At SXSW, Michelle Obama Revealed the Spark That Inspired Her to Help Empower Girls Around the World

First lady Michelle Obama speaks onstage during the keynote address at the South by Southwest festival at the Austin Convention Center in Texas on March 16, 2016.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for SXSW

When first lady Michelle Obama took the stage to deliver the keynote address at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday, she brought an all-star squad of women to help her deliver her message of inspiration and female empowerment.

Joined by Queen Latifah (who served as moderator), rapper Missy Elliott, actress Sophia Bush and songwriter Diane Warren, the first lady engaged in a wide-ranging conversation that touched on everything from favorite albums to moments that inspired them to action.


“Growing up as a black girl on the South Side of the Chicago … there were always people around telling me what I couldn’t do and telling me how far I should only dream, and my reaction was to prove the doubters wrong,” Obama said.

But the first lady said that she recognized that not all girls can react the way she did, and that’s why she’s doing everything she can to nurture the dreams of cast-aside girls all over the world. She mentioned girls like Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking up for educating Muslim girls, and the Nigerian girls who were kidnapped while they were in school.

“Grown men trying to snuff out the aspiration of little girls—­­that inspired me to launch Let Girls Learn,” Obama said of the initiative that she and President Barack Obama (who gave his own keynote address Friday at the conference) launched to enroll girls in school. Globally, 62 million girls don’t have access to an education. That number inspired the #62milliongirls campaign, whose site,, serves as a portal where people can find out how to join the cause. The single, “This is for My Girls,” penned by Warren, was released Wednesday to raise money for both the Let Girls Learn and #62MillionGirls campaigns.

For Elliott, her inspirational moment came when she was a junior in high school and saw her mother leave an abusive relationship. It was a major turning point in her life.


“Because I got a chance to see the strength in her, that taught me a lot as a women and being strong and being supportive of other women,” she said.

When the topic turned to diversity and women in the workplace, Obama took a moment to call out men for their role in helping to change the culture.


“When you have a seat at the table and you have access to power … the question you can ask yourself is, is there diversity around the table? Are there voices and opinions who don’t sound like yours? We reach better answers when we have a broad array of voices,” including women and people of color, Obama said.

“There are a lot of men-only tables going in this country and around the world, and the only people who can change that are the men at the table,” the first lady said.


Queen Latifah chimed in about how the lack of female rappers has affected the music.

“It’s why you’re not getting as rich [and] diverse a sound in the music as you should. Whenever you remove a woman’s voice from anything, you are lacking,” she said. “There’s no possible way you can be at your best when you remove women from the equation.”


The panel then closed with a question about whether Michelle Obama would run for president (some in the audience seemed as though they wanted her to run right now). But she dashed those hopes pretty quickly, citing Sasha and Malia as the main reason.

“I will not run for president,” Obama said. “I have these two young people at home. Being the daughters of a president, just think about it. Come on, young people. Not so easy. They handled it with grace and poise, but enough is enough.”


But she did stress that she will continue to do community work long after she’s left the White House: “I don’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. And I expect to go into my 60s blazing, blazing and trying to be as fly and as healthy as I can be.”

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