What I Learned From Michelle Obama at Toronto’s Elevate Tech Festival

A few days after I finished reading Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming, I learned that she would be the keynote speaker at Toronto’s Elevate Tech Festival. I don’t suffer large crowds for many people, but unable to resist kismet, I bought a last-minute ticket to the nearly sold out talk.

The audience was as diverse as they came, not just in race, but in age, class, gender, and religion. The excitement in the theatre was feverish with high expectations. I took away from Michelle’s book, as I’m sure millions of other readers did too, the lessons of living life with integrity, becoming who you want to be through hard work no matter your background, and believing in yourself when no one else will.

My main motivation to attend her talk was to merely be in her energy. The things she said weren’t anything I haven’t heard before, but it was the way she said them and the passion behind her words that left all of us feeling empowered. And sometimes the simplest advice are the hardest to execute.

On Tech

Elevate is a tech festival and Michelle was the first to admit she had no idea why she was invited to speak, confessing she was often helpless with technology to the amusement of her daughters. But she did have some simple advice for everyone: Put down the phone.

When she first began campaigning with Barack, she was able to meet and hug people, making one-on-one connections. Throughout the years, she noticed a shift. Now people have their phones up, fearing that if they don’t capture something, it’s meaningless. But they are missing out on the moment. And hugs from the Obamas.

For the tech developers, she recommended going out into the world to engage with people, to find out how tech can serve society in a positive way without taking away the humanistic aspects.

As she was saying all this I noticed the young fellow on my left was texting intermittently on various messaging platforms—a glowing screen in a darkened room can be very distracting. Another fellow on my right kept reaching into the breast pocket of his blazer to check his phone as if he had a nervous tic. I pray for future generations.

On Diversity and Unity

Michelle stressed the importance of being yourself especially when you’re different. If the old white men wanted someone who looked and thought as they did, they wouldn’t have hired you. When you’re different, you can offer new prespectives and fresh ideas, and call out the bad ones. That has tremendous value, and it’s why diversity is so important to make real change.

If a woman or a person of colour does get a seat at the table, use that position to bring on more diversity and uplift others. If you’re someone who feels undeserving of that position, work hard so you feel indispensable and confident in what you have to offer.

The Obamas have a famous motto they live by: “When they go low, we go high.” Michelle admits that it can be hard to rise above the pettiness and hate, but it’s why empathy is so important, when she’s able to put herself in someone else’s shoes to see their point of view. Even if she doesn’t agree with them, she can at least understand where they are coming from.

I also find empathy to be a challenge, especially when I’m being rudely attacked by someone. But when I put myself in their shoes and explore why they’re behaving this way—perhaps stress, self-esteem issues, and other reasons that have nothing to do with me—I take it less personally and I’m better equipped to deal with the situation without my ego taking the driver’s seat. Finding empathy can take only a few minutes, but it can make all the difference, especially on your own sanity.

On Family

Michelle is a great role model for women because she embraces the traits that are often derogatorily labelled as feminine: warmth, compassion, vulnerability, and generosity. She embodies these qualities without the need to people-please or self-sacrifice. Plus, she’s really funny. Women from all walks of life can relate or look up to her because she’s an accomplished working professional and intellectual, and unapologetically a wife and proud mother.

But Michelle stresses that you can’t have it all at the same time. She does not know where women got this idea in the first place. People are running themselves ragged to be superwomen, but there is a season for everything.

The Obamas are empty-nesters now, but Michelle says she is most proud of raising decent human beings. As readers of her memoir know, her own parents are pretty fantastic and raised her with the morals and values she embodies today.

As someone without children yet, I tailored that message for me to be a decent human being, someone able to inspire others simply by being myself. In becoming this person, I need the inspiration and guidance of elegant role models such as Michelle Obama. As I sat in a theatre packed with over three thousand people, I knew I wasn’t alone.

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