Cherie Blair speaks for herself in Dublin

Barrister and “early techie” promotes online mentoring scheme to Irish businesswomen

Helen Shaw of Athena Media and Cherie Blair at the WMB conference and awards 2013 in the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin yesterday. Photograph: JBarker.

Helen Shaw of Athena Media and Cherie Blair at the WMB conference and awards 2013 in the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin yesterday. Photograph: JBarker.

Tue, Oct 8, 2013, 01:15

She describes herself as a “bolshie Scouser”, but when Cherie Blair was studying law, her profession wasn’t keen on women of any kind.

“I can remember being at a conference with Mary McAleese and talking to her about the same book we both read when we were training to be lawyers, which in the early 1970s said women can’t be barristers because a woman’s voice isn’t as strong as a man’s,” she told the audience at the Women Mean Business conference yesterday.

In her first year of training (alongside future husband Tony Blair), she didn’t hear a single female voice in court. Of course, there has been progress since the days when she was one of just 10 per cent of barristers in London who were women. “My daughter [Kathryn] who is now a barrister herself, when she went to the bar, over 50 per cent of her classmates were women, and no one dreamed of saying ‘stand aside’,” she said. Nevertheless, the majority of top judges today are men, she notes. “What we still find is that women drop out or they never really reach their potential.”

Far from standing aside, the businesswomen in Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel yesterday listening to Blair (known professionally as Cherie Booth QC) were the ones with a talent for putting themselves forward. Event organiser Rosemary Delaney assured Blair afterwards she had inspired many volunteers for her foundation, which runs a mentoring scheme that connects business people – men and women – in developed countries, with would-be female entrepreneurs in developing ones.

Labelling herself “an early techie”, Blair said that, without the internet, she couldn’t have continued her high-profile legal work while also entertaining dignitaries at Number 10 and being a mother.

And so the mentoring scheme is tech-based. The mentors give an hour of their time every fortnight to answer questions and give assistance to the mentees over the internet – “it could be Skype, texts, email”, she explained, citing the example of a DHL executive in Australia who mentored a woman setting up a motorcycle despatch venture in Kenya.

Google, which supports the mentoring platform, got involved after Blair spoke at a Google Book of the Month event in 2008, at which she promoted her autobiography Speaking for Myself and they asked her what her plans were.

The answer was the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, which also runs enterprise development and mobile phone access schemes in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and is funded by corporate donors including ExxonMobil, GE, JP Morgan Chase, Qualcomm, Vodafone and various philanthropic and development organisations. “Oh for sure,” she says, when The Irish Times asks if the foundation is always looking for more funds.

The rationale for setting up the foundation comes in part from being “a serial entrepreneur”, even if her ventures have not been businesses “in the traditional sense”. It also springs from an instinct instilled by a Catholic childhood spent collecting for the missions and the St Vincent de Paul, she says.

Blair’s mother Gale and her half-Irish grandmother Vera Booth both left school when they were 14. “Having been lucky enough to go round the world with my husband, I saw a lot of women in various countries in Africa and Asia who were more in my mum’s position than they were in the position of my daughter and myself and women in Britain, who at least do have an education.”

When women earn their own money, they can make their own choices, which means not having to stay in abusive relationships, she told the conference. But money will not eradicate violence against women – or the controlling effects of the threat of violence against women – all by itself, she admits in the Shelbourne suite afterwards.

“Let us be realistic. In the UK and Ireland, we have reasonable financial independence but that doesn’t stop domestic violence being an issue in both of our countries,” she says. “But nevertheless, for many women, if you have no alternative because you can’t earn your living, because you don’t have any financial independence, it makes it doubly hard to turn your back on an abusive relationship.”