We want more than a seat at the table

To mark Women’s Entrepreneurship Day 2017, our Chief Executive Helen McEachern discusses the integral role women’s entrepreneurship must play if we are to accelerate progress towards economic equality. This article was originally published on the What Women Want 2.0 website.

2017 has been a lot of things, but a shining beacon in the history of women’s rights isn’t one of them. From the reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule to the alarming extent of sexual assault and harassment from Hollywood to Westminster, it does cause one to wonder quite how long the fight will rage on before we get to enjoy true equality.

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) latest Global Gender Gap Index found that the global gender gap is widening again. And the economic pillar, which covers things like salaries, workforce participation and leadership, has one of the fastest-growing gaps. Women’s earnings around the world still significantly trail behind men’s and, at the current rate of progress, the economic gender gap won’t be closed for another 217 years.

As the Chief Executive Officer of a charity supporting women entrepreneurs to build successful and sustainable businesses in developing and emerging economies, we refuse to wait 217 years for economic equality. The tenacious women we work with are testament to the fact that – while it is still a man’s world today – the future is on her way.

November 19 is Women’s Entrepreneurship Day – a day to celebrate the huge contribution women entrepreneurs are making to economies, as well as highlight the enormous barriers they still face on their entrepreneurial journeys. Barriers such as restrictive social norms, sexism, difficulties in accessing finance, a confidence gender gaplimited access to markets and networks, and a dearth of educational opportunities.

The business owners we work with at the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women become entrepreneurs for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s the culmination of a long-held aspiration. For others, however, entrepreneurship is a matter of survival. In contexts where access to safe and decent work for women is limited, starting your own enterprise offers a crucial lifeline. And in a world where women do twice as much unpaid care work than men, it is often the only way women can juggle their family commitments with the need to make money.

While the contexts and initial motivations might differ, the ripple effect these women have on their families, communities and economies is a story that repeats itself over and over again. Typically, women invest 90% of their income back into their families, while McKinsey estimates that closing the gender gap in economic activity would turbo charge the global economy to the tune of up to an extra $28trn by 2025.

But the most exciting ripple effect we see in our work is the fact that women entrepreneurs often go on to invest in other women – whether that’s through sharing their time, knowledge or resources.

Perhaps there’s more we can aspire to than finding a seat at the table in a male dominated world. How about building our own?

Priyanka, one of the women we support in India, is a great example of this. As a journalist, Priyanka realised not only that she was earning less than her male counterparts, but also that she lacked the financial knowledge and support to optimise her money. After speaking with friends, she realised she was not alone. In 2011, she decided to strike out on her own and launched Women on Wealth, a social enterprise offering financial management classes and resources to women.

After joining our online Mentoring Women in Business Programme, Priyanka was matched with a mentor from the UK. Together, the pair created an ambitious strategy for growth which has already seen Priyanka train four volunteers, double Women on Wealth’s membership community to 100 women and expanded its network of event attendees, video and newsletter subscribers to over 7,000 women. As her membership has grown, Priyanka has been able to reduce the fees she charges for her training programmes, enabling more women to access her services. Most importantly, Priyanka’s classes are already having a ripple effect on the women she works with including one who has been able to pay off a high debt and use her newly accessible capital to launch her own bakery.

By supporting women entrepreneurs to access the skills and tools they need to become successful business owners, the impacts multiply. From our mentee community 80% pass on what they’d learnt to others, while 50% become mentors to others.

The barriers to economic equality remain, but with more of us there to scale the hurdles (and give others a leg up in the process) we have strength in numbers. And with the latest research showing that women’s entrepreneurial activity is up 10%, our collective entrepreneurial clout is growing.

217 years for economic equality is not a timeframe anyone can afford to accept. While achieving economic parity between men and women can only be achieved with the involvement of all genders, we thank those who are doing all they can to bring others up with them.