Former first lady, Michelle Obama, discussed gender equality, making the most of success and more with over 3,000 changemakers at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre on Tuesday.

Obama delivered her remarks at The Economics of Equality: Advancing Women and Girls to Change The World, an in conversation-style event co-hosted by the Economic Club of Canada and Plan International Canada. Of the 3,000 attendees, more than half of them were youth.

“Look at you guys out there all young and leading,” Obama said, upon walking out on stage. As was the case with many of her comments during the 45-minute talk, she was met with thunderous applause and cheer.

Obama is no stranger to public speaking and has emphasized the importance of sharing your story.

“One of the reasons why I tell my story so often is because I think our stories are important,” Obama said. “That journey for me from the South Side (of Chicago) to now, it’s all been not just a story of success, (but) a story of lots of stumbles and tumbles along the way and missteps and embarrassments and hurts and pains and cuts and bruises, but it’s the getting back up part (that) is really what’s important.”

She also encouraged people to remember their roots and to give back to the communities that helped shape them into who they are. She said this realization came when she found herself working in a big-name corporate law firm fresh out of law school.

“I felt like I had checked every box but when I looked out that window and I looked over the lake, and I could see the South Side of Chicago and my neighbourhood, it felt so far away,” she said. “I felt like, I can see the place that brought me here, but I knew I can’t leave it there. That I can’t just sit up in this office in this gleaming, shiny office and not go back and help.”

Obama said that her work with charities and organizations like the Obama Foundation, which she started while in office and continues now, is “the best way to leverage power.”

As for the many people hoping Obama will run for president, she explained why that will not happen anytime soon.

“We don’t need another Michelle Obama, we don’t need another Barack Obama. We need thousands, tens of thousands of Michelle and Barack Obamas,” she said. “We need them in every aspect of our society. We need them as great principals of schools, we need them as teachers, we need them as scientists, we need them as governors, we need them in the statehouse, we need them at the G20 summit.”

Obama added that she and Barack want to “start building a pathway for young people” to help them get the training, support and network they need to make change.

“We’re the exception and we want to start building the rule,” she said. “How much more powerful of an investment is that for me and Barack to make than on running a race for one seat for one or two terms?”

This powerful interview was led by Economic Club of Canada president and CEO Rhiannon Traill, a Ryerson grad.

“I just feel honoured that we were able to host this, and for me hosting it at Ryerson is a particular honour,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I really struggled growing up and … I (was) the first person in my family to go to university. I chose Ryerson and I (must) say that Ryerson was a transformative place for me.”

“It’s just such an incredible way that life works to have me doing that event there and with so many Ryerson faculty and friends in the audience.”

While tickets started at $500 before tax, youth were able to enter a draw online for a free pair of tickets.

Dorsa Eshtehardian, a third-year business management student at Ryerson, was one of the lucky winners.

“I had goosebumps during the entire event,” she said. “One of my favourite things that Michelle said was that you can’t make yourself small because other people are afraid to be big. That really stood out to me because often we are afraid of doing things that we are passionate about because we are afraid of what other people think of us and how they perceive us.”

Also in attendance were Sophie Grégoire Trudeau and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh.

Trudeau addressed the audience, promoting a message of unity.

“Girls and boys, ladies and gents, not only are we lucky to be here today, but we want you to know that we are following you. We are looking at you. We hear you, we are inspired by you,” she said. “In all womenhood, in all menhood, in all humanhood, the only way is forward and together.”

Hear more of what Michelle Obama had to say…

On what young leaders need to perform their best


On why change is not a one man job


On her ideal dinner guest, dead or alive, and what she would serve

Angela McLean is a third-year journalism student at Ryerson University. Get in touch via Twitter at @angelamcleanx or via email

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