A Platform for Change: Using Technology to Support Women Entrepreneurs
Before I started working for the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s Mentoring Programme, I mostly associated the term “platform” with politics, public speaking or train travel. I’d never heard of the technical version – the foundation on which computer programs run – but had certainly used many of them.
Since the Mentoring Programme’s inception, the online platform has been an integral part of our approach to supporting women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging economies.
It has grown over time, reflective of the demand for the programme’s services and advances in technology, and has broken new ground in the international development field.What is it? The platform is the infrastructure upon which a vibrant peer-to-peer learning community and online support system is built. It houses interactive forums, training modules, webinars, business templates and resources, digital literacy tools, and member profiles. Over the past three years, the platform has served over 1,400 women entrepreneurs and mentors as they worked together to achieve key business goals.
Here’s why it is so important: In ways that are relevant to their own communities, many women entrepreneurs we work with are addressing some of the world’s pressing problems, creating products that fill unique niches, offering essential services to the towns in which they live, and building enterprises that fuel their economies, at times against seemingly insurmountable odds.
There is incalculable value in the solutions that they are generating, barriers that they are overcoming, and businesses that they are leading. But, they are often operating in silos. An impasse exists between what they are learning and doing and what is being captured, distilled, and propagated amongst those treading similar paths.
That’s where the platform comes in. It provides a place to amass that comparative expertise and share it in an active, participatory way. Mentees and mentors can access a wealth of varied perspectives and tap into a critical support system as they forge ahead on their entrepreneurial journeys. They can benefit from each other’s knowledge and learn from those who have tried, failed, and succeeded in the real world.
In combination with personalised business mentoring, the platform is the bedrock for achieving our goal of empowering women entrepreneurs and spurring inclusive, sustainable economic growth. We’ve invested heavily in building and refining the platform, endeavouring to find the right combination of design and functionality so our diverse users can tailor their experiences to their own needs.
In March of this year, we launched a new version of the platform, which was the result of participant surveys, reviews of use patterns, investigation into new technologies, input from a range of experts, and the creative genius of our dedicated software developers. Conscious of the mixed ICT skills and divergent rates of internet access amongst mentees and mentors, we worked to ensure that the platform can be accessed from the 45+ countries in which we work. We also built in email functionality, so users can participate right from their inbox or mobile phones.
In tandem with this, our team has worked to curate content, spark conversations, and introduce new tools and trainings. As part of our community-building strategy, we developed “group mentor” roles and nominated experts to lead working groups on key business topics on our forum. We also created special groups for mentees and mentors so they have separate places to interact.
We’ve learned a lot along the way, most notably that there is a huge appetite for this type of support. Take, for instance, that nearly 80% of mentees and mentors visited the platform directly in the first three months after the new version was launched. They logged over 22,000 minutes on the platform in those months, which doesn’t even take into account those who participated in conversations from their email.
Just last week on the platform, a member asked how to handle losing a client that comprised over half of her sales. Mentees and mentors responded with probing questions, words of encouragement and lessons they’d learn in their own businesses. Within days, expertise from around the world had been amassed that would rival what one might find in a textbook, with the distinct advantage that it came with a personal touch and direct interaction.
While the state-of-the-art technology makes this all possible, it only goes so far. Many online platforms have been built and abandoned due to lack of use. The entrepreneurs and professionals in the programme are the crucial piece of the puzzle and give the platform life.
We’re not stopping there. The platform is a customised piece of proprietary software that allows us to respond to users’ needs in a quick and agile way. Our software developer is constantly working to use technological advances to best serve the mentees and mentors in the programme.
One definition of a platform is a “raised level surface on which people can stand”. In many ways, the Mentoring Programme’s platform embodies that. It has become a place where participants can step up, stand steady, and stride forward alongside those who are invested in each other’s success. Real, lasting change hinges on just this type of collaboration.