Meeting Michelle Obama

It was such an honour sitting down with Michelle Obama to chat about her new book Becoming, where she has bared her soul and shared her life in incredible detail. Writing WEconomy was one of the most difficult but most rewarding things I have done and that’s why I started the Meet the Author” series as really wanted to know more about other author's journeys and what inspired them to write their books.

Image of Holly and Michelle Obama

Michelle really is the most phenomenal storyteller and from the very first chapter I felt like I was there with her living her life story, especially as I was listening on audiobook with Michelle’s voice recounting the details. It was so enthralling and staggeringly honest.  I'm not the only one who has loved it - Becoming has taken the title of 2018's best seller – selling over 2 million copies in the US in just two weeks.

During our interview Michelle was happy to discuss everything. From revealing what she really thinks of politics, building and sustaining a strong marriage, her struggles to get pregnant and going through IVF, the impact that politics had on her family and how her upbringing and parents shaped her life growing up (Watch the full film below...)

Michelle told me how she wanted to give people the context of her life and introduce them to that little girl, Michelle Robinson, from the South Side of Chicago, who ended up in the White House. She said that too often we focus on the "stats" of our lives - our jobs, what school we went to - but these aren't the stories that help you get to know a person. She told me that her book was her way of sharing her own story to help break down barriers and make the world more accessible to the next generation.

In Becoming, Michelle shares how her mother, Marian Robinson, would always say we are "not raising babies – we’re raising adults".  It was inspiring to hear how her parents always treated her and her brother Craig equally and put value on their voices and opinions. My parents had similar values – my brother Sam and I were never excluded from the conversation and we were always encouraged to join in.

Image of Holly and Michelle Obama

In our interview she reveals how her upbringing had a profound impact in shaping the person that she is today - a powerful woman with a powerful voice. She now uses that voice to champion good parenting, the importance of education and healthy living. In one of the first lines of the first chapters Michelle says she hates it when people ask children: 'what do you want to be when you grow up?', as if growing up is finite - "as if you get to a place and at some point that's the end and that sort of one of our big dilemmas that we ask kids so early to figure out who you're going to be at five, and seven and ten and even 20-years-old."

Michelle encourages young people to be open to "the swerve" - a change of direction if you're not content with the choices you've made. Michelle trained as a lawyer before deciding to leave law (and take a huge pay cut) and go and work at City Hall, before becoming a director of a variety of not-for-profits. She said we need to be more open to not beating ourselves up if we feel that we haven't made the right first choice - because "life is long and we can have many lives within a life". This is why she called the book Becoming - because we are always evolving. Having achieved my lifelong dream and becoming a doctor, no one was more surprised than I was when I realised that my dreams and passions had changed and, my life was taking me in a different direction.  A decade on, working in business, I love my role as part of the Leadership Team at Virgin. I can understand first hand why being open to the swerve is so important.

She also is incredibly honest about her relationship with Barack - describing him as "a unicorn, a strange mix-of-everything man, an exotic geek". I asked her if she could put the love she felt into words and whether it had changed over the last two decades. I struggled even asking this question (due to my Britishness!) - but Michelle was refreshingly honest. She described how Barack was very different from her - he had "swerved his whole life - he was completely comfortable by it". She said her family had grown up with solid stability with the four of them around the dinner table; her father had a job and her mother stayed at home. Whereas for Barack, he didn't know his father and his mother travelled and was studying for her PHD. After opposites attracting, Michelle said she realised that it was the choices he made with his life that really attracted her to him: "The fact that he was a lawyer but he cared very much about the community. That he had taken time off to be a community organiser, which is something you just don't find. Young people who were taking time out to figure out how to help others in their own communities, that was attractive to me. The way he treated his mother, the way he treated the women in his life,  … when we worked together in the law firm I fell in love with the fact that he was kind to everyone."

Michelle admitted that her marriage has grown and changed with all the journeys they've had together - their jobs, families and raising two beautiful children. We did have a giggle when she said: "There's the love that comes when you see the man that you love care for your children. That's a whole different layer of love and nothing can replace those memories. That's more important to me than what he accomplished as President of the United States, or anything that he's done on paper. The fact that he is a good father to my daughters is a powerful aphrodisiac."

She added: "It's a lifetime of learning and growing, falling and recovering, together."

She also opens up about her struggles to get pregnant, experiencing miscarriage and going through IVF. Having faced these challenges myself, I understand her need to share this part of her story. When you have a miscarriage, it is a very isolating, upsetting experience.  As I discovered myself, once you open up and talk about it with others you realise that more people than you would have ever suspected have faced similar challenges. She said she had wished there were more people at the time who could tell her it would be ok – that there are happy endings - and share their stories too.

Image of Holly and Michelle Obama

Michelle learned the importance of putting family first, even when in the White House, from her mentor Valerie Jarrett, who she talks a lot about in the book. Valerie was one of the first examples of a strong professional woman in her life, who was a single parent, and was "doing a phenomenal job as a mother and was just a boss at work". Michelle said: "I'd sit in a meeting with her and she'd be in the midst of business leaders sitting around the table, the mayor on the phone, and her secretary would call and say her daughter had just got home from school and wanted to talk, and she turned herself off in a second because she said 'I will always make time for my daughter'. So I saw how important it was that even in the height of your career putting your kids first was important."

A quote in her book really stuck with me, and that is "Work with purpose, parent with care". Being on the Leadership Team at Virgin, I had to ask her about the role that purpose can play in business. She told me how as First Lady, she encouraged the 'Let's Move' child nutrition bill and encouraged businesses to employ veterans. She was driven by purpose and learned how to get her voice heard with the maximum impact.

She said: "Corporations are citizens of the world in the same way individuals are. I know that that's not necessarily how the free market works but that's how businesses of old used to work... I wish that businesses still had that sense of fiduciary responsibility to the broader society and I think we need more leaders who think that way as well. We are in a time when you have to tie purpose to the bottom line."

Image of Holly and Michelle Obama

I was so inspired to hear how she used her voice to challenge some of the big issues of our time and make a difference to the lives of the next generation. Lots of people asked on social media whether she would ever run for the President of the United States - and all I'm going to say is... the answer is in the book!
 

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