3 Crucial Things I Learned From An (Unforgettable) Night with Michelle Obama

Marinna Breda

Events at the Meridien Centre during Elevate Tech Festival in Toronto September 24, 2019. Photo credit: # ElevateTechFest

I was in the same room as Michelle *freaking* Obama. We breathed the same air and we idly looked around at the same group of people. She quite possibly saw the glare from my glasses in the audience. Two weeks later and I’m still pinching myself. As I pick up my tattered and note-ridden copy of her memoir, Becoming, the memory of having heard her speak and inspire brings me a rush of joy and gratitude. 

There is no doubt that Michelle Obama is one of the most influential and powerful women of our time. She speaks and people listen. She writes and people read. She walks in a room and people notice. For me, the thing I noticed about her most was her presence. Not what she was wearing (let me note, however, that the First Lady can ROCK a lace jumpsuit), but how her personality filled the stage. 

I have been asked around the office several times what surprised me most about her, and every time I answer the same way: “She felt so relatable.” Why is this so surprising?

On paper, she seems far from relatable. She graduated from not one, but two Ivy league schools. She is a lawyer, philanthropist, and women’s rights activist. And, she is the former First Lady of the United States. Very unrelatable, right? 

But the way she spoke about being a mom, a wife, a friend, and a colleague, how she struggles with the same things that we do everyday, all the accolades and fame melted away. She spoke in a tone that felt as if she was talking intimately with you, rather than preaching at you. It transformed her from an internationally recognizable public figure into an ordinary, everyday woman. As she spoke to a range of different areas—work, equal rights, intersectional feminism, motherhood, etc., it became very clear that she is far from an ordinary human being.

Although she touched on so much, there were three key takeaways that will stick with me as I move through the world:

1. Always bring 100% of yourself

I studied Women and Gender Studies at the University of Calgary, but entering the traditionally masculine space of tech and software I have at times found myself a little out of place. Working for a software development company, it felt easy at the beginning to mould myself into someone I thought everyone else would want me to be. 

However, the longer I worked at Connected the more I realized that it is the unique and genuine perspective that each person brings to Connected that makes us so special.  I have learned a new language and set of skills from our Engineering department and equally as important, they have learned a lot from me. Michelle spoke to us about how we should never conform our idea of ourselves to match the majority in the room, especially if we are the “only.”

2. Never be comfortable being the “only”

Being the “only” is the state of being the only member of a minority group or historically disenfranchised group in the room—women, members of the LGBTQ community, and/or person of colour, for example. And Michelle argued that being the only shouldn’t have us patting ourselves on the back, but should have us offering our hand to the people who follow.

This was something that definitely made me look a lot deeper than I thought it would. Personally, I have loved being the only. I think it is a really special position to be in as you hold a lot of power in speaking from a completely different experience than anyone else. Michelle Obama spoke to the complete opposite, that if you’re the only you need to be an advocate for ensuring you aren’t the only for long. She also added that we should never take away from how much power we have in being the only, but that power should be used for others not just ourselves.

3. When they go low, we go high

This was not the first time I have heard Michelle Obama say this. I have watched her interviews and read her book so I knew this was something that her and President Obama said often in their time in office. “When they say something derogatory to us about our race, about where we come from, about who we are, where we grew up, we don’t retaliate,” she said that night. She taught us that instead of hitting back with hate, we need to take a pause and ask, “what happened to this person to speak to me with words like that.” I think this is an incredibly powerful lesson from someone who has publicly and privately dealt with undeserved, prejudiced hate. If we all led like Ms. Obama, we could help those around us become better people.


I could go on for pages and pages about what I learned and what I heard during the hour and a half of A Conversation with Michelle Obama. She was so poised and well spoken, with a clear vision for positively impacting the world. But, she also let us see the “daughter from the southside of Chicago” in her too. She let us see the mother who doesn’t understand how SnapChat works. And she let us see the wife that wakes up every morning and chooses to love and support her husband, all while never compromising in finding the time to love and support herself. It’s a night and a set of lessons I will carry with me for a long, long time.

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