Former first lady Michelle Obama was greeted by a standing crowd of 1,500 on Thursday in the Grand America Hotel’s Grand Ballroom in Salt Lake City as Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies” played from the house speakers.
“I’m a little awe-struck,” said Aaron Skonnard, CEO and co-founder of Pluralsight, a Utah based online education company.
Skonnard moderated an hour-long conversation with Obama at the closing session of Pluralsight Live, a three-day technology conference sponsored by Microsoft and Adobe.
Obama spoke candidly with Skonnard, who opened the discourse by asking personal questions regarding family dynamics and celebrity metrics during her time in the White House.
“I define celebrity a little differently,” Obama chuckled. “We’ve had parties where people have done things we can’t talk about here.”
As to what it was like to move into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Obama said “It’s like getting shot out of a cannon while drinking from a fire hydrant and blind.”
“My kids know no other home than that house, really,” Obama said.
The light dialogue took a sharp swerve into politics when Skonnard baited Obama with a pun about the importance of her two daughters, Sasha and Malia: “so they trump…”
“They take precedent,” Obama interjected, continuing her habit of avoiding naming the current President of the United States in public.
Without directly acknowledging Trump, Obama commented regarding the divisive tone and rhetoric of the current president.
“You can lead with fear or you can lead with hope,” she said, pointing out Trump’s distinct difference in leadership style compared to her husband, former President Barack Obama. “Like his policies or not, he operated at a very high bar, a very high character bar.”
Discussion turned to Obama’s passions in life and the topics that gained her notoriety: children, women and education.
As first lady, Obama championed educational opportunities and healthy lifestyles for children. Her 2010 “Let’s Move!” campaign was aimed at “solving the epidemic of childhood obesity within a generation.”
Obama said her enthusiasm for promoting education comes from her own experiences, and that having access to teachers and the resources offered through public education shaped her into the the woman she is today.
Calling it a “vibrant education system,” Obama highlighted where public education is lacking. Regarding women and minorities in the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) field, Obama said, “You can be turned off to these subjects as early as fifth grade.”
The answer to this problem? “First you (need to) want to do it,” Obama said. “A bunch of white guys sitting around a table aren’t gonna do it.”
Obama said companies need diversity at the recruiting table and emphasized the value of expanding opportunities and experiences for young people early in life. She then engaged the audience and encouraged active efforts to shake up staffing and recruitment practices.
“You have to have control of the culture of your company,” Obama said.
Skonnard agreed, adding “This is an issue across the tech industry and beyond.”
Obama said, “I have faith because I’ve seen who we are. I’ve gotten to go to schools all across the country. I’ve seen this country at it’s best, and I’ve seen it at it’s worst.”
When Skonnard asked what the future has in store for Obama, and an audience member shouted “President,” Obama smiled broadly, laughing it off.
While she denied ambitions for her husband’s former position, Obama assured the audience of her drive to help the community.
“Engaging in public service will be something I do for the rest of my life,” said Obama.
Other initiatives during her tenure as first lady included 2011’s Joining Forces initiative uniting public and private sectors to support and help U.S. armed service members succeed in their communities, 2014’s Reach Higher initiative encouraging adults to complete post-high school education and 2015’s Let Girls Learn, a U.S. government-wide global initiative to inspire girls and young women to learn and stay in school.
Among her continued efforts is the Barack Obama Presidential Center, the planned presidential library in Chicago a training ground for young people with ambitions for leadership.