much for your time, for everything that you do for the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and for women across the world.

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