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Cherie Blair ‘optimistic’ for Middle East entrepreneurial equality

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Cherie Blair wants to see the day when careers counsellors are gender blind and there's equal access to finance among men and women
  • Cherie Blair Foundation supports women to start and grow businesses
  • Equal opportunities could boost global GDP to $5trn
  • UAE’s Gender Balance Council Strategy to further reduce gender gap
  • Most improved countries in the region are Saudi Arabia and Kuwait

Nearly 20 years ago, Cherie Blair CBE, leading King’s Counsel and committed campaigner for women’s rights, predicted that the UAE would lead the Middle East’s drive on gender equality.

Her first visit to the GCC region – during her husband Tony’s 10-year stint as British Prime Minister – was promptly followed by the appointment of her friend, Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi, as the UAE’s first female minister.

Fast forward to 2022 and during her latest visit – to address the UAE-UK Business Council’s 20th plenary session – she applauded the progress that today sees half of the ministerial government positions in Abu Dhabi being held by women.

Blair, who founded her eponymous Foundation to strive to eliminate the global gender gap in entrepreneurship, told AGBI she was optimistic that the Foundation working with others can accelerate progress.

“We should be celebrating role models so that young girls and women are enthused and encouraged to follow their dreams and set up and grow their own businesses,” she said.

“I’d like us to be in a situation where careers counsellors are gender blind,” she added. “Serious documentary programmes and panel discussions would be a vehicle for women business leaders to talk about their achievements and the obstacles that they had to overcome.”

Part of the work of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women is the 100,000 Women initiative to support thousands in low and middle income countries to start and grow successful businesses.

Launched in 2019, the campaign has been a success. “We are on target to meet the 100,000 by the end of this year and, with the campaign not yet over, we are aiming for an even more ambitious figure,” said Blair. “We have a particularly strong presence in Africa as well as in India, Indonesia, and Vietnam in Asia.”

But she admits there is a lot of work still to do to realise the Foundation’s ambitions. Recent research from Wamda suggests that funding for women-led startups in the Middle East and North Africa attracted just 0.03 percent of overall investment in September.

Even in the UAE, where the Gender Balance Council Strategy 2026 aims to further reduce the gender gap across all sectors, women hold only a fifth of leadership positions in business, according to LinkedIn data.

Globally, 80 percent of women-owned businesses with credit needs are either unserved or underserved, leading some industry experts to suggest that quotas are required in a bid to see any measurable increase in funding going to female founders. 

“Sadly, it is true that worldwide overall investment in women is in low single figures and that is something we are determined to change with our programmes such as the Road to Finance programme, which prepares women for investment,” Blair said.

“I agree with the report authors when they say that having more women partners and decision-makers in venture capital firms would help bridge the investment gap.”  

Blair added: “Dress it up however you like, a majority of the women the Foundation talks to tell us that whatever their aspirations, they are often told – in various terms, but with the same message – that perhaps they should focus on family rather than setting up a business.”

She said that despite some investors in the UAE far exceeding the Wamda report figure, there needs to be more education to remove “cultural bias”.

Research from Boston Consulting Group suggests that if women had equal opportunities to entrepreneurship, global GDP could rise by up to $5 trillion, and Blair agrees there is a big opportunity being missed.

“It makes no sense not to harness the resources of 50 percent of the population of the world,” she said.

“Yet, despite that progress is painfully slow, particularly when it comes to women’s economic empowerment.

“The latest Global Gender Gap report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that it will take 151 years before women globally reach economic parity with men. That is unacceptable.  

“Speeding up reforms will only happen by giving women in low and middle-income countries the help they need to become entrepreneurs if this is their chosen path,” she said.

“And there needs to be education across societies to remove baked-in cultural bias which exists everywhere. There is no country in the world where women have equal economic opportunity to men.”

Progress is being made in the Middle East, highlighted by the recent announcement by UAE-based clean energy giant Masdar.

Its Women in Sustainability, Environment and Renewable Energy (WiSER) platform has launched a global campaign to raise support for women at the forefront of efforts to tackle climate change and to encourage world leaders to press forward with initiatives to build a more inclusive and sustainable future.    

However, with an average population-weighted score of 63.4 percent, the Mena region has the second-largest gender gap to close after South Asia, according to WEF.

Israel, the UAE and Lebanon are the best-performing countries while Qatar, Oman and Algeria are among the worst. This year’s most improved countries in the region, compared to 2021, are Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Kuwait.

Narrowing the gender gap

It’s in this landscape that the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women is aiming to drive change.

Led by regional chair Pembe Al Mazrouei, it is looking to expand its team in the Middle East.

It is also seeking to double the number of business leaders in the UAE to act as mentors for its 100,000 Women initiative, having already secured 100.

Blair said: “I’d like to stress that the Foundation never simply throws cash at the problem of inequality of opportunity.

“We narrow the gender gap for would-be entrepreneurs by passing on expertise and providing infrastructure support.

“This is at the heart of our Mentoring Women in Business programme. It’s always robust, commercially astute help that we offer. The mentors have solid commercial backgrounds and are outstanding communicators.”  

She added that the support from the likes of the UAE-UK Business Council is crucial.

“Despite the abilities of the people at our head office and within our regional boards, we don’t have all the answers,” she said.

“And we’re certainly not some kind of panacea. Reciprocity is key. No organisation should be a one-way street. We want bilateral relationships.”  

The Foundation was set up in 2008, with its first projects for women entrepreneurs launched in Palestine, Kenya and Malawi a year later, and has since supported more than 200,000 women, including 22,905 across 52 countries in 2021 alone.

According to Blair, its aim is to narrow the global gender gap in entrepreneurship “by nurturing a whole ecosystem of training, technology, mentoring and networking”.

“While education at school and universities is important, we should never forget that continuing and skills-based education given throughout life is an important way to ensure that those who, for whatever reason, missed out on education as a child can still improve their future,” Blair said.

That’s why the Foundation offers a free Her Venture app in countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, Indonesia and Guyana, while also providing three blended learning programmes called the Road to Growth, the Road to Finance and the Road to Leadership.  

Blair said: “Equal access to finance is vital. So, the aims have always been wide. The [100,000 Women] campaign allows us to work to empower women across our six regional boards within sectors such as education, healthcare and clean and renewable energy, and with women-led for profit and not for profit enterprises.”

Women entrepreneurs on the frontline in the UAE

Sarah Battikha, founder and CEO of Frame

Person, Human, Clothing

At 23, I left my first job after university and went on this roller coaster of running my own business.

I immediately came across people who would not take me seriously because of my young age and because I am a woman. Now I’m 29 and some people still don’t understand that I am a one-woman show.

Opening a branch in Dubai has meant that I had to deal with a different culture, and people would sometimes think that Frame just opened thanks to some pocket money I had left.

However, when they see me in action, they understand that Frame comes from the heart and that it is my first baby.

Valerie Reynaert, founder and CEO of VR Beauty Consulting

Before launching my company in 2020, I mainly worked for companies that were owned and dominated by men.

Throughout those years, I was always respected, appreciated and encouraged by my male bosses and colleagues.

Nevertheless, my strong belief that women should represent women in beauty, rather than today’s market of overly saturated beauty businesses led by men, was a driving force behind the startup.

Sara Chemmaa, founder and CEO of Citron

Fundraising is difficult for both men and women. Only a small proportion of entrepreneurs are able to fundraise; it takes a lot of hard work, dedication and hustling to make it happen.

Every time I start fundraising, I know that I need around four to five hours a day dedicated to scheduling calls, working on investor decks and answering all requests related to numbers, business plan etc.

Tech, non-tech, male or female, the difficulty is the same, and the chances of getting funding is rather small.

Eliska Doskocilova, co-founder and CEO of Elluna Organic Beauty

There is a huge pressure imposed on women created by society. We’re expected to wear multiple hats in order to get the same recognition that men get in the business industry.

Women should actually be rewarded with more respect and freedom to be part of things that matter.

More businesses have begun to acknowledge the female presence within the business space, which is a huge milestone, slowly changing the notion of male dominance.

Lydia Schoonderbeek, founder and CEO of Source Beauty

Surviving in a male-dominated market is challenging, but the key is to play your strengths while dedicating time to focus on the areas that need more work, which ultimately makes the workflow easier.

I have spent a lot of time understanding finances and knowing my numbers inside out.

Of course, investment is key to fuelling growth plans, and hence currently we’re heavily recruiting with plans for a larger organisation while hiring professionals with proven experience in each field.

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