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‘We Are the Answer We Seek’

At the Simmons Leadership Conference, Michelle Obama encourages women to look within for lessons on how to live and lead.

In the presence of a rock star.

That’s the way it felt when Michelle Robinson Obama took the stage at this year’s Simmons Leadership Conference. The crowd assembled at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston on April 5 gave the former first lady a standing ovation that went on…and on…and on. A shout of, “We love you!” came from the audience as Obama settled herself on stage. “I love you, too,” Obama replied, not missing a beat, flashing a wide smile. After eight years in the White House, serving on one of the world’s most public stages, Obama remains enormously popular. She held the audience rapt for more than an hour, delivering the closing keynote at the 39th annual conference.

Billed as “the preeminent authority on women’s leadership,” the event drew 3,400 people from around the world for a day of thought-provoking speakers and workshops. This year’s theme, “Disrupt the Ordinary,” centered on the need to change how we think, behave, and do business in an era of accelerating innovation. In addition to Obama, speakers included former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, who challenged a culture of sexual harassment in the workplace and is now leading the charge to help others do the same; Latina media dynamo Nely Galán, who followed up her own career success at Telemundo by sparking a growing movement for women entrepreneurs; and Tan Le, who left a safe career in the law to build a neuroengineering company whose products are transforming lives and expanding the frontiers of brain research.

Presidential Address

Obama made her remarks in a moderated conversation with Simmons President Helen Drinan. The question-and-answer format covered topics from history to politics, from the former first lady’s undergraduate days at Princeton to her tenure in the White House, as well as her plans for the future.

Those plans don’t include running for president. “You have to want the job,” said Obama, noting that she has never had a passion for politics. “It can’t just be, let’s find women we like and say, ‘we want you to do it.’ That’s not how we should pick the president.” Instead, she counseled, “we have to cultivate young women as leaders. We have to find people with the passion, skills, and abilities and support them.” That work involves developing a robust pipeline of women in politics, from the state house to the governor’s office to Congress.

Obama aims to do just this through the Barack Obama Presidential Center, the planned presidential library on Chicago’s South Side. Calling it “the heart of an urban community,” she said the location means something to her and her husband. “I was born there. Barack and I raised our girls there. My mother lives 10 minutes from there.” Through the center, the Obamas hope to identify the next generation of leaders. “Our time is better used as a multiplier effect—helping to develop thousands of Michelle and Barack Obamas around the world.”

The center will also allow Obama to continue initiatives she began as first lady. These include Let’s Move! to address childhood obesity; Joining Forces, which supports veterans, service members, and their families; Reach Higher, to inspire young people to seek higher education; and Let Girls Learn, to help adolescent girls around the world go to school.

“We schedule our lives around our work, and then we’re surprised when there’s no time left for life.” —Michelle Obama

Making Choices

Asked how she decided on these four causes—and placed limits on the world’s myriad demands of a first lady—Obama said she drew from her professional experience. “I was a whole person before this,” she wryly observed. “I went to college and law school and did a lot of other things that prepared me.” After graduating from Princeton and Harvard Law School, Obama was an attorney at the Chicago firm of Sidley & Austin. She later worked in the Chicago mayor’s office, at the University of Chicago as an associate dean, and then at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Obama also founded the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, an organization that prepares young people for careers in public service.

Through these experiences, Obama said she learned how to build organizations and programs as well as limits around goals, all of which she applied to her time in the White House. She decided to dig deeper into her four initiatives because they were matters she cared about, were relevant in the nation’s life, and were things her husband’s administration was doing. The latter, she explained, was strategic because the first lady doesn’t receive a program budget or have legislative authority. She had to build support in agencies like the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Labor to accomplish her goals. In cultivating those relationships and leveraging power to move the needle on these issues, she said, “I was like the swan on the lake, gliding along on the surface, with a lot of paddling going on underneath.”

Memorable Experiences

President Drinan, acknowledging that Obama had likely seen more of the world than anyone else in the room, queried the former first lady about “an experience, person, or place that will never leave your mind.”

“There are so many,” Obama mused. She recalled doing push-ups with Bishop Desmond Tutu on a South African soccer pitch and sitting vigil at the home of Nelson Mandela during the anti-apartheid icon’s final days. Surrounded by Mandela’s family and accompanied by her mother and daughters, Obama noted that it was somehow familiar to her. “I felt like I was sitting in my grandfather’s home on the South Side,” she reflected. Other highlights included spending the night in Buckingham Palace and ordering late-night French fries (“They were good,” she remembers), and taking her daughters to the Vatican for a papal audience.

Oftentimes, it was meeting children that stuck with her most. She recalled moving encounters with schoolgirls in Senegal and Liberia who were studying in classrooms with dirt floors, corrugated tin roofs, and no electricity. “Those girls gave me the energy to come back and fight for girls’ education,” she said.

One of the most significant things Obama took from the White House was a checklist of places she wants to revisit “as a normal person.” Presidential travel is not like regular travel, she explained. Entire blocks are cleared out for safety, which could mean going to a city and not seeing any people. Entering and exiting buildings was done almost exclusively through loading docks and freight elevators. “It’s like seeing the world through the back door,” she said.

“We force ourselves to be perfect, which is why we can’t accept imperfection in other women.” —Michelle Obama

Parting Wisdom

Hearing everything that Obama has accomplished in her relatively young life—she’s 54—led President Drinan to inquire how she takes care of herself. Obama admitted that it has been a learning process. She observed that men generally do a better job of prioritizing themselves and their needs than women do. “We don’t put ourselves higher on the list. We have to move ourselves up. In our society we plan our work, but we don’t plan our lives. We schedule our lives around work, and then are surprised when there’s no time for life,” she said.

Obama explained that she developed a strategy of putting her commitments to her daughters, exercise, and time with friends on the calendar first. In so doing, she discovered there remained plenty of time to get other things done. This vital lesson took her through her husband’s campaigns for political office. “I would tell staff, I will give you three days every week. I will work from five in the morning till eight at night. After those three days, don’t call me. The rest of the time is for me and my children.”

Obama recognized that there are women who don’t have that flexibility or the luxury to be able to manage their own time. For so many women, she acknowledged, it’s about “hustling, huffing from one thing to the next. It’s a survival sense. It’s how we’re raised. We hold it down, we’re tougher on ourselves. We force ourselves to be perfect, which is why we can’t accept imperfection in other women.”

That view, she posited, may well be why Hillary Clinton lost her bid for the White House. “The best qualified candidate in this last race was a woman. She wasn’t perfect. But she was way more perfect than the alternative,” Obama observed. “In this last election, people sat out or were hedging their bets. The deeper question is: What’s going on inside us that we’re afraid to embrace a different vision of leadership?”

She concluded on a philosophical note resonant with the goals of the Simmons Leadership Conference itself. “The power for change is within us,” Obama said. “We are the answer we seek.”

Obama photograph: Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty

Julia Gillard, former prime minister of Australia, addresses the 2nd Annual International Simmons Leadership Conference in Geneva.