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Spotlighting the Cherie Blair Foundation and the power of mentorship
Bank of America partners with the Cherie Blair Foundation on its Mentoring Women in Business program to connect women small business leaders in Asia, Africa and the Middle East to mentoring expertise that will enable them to advance their business.
The program has matched more than 2,700 women in developing and emerging countries to online mentors, including more than 500 Bank of America employees.
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Laura Olson, a credit risk officer in Wholesale Credit, believed in paying it forward. Before joining Bank of America, she’d worked for 17 years on Wall Street, where she’d seen and experienced gender inequality firsthand. Early in her career, Laura benefited from the mentorship of a senior executive at her firm. “She showed me the importance of supporting women in the workplace,” Laura recalled.
Laura was also aware of the particular challenges faced by women in developing and emerging economies around the world, having been active in charities and close to friends and relatives serving in ministries.
Laura applied to the Mentoring Women in Business Programme. She was matched with Emma Njoka, founder of Girls Go Green, an initiative in Malawi that works with girls in primary and secondary schools to educate and provide resources on reproductive health as well as focus on environmental issues such as recycling. Emma also helps older women in her community pursue sustainable methods of tomato harvesting, and she was looking for help in building her business.
Emma found that weekly chats with Laura gave her a stronger feeling of accountability and ownership. She also credited Laura with creative solutions that helped clear obstacles. Laura remembered Emma’s resourcefulness and ambition. “Emma already had a strong foundation in Girls Go Green and a group of women who wanted to farm with her. All she needed was a sounding board and an advocate.”
A partnership of resourcefulness and ideas
Whether it was Emma’s resourcefulness or Laura’s ideas, or both, the relationship worked. When a lack of funding prevented Emma from purchasing water wells to improve her tomato harvesting, Laura suggested that Emma and her team start a microfinance savings group.
Emma applied for and received a grant from World Connect, a nonprofit platform that invests in grassroots entrepreneurs in under-resourced areas of the world. The grant allowed the women to purchase machinery, modernize their farming techniques and focus on financial management. It also enabled Emma to acquire a small factory to process farm products for sale in stores, generating greater sales and more jobs in the community.
As Emma continued to build the Girls Go Green platform, she began visiting more schools. She hired a website developer for a stronger online presence and an improved platform that included e-commerce capabilities. Emma’s vision is to use the website as a portal to sell recycled products from Girls Go Green and to market tomato products.
Laura recalled “tearing up” as Emma described the impact that economic empowerment had on the women’s lives: “Women who had no education or training began to earn their own money. They could upgrade thatched roofs and dirt floors, and experience living in a more permanent home. Women in the community actually wanted Emma to run for political office!”
“This program was a life-changing experience for me and my community,” said Emma, crediting it for building her business and her confidence, and local support for her. Paying it forward herself, she continues to mentor young girls and women in the communities she serves.
The experience was life-changing for Laura as well. As she saw Emma work through daily challenges — including frequent internet blackouts, persistent resource challenges and, at times, local resistance to a young woman entrepreneur — the difficulties “reminded me of my own privilege and shifted my worldview,” she said.
Laura’s participation in Mentoring Women in Business increased her resolve to empower other women and pursue her passion for diversity and inclusion as an example for her young daughters. At work, she is active in the employee network LEAD for Women and the GBAM (Global Banking & Markets) Women’s Leadership Council. “My 12 months with Emma made me a better leader,” said Laura, who keeps in touch with her mentee. “I recommend this program for anyone who wants to make a difference in the world. It really can.”
For Jennifer Cameron, a program manager in Global Technology & Operations, participating in the Cherie Blair Foundation’s Mentoring Women in Business Programme is “an opportunity of a lifetime.” She recently served 12 months as a mentor to Modupe Adebayo, who owns an interior design business in Nigeria.
Modupe entered the program with a vision: to build a business that focuses on how the client uses the space and not just on the newest styles or colors. She had three goals: build confidence, enhance communication skills, and expand her business. With little formal business experience, Modupe sought a mentor who could provide her with the perspective and tools to grow.
Enter Jennifer, part of the Chief Data Office and mentor in the program since it started in 2016. Jennifer, who had traveled to Ethiopia twice to support communities ― including one visit focused solely on building small businesses’ microloans ― felt an affinity for communities with developing economies. When Jennifer heard from a colleague about Mentoring Women in Business, “I jumped in. It seemed like a natural fit to build on my passion for helping others.”
Focusing on achieving goals
Jennifer and Modupe hit it off. Jennifer was impressed with Modupe’s determination and energy, and her passion for growing and learning. “When we met, Modupe would have a long list of things to accomplish, whether it was attending business classes, applying for grants, or helping friends and relatives with their interior design needs.” Jennifer saw an opportunity to help streamline her mentee’s ideas and interests. Armed with a change management process she’d used in an earlier role at the bank, Jennifer applied discipline to focus Modupe’s activities on achieving her goals.
By the end of the program, Modupe said she had “a clear vision of my business.” She found herself better equipped to balance what Jennifer calls “a common issue” for many small business owners: the need to earn a day-to-day income ― even when it means prioritizing requests from well-meaning friends who ask for “free” advice ― while investing in and meeting long-term business goals and vision.
The mentoring relationship ended earlier this year, but the two women remain in contact, celebrating one another’s milestones and accomplishments. “Being on this platform has been one of the best things that has happened to me,” said Modupe.
Jennifer, who has been with the bank for 24 years and is a member of the LEAD for Women employee network, discovered that mentoring works both ways: Modupe’s drive motivated Jennifer to pursue a new role at the bank better aligned with her long-term goals. “I realized I wasn’t pushing myself enough,” she said. “Mentoring others has always been important to me. My experience with Modupe inspired me to apply the same discipline to my own career.”
Jennifer recommends that anyone with a passion and desire to help others should consider applying to the Mentoring Women in Business program. “You don’t have to be an expert in business. You just need to be an advocate for learning and growth ― and in helping others get the most out of themselves.” In November 2020, Jennifer was matched with a new mentee.
Bank of America’s investment in women stretches beyond the diversity of our workforce and development of our employees to overall support for women’s economic empowerment. Through our partnership with the Cherie Blair Foundation’s Mentoring Women in Business Programme, we fulfill our commitment to both.
Silvina Salazar, a California-based Business Banking Sales Strategy & Performance executive, draws from both her personal and professional backgrounds when helping small business entrepreneurs through the program. Her upbringing in Argentina and Peru, combined with her time with Bank of America in Costa Rica and Mexico, have given her insight into the cultural norms that mentees face daily.
“Many girls face limited options and don’t have a strong support system in place to pursue their education or professional dreams,” Silvina explained. “I was fortunate. My parents raised me to believe that I could do anything I set my mind to and supported me in attending college.”
With 29 years of experience at Bank of America, Silvina realized she could help other women succeed in business. “At the bank, we may consider how we build and lead teams, our relentless focus on process improvement, and how we tie everything we do back to the customer as business as usual, but it may not be that way for others.”
Silvina’s upbringing helped her connect on a personal level with her first mentee, Iselie, who runs a company that provides security guards and alarm services to other businesses. Using the program’s online platform, they met virtually to work on the entrepreneur’s goals of learning how to improve processes, develop a three-year strategic plan and better manage her company’s financial plan.
Silvina and Iselie’s mentoring relationship enriched both women. Iselie said she not only gained the knowledge and skills to improve her company, but also felt more confident in her decision-making abilities and communication skills.
“I was humbled and inspired by her determination to succeed in a male-dominated industry and country,” Silvina said. “By serving as a mentor, I learned about the economic impact women entrepreneurs can have on their families and their communities. The experience also inspired me to give more and to continue coaching businesswomen throughout the different phases of my own life and career.”
Now Silvina mentors Alejandra, who runs a corporate communication services company in Honduras and is looking to expand her presence to the U.S. without compromising the quality of work she provides her clientele. To that end, Silvina has been guiding Alejandra on her strategic growth plan and on how to develop her new market opportunity.
Silvina is committed to helping women achieve their professional dreams through the Mentoring Women in Business Programme. “Even before signing up as a mentor, I knew I wanted to enable women to achieve their professional dreams — whatever they may be. I’m inspired to be able to explore my passion while working at Bank of America.”
Oluwakemi, a Nigerian entrepreneur, was shocked when she learned that one in ten women in Nigeria bleaches her skin, often subconsciously, with the products she uses. Insect bites can cause long-lasting scars, which leads the population to use such damaging products. Oluwakemi felt strongly that she wanted to provide a safe alternative for Nigerian women, so she developed a formulation for a moisturizing insect repellent. The product can be used both to soothe the skin and as a substitute for mosquito nets. After having developed this product, Oluwakemi launched her business, Crystal Skin Ventures Ltd, in 2014.
When Oluwakemi joined the Mentoring Women in Business Program in May 2016, she had already opened two skin treatment centers, but she found it challenging to manage the company’s operations, both in terms of developing her employees and obtaining funding to grow her business. Oluwakemi was matched with Charu, a Managing Director at Bank of America, based in the United States. Charu’s diverse experience in business planning and growth meant that she was a fantastic match to support Oluwakemi in reaching the next level with her business. Charu noted that the match was “perfect,” and the pair zeroed in on Oluwakemi’s challenges.
Prior to their partnership Oluwakemi hadn’t recorded any financial information, so Charu guided her in introducing sales charts, cash-flow books and an inventory logbook. With a better understanding of how to track her income and expenses, Oluwakemi was able to create a budget and work with an auditor to ensure that her accounts were in order. In addition to this, they revised Oluwakemi’s business plan, and once it was ready to share, Oluwakemi practiced her pitch in preparation for submitting funding applications to investors.
Turning their attention to employee development, Charu and Oluwakemi organized an in-house training session to build business knowledge to ensure consistent and high-quality services across company branches. Charu also supported Oluwakemi in introducing a reporting system for her staff, so even if she was away, she could be aware of the activity at both branches.
As a result of this hard work, Oluwakemi’s business has grown substantially and she feels much more confident in herself as a leader. In the first 12 months of working with Charu, Oluwakemi’s profits increased by 54%. She also successfully secured investment, enabling her to open a new branch in Lagos and hire seven new employees, including an account manager to maintain the financial processes she introduced. As Oluwakemi is now able to spend more time away from the office, she is working to increase the company’s profile and raise awareness of skin bleaching and the importance of skin care. Featured on a number of radio and television shows across the country, and through visiting local schools, Oluwakemi has become a voice for healthy skin, and for women’s empowerment.
Oluwakemi said, “Charu is an awesome mentor. I’m very fortunate to have someone who has genuine interest in my personal and business growth. Being a mentee of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women is indeed the best thing that has happened to me in recent years.”
Charu loved how Oluwakemi was extremely open and receptive to ideas, saying, “It was great to see tangible results from our mentoring sessions. Oluwakemi leads with more confidence now and has learned that the key skill when managing others is patience.”
Emphasizing the two-way approach to mentoring, Charu also described the benefit of being a mentor. She said, “Working with Kemi and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women has been an extremely rewarding experience. Not only was it thrilling to see Kemi’s business grow, the experience made me a better manager and mentor at Bank of America as I learned valuable lessons in patience and developing an understanding of the many challenges others face.”
Having developed a strong friendship and being eager to keep up the momentum, Oluwakemi and Charu continued on for a second year in the program together. They graduated in June 2018, and Oluwakemi’s determination for Charu to see her succeed with Crystal Skin Ventures Ltd., continues to motivate her. Looking forward, Oluwakemi aims to certify her product and launch it across international markets.
Suubi has a love of fashion design, which includes everything from creating conceptual sketches to bringing intricate patterns to life. After studying art and design at university in Kampala, Uganda, Suubi was keen to turn her vision into reality. In 2009, just a couple years after graduating, Suubi set up shop in her parents’ garage and launched her clothing company, Suu-Bee Ltd.
For the first couple of years, Suubi focused on selling corporate and high street wear, as well as designing bespoke pieces for her clients. As she gained confidence in her designs, she wanted to expand her business and create her own mass-produced clothing line. However, without any formal business training and limited access to capital, Suubi didn’t know where to start. When she joined the Mentoring Women in Business Program in 2014, she had just moved into a studio space and was looking for support to write a business plan and diversify her products.
Through a partnership with Bank of America, Suubi was matched with Samridhi Sarin, Director of Global Financial Crimes Compliance at Bank of America in the United States. Bank of America has been a pivotal partner in the development of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s Mentoring Program, which has now enabled over 2,500 women entrepreneurs to access personalized support through 1:1 mentoring and an online support and learning platform.
With a wealth of expertise in business planning and product development, Samridhi was keen to support Suubi to achieve her goals. The pair first looked at Suubi’s vision, identifying options for product development. Suubi decided to focus on developing an affordable line of blouses, which, as a staple product, would have the potential to provide a consistent income. Samridhi encouraged Suubi to start small and test the market before scaling up to avoid any unnecessary debt.
With a new business plan and strategy in place, Suubi was able to start sourcing local materials, identify women to outsource production to, and research market value and competition to set an appropriate price for the blouses. The pair also worked together to create a new website and Facebook page to help Suubi increase her company’s visibility and market her products.
Over the course of the year, Suubi successfully launched her new line of blouses, gained more than 11 new clients and gained over 700 likes on her Facebook page. She has also continued to expand her product range, which now includes beautiful wedding dresses that are available to rent.
According to Suubi, one of the most important skills she learned from her mentoring relationship was how to take a big vision and break it down into individual steps and goals. She said, “Samridhi has been my sounding board and as an impartial listener, her encouragement has been amazing. With her pushing I was accountable to someone and had no excuse for procrastination; that has been the best!”
Samridhi also really enjoyed the mentoring relationship and said, “I am so proud of Suubi. Mentoring her has developed me as a person. We are opposites in personality so we complemented each other and this helped us learn and grow from each other. It’s a two-way success story of personal growth for the mentor while helping the mentee realize her dream.”
Samridhi reported that being a mentor not only helped her to build her leadership and communication skills, but also reminded her of the importance of flexibility and letting go. As a perfectionist, Samridhi said she often gets caught up by the fear of failure, but Suubi’s vision and tenacity has inspired her to finally pursue her dream of writing a book.
Optimistic about the future, Suubi is determined to continue growing her business to become a fashion hub in East Africa.
Learn more about Suubi’s business.