Michelle Obama Might Not Know It, but She's Our Mentor

Former First Lady Michelle Obama discusses her new book “Becoming” at Capital One Arena on November 17, 2018, in Washington, DC.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama discusses her new book “Becoming” at Capital One Arena on November 17, 2018, in Washington, DC.
Photo: Paul Morigi (Getty Images)

As if you didn’t already know, Michelle Obama is the gift that keeps on giving. Since leaving the White House, she’s written an inspiring bestseller—accompanied by the world’s biggest book tour and a stellar Netflix documentary, as well as produced award-winning content alongside her husband. Via their Higher Ground Productions, the newly candid forever first lady has recently also blessed us with an eponymous podcast on Spotify, where she’s treated us to “Mom-in-Chief” wisdom on everything from mental health to menopause to marriage—including her own, as in last Wednesday’s podcast (h/t Harper’s Bazaar):

There were times that I wanted to push Barack out of the window. And I say that, because it’s like you’ve got to know the feelings will be intense. But that doesn’t mean you quit. And these periods can last a long time. They can last years. But we don’t talk about that, so young couples, they face these challenges, and they’re ready to give up because they think they’re broken...if I had given up on it, if I had walked away from it, in those tough times, then I would’ve missed all the beauty that was there as well.


But it was another Obama insight that went viral last week: “You can’t Tinder your way into a long term relationship,” she quipped in the same episode, and while we actually know a few folks who just happened to swipe right into marriage, we agree wholeheartedly with the quote in context, which was:

Do you want to build something with someone? There’s no magic way to make that happen, except getting the basics of finding somebody, being honest about wanting to be with them, to date them seriously, to plan on making a commitment, to date them, seeing where it goes, and then making it happen...You can’t Tinder your way into a long term relationship.

This week, it’s a relationship of a different sort that Obama is discussing on Spotify; inviting former Obama Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett to talk about the dynamic that began their own close friendship: mentorship.

Jarrett’s affiliation with the Obamas began when she hired a then engaged young Chicago lawyer named Michelle LaVaughn Robinson to work for the Daley administration. A good hire turned into both a great mentorship and decades-long friendship—and ultimately, turned both women into two of the most trusted and powerful entities in politics.

“Sometimes, young people think that mentoring is just about ‘just show me the way; just tell me what to do,” Obama notes on Wednesday’s episode of the Michelle Obama Podcast. “I want young people out there to know when they are looking for a mentor, they also have to think about ‘Well, what are you going to bring to the relationship?’”

Jarrett echoes the sentiment later in the conversation, saying: “Relationships are everything. That’s what makes us human,” but quickly adding, “You’ve got to be able to look at the relationship from the perspective of the other person, too—it’s not all about you.”


But it is all about opportunity and guidance—and too many of us are amassing education and work experience without the mentorship that would give us the feedback, advocacy and requisite edge we need to succeed.

“The job of the mentor, of course, is to help people grow,” says Jarrett. “And not give them so much responsibility that they fail, but to be able to gauge what works and what isn’t going to work—and when it’s not working, to say to them, ‘This isn’t working; but I think this will.’”


The women commiserate on what appeared to be “failures” in their own careers, early on—Obama failed her bar exam the first time around, a common hiccup that neither stopped her from becoming a lawyer nor a stratospheric success.

“I never want young people to think that failure isn’t a part of everyone’s journey,” she says.


Each woman also learned the power of self-advocacy in real-time; a skill they now realize is translating to the younger generations of women looking up to them.

“We are living, breathing role models—not just in what we say, but what we do,” Obama notes. “And if we’re not making space and we’re not showing balance in our own lives, no matter what we say, young people are watching what we do.”


While we’re all familiar with President Obama’s ongoing My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, the former first lady and Jarrett formed their own, unpublicized mentorship program for young women during their years in the White House, Obama explaining: “That was something we wanted to do because we felt we had an obligation.”

“If we could do it in the White House under some challenging times...everybody out there can think of a way to do something formalized like that for the young people in their communities,” she adds.


As Obama aptly notes, it is often mentorship, not talent or intelligence, that can make all the difference when it comes to garnering those coveted seats at the table or bypassing gatekeepers, whether they be in higher education or executive leadership.

“The minute you sit in these hallowed halls, and you sit on these boards, and you sit in these c-suites, You see a lot of excellence but you also see a lot of mediocrity,” says Obama of what she perceives to be “reverse affirmative action.” And because post-White House, less-filtered Michelle Obama is our favorite Michelle Obama to date, she may be doling out yet another dose of expert shade at the current occupant of the White House when she adds: “There are plenty of ways that kids are placed in positions and told ‘You deserve it,’ when they haven’t earned it at all.’”


Jarrett and Obama’s conversation is inspiring and insightful—and both of these women are our mentors in our mind—but is it ever too late in life for mentorship? Former music manager (D’Angelo, Raphael Saadiq, Q Tip, and A Tribe Called Quest) turned author and screenwriter Sophia Chang doesn’t think so, recently launching Unlock Her Potential to provide mentorship for women of color of all ages from some of the top professionals across TV/film. music, publishing, and academia—including Mona Scott-Young, Kierna Mayo, Simon & Schuster’s Dawn Davis, Yvette Noel-Schure, Marvet Britto and The Root’s own Editor-in-Chief, Danielle Belton, who is also part of the organization’s braintrust.

As Mrs. Obama notes, “Mentorship starts early—and it starts right in your own backyard.” We’d add that it’s never too late to benefit.

Maiysha Kai is managing editor of The Glow Up, host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast and Big Beauty Tuesdays, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. May I borrow some sugar?



I think everyone who makes meaningful change in their life is able to do so because they realize we can never stop learning.

Life never stops changing, so if we EVER stop learning, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

Even if you manage some success by having learned a few tricks that you keep using, eventually, you’ll come up against someone who sees what you’re doing, knows how to get around it, and likely has tricks up their sleeve you have no idea how to counter, because you stopped learning the day you won one.