I am used to surprises: on a recent call the woman who I am mentoring described how, over the weekend, her country’s currency had halved in value against the dollar. Local shops had sold out of tobacco and bread. Things were tough, she told me, whilst smiling and rolling her eyes, the international expression of ‘what can you do?’
The things I love most about being a mentor with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women are the small things. Not the life changing and transformative ideas enacted at state level, but rather the small conversations, the everyday reality that we share, the myriad ways we connect and learn from each other.
Talking to my mentee, with the economy stressed, with work drying up and a family to feed, we had to rapidly reset our conversation. No talk of business plans, three year strategy, and expansion in the long term.
When I asked the question, ‘how can I help’, the answer was simple: ‘by having a bit of time to talk’.
Time outside of everyday pressure: time dedicated not to selling or planning or doing, but rather to reflecting and catching breath.
Our reality is different: for me, a currency disaster is discovering that my Euros won’t stretch as far as I hoped in the Duty Free on the way back from holiday. I am used to fluctuations of one percent, not fifty.
We are separated in many and varied ways: by our life experiences, by our culture, by distance, by our politics and religion.
And yet the things that connect us are stronger still: this is a feature I’ve found time and again through a number of these mentoring relationships. We form bonds of trust over shared photos, over everyday stories of family life, or today, over jokes about how difficult clients can sometimes be! Recently we shared pictures of our local festivals, marvelling at the hats, national costumes and flowers, foreign to us as individuals, but now part of our shared story.
When we first spoke I knew nothing about her country. Indeed, on our first call, I had to use Google Maps to find exactly where it was in the world and Wikipedia to work out what the capital city was. But we were connected, through technology, embarking on a one year structured journey. Learning from each other.
As we have got to know each other better, over the months, we share more of the everyday: today, an in depth conversation about how hard it is to find the right Star Wars Lego set for her son or my nephew. Shared stories: the universal truth built of plastic bricks.
Don’t misunderstand me: these are purposeful conversations. The Foundation is built on the notion that, by supporting women in developing economies to run successful businesses, they will gain financial stability, independence and power and, in time, the political power to drive change (change which, incidentally, we could do with driving in our own country, where the pay gaps between men and women are still, persistently, wide open).
So we work, for a year, to help build a better, a stronger, business. We follow a structure, and adapt as we go (which is the ‘business’ way of saying that sometimes we make it up as we go along).
Today though, I stopped dead: took pause.
‘Bad news’, she said, ‘We are at war again’. As I heard her son playing in the background, she told stories of an intractable conflict, of young lives lost this week, of people displaced from their homes. These realities are more real than the ones that fill my time.
Whilst I spent the weekend trying to drill a hole to hang a picture, she listened to the news of diplomacy failing and conflict taking over, gunfire over a border and tanks rolling forward.
Like I said: we live in different realities.
These problems are too big for us to solve, they are not challenges surmounted in an hour over a crackly Skype connection. And yet, through the hundreds of these mentoring relationships taking place every week around the world, the tiny steps add up.
We may not be able to change the world, but we may be able to learn from each other within one lifetime. And the more we connect, the greater the chance we find a shared vision, a connection as a global community, striving for change.
What can she do, I asked?
‘Survive’, she said, as we said goodbye for another two weeks. ‘We just survive’, she said, with a smile.
And what can I do? Just share the story.
This blog was first published on Julian Stodd’s Learning Blog on 4 April 2016 and is republished here with his kind permission. Julian is a mentor in our Mentoring Women in Business Programme and is based in the UK. His mentee is based in Azerbaijan.