The former first lady recently interviewed four young women from around the world for an International Women’s Day feature for Refinery29. In partnership with the Obama Foundation, Refinery29′s feature spotlighted the four teenagers from Nepal, Ghana, Guatemala and Chicago to highlight the important of empowering girls with education.
Alejandra Teleguario Santizo, a 17-year-old from Guatemala who has organized her community to rally against sexual violence, asked Michelle Obama what advice she would give to young women like herself who are looking to blaze their own paths and become leaders.
“My best advice to girls, including my own daughters, is do not be afraid to fail. So often, our own fear of failure is the thing that keeps us back,” Obama said. “We think we have to be perfect, that if we make even the tiniest mistake, it’s a catastrophe. That’s simply not true!”
She added that the only way to succeed is life “is by failing and failing well.”
“You cannot let your failures eat you up or make you want to quit,” Obama said. “You have to learn from them, let them challenge and inspire you to do more ― to take some risks and to step outside of your comfort zone.”
Obama also told Santizo another important key to success: Be kind to other women.
“I also advise girls to be supportive of each other. I cannot say this enough! Too often we’re taught that we have to compete, or that someone else’s failure is our success,” she said. “But we can all rise together; we can all win. 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 often, our own fear of failure is the thing that keeps us back.”
Obama and her husband, former President Barack Obama, have been working to educate more girls around the world since they launched the Let Girls Learn initiative in 2015. The program brings together several international organizations to address the variety of challenges preventing girls from getting an education.
Eva Lewis, a 19-year-old activist and artist from the South Side of Chicago (where Obama also grew up), asked her how education can be liberating for everyone, but especially girls. Her answer did not disappoint.
“I always tell students that if you focus on school right now, you will have all kinds of freedom later on in your life,” Obama said. “You’ll have the freedom to choose a career you enjoy and to earn a living that supports your family. That is truly liberating. And that’s not just true here in America.”
When girls get an education, their whole world changes, Obama noted.
“Right now, millions of adolescent girls around the world actually don’t have the chance to go to school. Imagine if, at the age of 10 or 11 or 12, someone came to you and said, ‘Sorry, you’re a girl, you’re finished with your education. Forget about all your dreams. Instead you’ll marry a man twice your age and start having babies,’” she said.
“When we give girls an education, it can help liberate them from that kind of life. Educated girls marry later, have lower rates of infant and maternal mortality, and are more likely to immunize their children and less likely to contract malaria and HIV. Studies also show that girls who are educated earn higher salaries, and sending more girls to school and into the workforce can boost an entire country’s GDP,” Obama continued.” So education can liberate individuals, families, and even nations.”
Head over to Refinery29′s feature and make sure to click through to read each individual interview.
CORRECTION: The headline and text in a previous version of this story misattributed a quote from Eva Lewis to Michelle Obama. That quote has been removed.