Cherie Blair, the wife of former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, visited Qualcomm Inc.'s Sorrento Valley headquarters on Thursday to announce a new partnership with the wireless giant.
The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, founded in 2008, is an online mentoring platform that helps women entrepreneurs build their businesses in countries where they lack equal opportunities.
Many of its mentors are Qualcomm employees, who gathered at the company's auditorium to hear Blair speak about her nonprofit's latest initiatives.
“You have given your time, your commitment, your energy and your passion to help accelerate the progress women are making across the developing and emerging markets,” she said. “We couldn't make our program work without you.”
The program will expand in Malaysia at the end of October in conjunction with Qualcomm's Wireless Reach program, which brings wireless technology to underserved communities.
Each of the 50 women in the program will get a 3G tablet, letting them easily communicate with their mentor across the globe without needing a desktop or laptop.
“We are really proud of our ability to innovate,” said Steve Mollenkopf, president and chief operating officer of Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM). “We try to use technology to improve lives of people.”
Handheld Internet access will help the women advertise their business, get more information about markets and reach out to new customers.
Participants will get computer and technology training and learn the English language to build their skills to become part of the mentoring platform.
The platform currently extends across 28 countries, and by 2014, some 1,000 female entrepreneurs will be using it.
This October, the foundation plans to recruit 150 new mentors, and Blair told the audience she'd love even more Qualcomm employees to come on board.
“The idea is we provide across-the-globe support to women entrepreneurs who may be in their own countries, own towns or villages and haven't got anyone they can turn to to look for role model or support,” said Blair, who has a long history of advocating for women and is closely involved with more than 20 charities.
Blair is a leading barrister who specializes in discrimination and human rights, but it wasn't easy getting there.
She had to first break through a male-dominated legal world when she was getting trying to become a trial advocate in the late 1970s.
“I was encountering people saying to me that girls don't really do trial advocacy, because their voices don't carry enough authority to convince a court,” she said, which drew gasps from the crowd. “It's like saying girls don't do engineering because they don't like to get their hands dirty.”
In addition, she was told that certain places didn't take women for fear they would get pregnant.
At one point, she was considered for a job – as was one other male candidate. They hired the male.
“I thought that was pretty unfair because even he admitted I was the better lawyer, and he was right and I say that with confidence, because the boy was Tony Blair,” she said.
She credits her successful career to her “clever” mind and access to mentors.
“Most of them were men partly because there weren't many women to act as mentors,” she said.
When her husband was prime minister from 1997 to 2007, she traveled around the globe and met a wide range of women to whom she related.
Like Blair, they were the “first” in her family to do a particular thing; in her case, it was to attend a university and go into law.
“In their case, it might be [the first to] set up a small business. I knew if I benefitted from mentors, so could they,” she said.
Blair combined that desire to help women grow their businesses with her love for technology, and reached out to Google to launch her foundation.
“Sometimes I say it's a bit like running a dating agency online – but obviously with more controlled outcomes,” she said, triggering laughs.
A Qualcomm employee, for example, is mentoring a woman in India who has an interior design business.
“She was doing well, but she wanted it to expand and grow,” she said.
Some of the mentor's advice included making clear contracts so that clients understand the services. Another tip was organizing her finances.
“She doesn't have to worry so much about bookkeeping and can concentrate more on her creative skills,” she said.
Other entrepreneurs have received help writing marketing plans and devising business strategies to gain new clients.
“When you look around the world and see how many women are still facing so much discrimination, we can thank God we are here and not there,” Blair said.
One unanticipated effect of the program was how much the mentors themselves would benefit.
Many have discovered new leadership skills within themselves and learned more about a different culture.
It has made them look differently at their career, and she talked with some of those Qualcomm mentors before her speech on Thursday night.
“They said working at this wonderful organization with all these facilities, it's a great challenge but it's an extraordinary thing to put that behind and talk to someone in a small business with no facilities, and figure out how to make that business grow and succeed,” Blair said.
Some of the entrepreneurs have to deal with having no electricity or having to walk along hazardous roads to get from point A to point B.
One mentor in the corporate offices of Enterprise Rent-a-Car said the program has caused her to take more risks and get out of her comfort zone.
It's not just women helping women -- the group has men, too, though Blair's looking to recruit more.
When the foundation started, the mentor pool was 30-percent male, but that figure has shrunk to 10 percent.
“I've always believed as a mother of three sons and only one daughter that we women really need a partnership of good men,” she said.
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