The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women supports women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging markets so they can invest in their families and communities. A few years ago i helped create the Foundations learning materials and, since then, have remained as a mentor. Tonight i gave a short speech in London, sharing my experiences, which i’m sharing here in the hope that it encourages others to take part.
I never really introduce myself as a mentor with the foundation. I introduce myself as a proud mentor. There’s a difference, because mentoring’s a process, whilst pride is something that sits in your heart.
I hear stories in the Forum about people achieving great things, big things, but my mentoring relationships haven’t been about that. They’ve often been smaller. The first tentative steps of a business. The first explorations of an entrepreneur. Our biggest successes have been the launch of a website, or winning one or two customers. One small step to change the world.
I have been a proud mentor with the foundation from the start, and i’ve seen a lot of changes over the last few years. Not changes in the technology we use, or changes in how the programme is run and the transformative results that it achieves, but rather changes in myself. Changes in my worldview. Most of my professional work is with organisations, but mentoring is very directly about people. About two people in fact: you and the person you are learning from. Because make no mistake, in a mentoring relationship, you’re both learning.
One of the first things i learnt was about preconceptions and stereotypes. I started my relationship with Shyamla in Mumbai by populating the scene with my exotic views of Indian life. I’ve never been to India, so my painting was somewhat inaccurate.
Our relationship started formally: we were polite to each other, we were process driven, we were efficient. We worked together on a business plan and had some success. But we weren’t necessarily engaged.
Until one day, when we started talking about the view from our windows. I painted my stereotyped picture of what i thought Shyamla’s world was like and she painted her assumptions about mine. And it turned out they were not very accurate. India is not all about vibrant markets, bright orange colours and elephants, and there are no castles or Beefeaters in my back garden.
In turns out that life for Shyamla is about family, about work, about money, about a fierce type of pride. A pride that she was investing in her business. Much as it is for me. That conversation broke us out of just the process and into a journey where we found pride. Together. Alongside each other.
When we finished our formal mentoring relationship, after a year, we spoke of that pride with tears in our eye.
Today, several years on, Shyamlas son is studying at Manchester university. It was a matter of pride that i could say to her, ‘if he needs anything, if you ever worry about your son far from home, he will always have someone to turn to, a friend far from home.’
Not all of my mentoring relationships with the Foundation have been successful in that way: two have ended early, without necessarily being transformative. In one case, the cultural barriers that separated us, the language barriers that stilted our conversations, and maybe the gender barrier that stood between us proved insurmountable. In the other case, my mentee moved to the US, to a new life, and her project turned into an aspect of her history, not a part of her new life.
Were they failures? I don’t think so. Life is complex: we find our way alongside our families, our friends and our communities like this. To be invited into that community, to hold a trusted position alongside that person, to learn and strive together, that in itself may be enough. Success is not necessarily about transformation: it may be about being there for the journey. About exploring and broadening our perceptions together.
And from these things, i learn something else: humility.
In the Social Age, we need equality, we need the learning and support of our communities, we need diversity of opinion, not just from those who speak with the loudest voice or who were born with the most opportunity, and we need ways of finding fairness in leadership. Not just the leadership we get from our governments and elected representatives, but the leadership we ourselves provide, that you provide, within our communities.
Perhaps we have to learn to be humble, to be good people.
The fight for equality is the fight of our time. Through this programme, we are connected to people: people who we may never meet in person, people whose lives we touch for a short period of time. People who we teach and who we learn from. People who we help to be proud, to achieve their goal, to transform, as we ourselves are transformed, and find our pride.
To be a mentor with the foundation is an opportunity: an opportunity touch one two lives, one of which we live ourselves and must try to live as best we can.