Earlier this week on Tuesday, October 11th, in celebration of International Day of the Girl, we partnered with First Lady Michelle Obama and Glamour to host a global Skype call with classrooms around the world. The panel discussed girls’ challenges in getting quality education, and talked about their dreams and opportunities ahead. Clara Tsao, White House Presidential Innovation Fellow, currently on civic leave from Microsoft, took part in the events and is sharing her insights with us today.
The International Day of the Girl festivities kicked off with a Women in History Dinner with students, staff, and celebrity influencers from Maybelline and Glamour. I sat at a table with girls from the The Lower Eastside Girls Club of NY and we chatted about their after-school program. The discussion was rich with details on learning to build models of green roofs and career aspirations to become engineers. I was impressed with the dynamism from these girls, especially with their determination to pursue careers in the STEM sciences and passion for learning. I shared with them a bit about my personal entrepreneurial career journey, offered myself as a mentor and resource to them, and encouraged them to continue exploring these subject areas through scholarships, science camps, hackathons, and internships.
Most notably, the girls were bursting with excitement to meet one of their role models, Michelle Obama the next day. I asked them what questions they had for FLOTUS, and responses included “What advice would you ask a First Lady if you were our age?” and “Do you have any plans to run for President?”
The evening events commenced with an Eleanor Roosevelt look-alike, who greeted the students in the room with some history lessons on notable female leaders, influencers, and innovators. One surprise included “Girls Meets World” star Rowan Blanchard joining the group for dinner. As the 14-year old Disney star made an entrance into the room, the girls at the table exploded into disbelief and tears. Rowan, who I quickly learned, was obsessed with Beyoncé, blasted “Who Run the World” over the loudspeakers of The Hamilton Hotel, Washington D.C. and encouraged everyone in the room to break out into a confident dance routine.
The next morning at the Newseum, International Day of the Girl started with a 30-minute conversation, moderated by fashion icon Eva Chen, between Katie Meyler, Founder of More than Me, and myself, where we discussed the impact of social media to change communities. Katie inspired the crowd with her story of starting a tuition-free K-6 girls school in Liberia to provide high quality education, and how the institution served as a disaster response center when Ebola hit the country. I chatted briefly about my story into the technology sector and entrepreneurship, as well as current role as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow, encouraging girls to be “innovators”. One underlying message I stressed to the room was to “get creative and leverage technology to do so” and to “not be afraid to pivot and change if you are unsatisfied with what you are doing”. I discussed with the room my personal story of how I started a 501(c)(3) non-profit at age 16 with resources I navigated through online, and the numerous times I’ve pivoted my career during my college years to allow my professional career to align with my passions.
The day continued with the screening of Microsoft’s “What are you going to make?” video (first aired during International Women’s day) and a performance by teenage singer Madison Beer, who gave a beautiful rendition of Rihanna’s “Stay” before the online-streamed keynote began. The main panel was moderated by Glamour’s Editor-in-Chief Cindi Leive in an engaging discussion between Michelle Obama, 16-year-old Black-ish actress Yara Shahidi, and girls joining in over Skype from Tanzania, Peru, the UK, and Jordan.
Some key highlights from the discussion included FLOTUS’s response to girls in Peru, on “How to change perception on value of girls.” FLOTUS described her time in college, where her thesis advisor asked her to “do better.” She didn’t let that incident deter her and instead she worked harder and challenged the girls to do the same to fight cultural perception of what to expect of women.
FLOTUS continued to discuss that the words “Too aggressive, too loud, too bossy” were commonly said about her during her career. “AGGRESSIVE is ASSERTIVE, LOUD is CONFIDENCE! Turn them around and make it loud attributes.” She continued to proclaim: “To compete in schools where boys are given the benefit of the doubt, you HAVE to be aggressive and you HAVE to be confident.”
The other key piece of advice FLOTUS gave to the audience highlighted the need for girls to support each other. “We have to be our best friends. That means we cannot be catty. We cannot compete and see one person’s failure as our success. We can all rise together. We can all win.” She continued to emphasize the importance of mentorship: “All over the world, we have to be a team of women and girls who love each other and value each other and cherish one another. Because if we don’t cherish each other, no one else will. So let’s start there and start working together, and find a way that we’re going to lift up some other girl in our lives. Maybe it’s a little sister, a neighbor. But you can be a mentor today. So do that. Do that work now. Get in the habit of that.”
To do so, Michelle encouraged classrooms and girls around the world to have a global dialogue. “Look at us here—we are having a worldwide conversation with women all around the globe, this was a vision. This is just a taste of what we can do. Young girls, we have access to social media. We’ve got Skype and all these tools. Use them to educate yourselves and to reach out to girls all around the world. Don’t just Snapchat what you are eating. Use that tool to impart knowledge…to share wisdom, to share your stories and spread the word. This conversation should lead to millions of conversations around the world. This is the beginning of something huge… This is something I am going to spend the rest of my life working on… and I know I’m going to need soldiers out there like all of you to help me make this happen.”
To take part in Michelle Obama’s call to action and continue this discussion with students and classrooms from around the world, check out programs like Skype in the Classroom and our Skype-a-Thon (November 29-30), and watch the full live-streaming of the event on Glamour’s Facebook page.