The following is a transcript of First Lady Michelle Obama’s remarks Tuesday night at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C.
Well, good evening, everyone. It is such a pleasure and an honor to be here with all of you tonight. I want to start by thanking Pattie for that wonderful introduction and for her outstanding leadership on behalf of powerful women across the globe. So let’s give Pattie another round of applause. Yay, Pattie! And of course, I want to recognize Fortune’s 50 Most Powerful Women and all the other brilliant, powerful, accomplished women—and a few brave men—gathered here tonight. And to all the young women—are they all—are you all here at one table? Oh, I’m so proud of you! This is exciting, right? See, this is why we do this. We are aspiring—we want you to aspire to be here where we are. So it’s just wonderful that you all are here.
The women in the room, you run companies that are transforming industries. You lead organizations that are changing people’s lives. And by shattering just about every glass ceiling imaginable, you all have shown us that a woman’s place is truly wherever she wants it to be. You all are the living, breathing proof that when women get a good education and have their voices heard in the halls of power, they don’t just transform their own lives, they transform the life of this nation and our entire world.
But unfortunately, as you all know, even today, many women never have these opportunities here in the U.S., and particularly in many developing countries across the globe. In fact, right now, more than 62 million girls worldwide are not in school. They are not getting any formal education at all—no reading, no writing, no math. Nothing. And, as Pattie mentioned, that’s what I want to talk with you about tonight. I want to talk about the global girls’ education crisis and about our responsibility to address this crisis as women, as business leaders, and as citizens of this country and our world. Now, as you heard on the video, when it comes to global education, we’ve made real progress on getting girls through primary school. But when it comes to secondary school, in many parts of the world, girls still lag far behind. Believe it or not, in some countries, fewer than 10% of girls ever complete high school.
Now, for many girls, the barriers are resources: families can’t afford school fees; the nearest school is miles away, they have no way to get there. Or maybe there is a school nearby but it doesn’t have adequate bathrooms. Maybe girls can’t afford feminine hygiene products, so whenever they have their period they have to stay home, and they fall behind, they wind up dropping out. But often, the problem isn’t just about resources, it’s also about attitudes. Because when girls hit adolescence, that’s often when they’re first subjected to the beliefs that societies hold about women—beliefs that girls should be forced to get married and have children as early as possible, or that they should stay home and do household labor to support their families.
Now, I just want us to take a moment and put ourselves in these girls’ shoes for just a moment. Let’s think back to when we were their age—and for many of you, you are their age. Remember how it felt to be sitting in a classroom, knowing full well that we were so much smarter than the boys. The teachers would ask a question and the boys would—they’d blather on and on, and we’d roll our eyes because we actually knew the right answer. It’s kind of like today when you watch your poor husband frantically trying to do two things at once while you’re calmly doing six. You will understand this as you get older.
But seriously, these girls might live halfway across the globe, but they are in many ways a lot like you and I were back when we were young. They are so talented. They are curious. They’re outspoken. They have so many ideas about what they’re going to be when they grow up. And then one day, someone taps them on the shoulder and says, sorry, not you. You’re a girl. You have to stay home. You have to marry a man 20 years older than you and start having children of your own.
Think about what that would have been like for you—to be told at the age of 12 or 13, that’s it, your dreams stop here. Imagine who you would be today if your formal education had ended after middle school. Imagine being a grown woman knowing only what you learned through eighth grade. Now multiply that by about 62 million and you’ll have some idea of the magnitude of this outrage.
And let me tell you, I have had the pleasure of traveling the world, and I’ve met so many of these girls, these amazing, beautiful girls. And they are so hungry to learn. I met girls in Senegal whose school consisted of little more than concrete classrooms with rickety desks, few faded posters on the wall. But those girls were serious about their education, and they were smart—fluent in two languages, most of them — and they were fiercely ambitious. In fact, one of them wrote a poem for me which ended with the line—and these are her words—she said, “I have a dream that one day, the Martin Luther King Girls School of Dakar, my school,” she said, “will be as prestigious as Harvard and Princeton Universities.”
Girls like her are everywhere. They’re in tiny villages. They’re in teeming inner cities all across the globe. And I can’t help but see myself in these girls. I can’t help but see my daughters in these girls. And I simply can’t walk away. So for me, this issue is personal. But I want to be clear: I’m not just here tonight to make the moral case for girls’ education, I’m also here to make the economic case. Because the evidence about the economic impact of educating girls is overwhelming.
For example, each extra year of secondary school can increase a girl’s income by as much as 18%. And one study showed that sending more girls to school can even boost an entire country’s GDP. Girls who are educated are less likely to contract HIV. They’re more likely to delay childbearing. They have lower infant mortality rates. And they are more likely to vaccinate their children. And when girls are raising healthier families and contributing more to their country’s workforce, that’s just not good for their economy, it can be good for our economy too, since we all know that rising incomes and standards of living abroad are good for companies here at home.
So for all of these reasons, last spring, the President and I launched Let Girls Learn. As you heard, it’s a new initiative to help adolescent girls worldwide go to school. Through Let Girls Learn, we’re supporting girls’ education in conflict zones like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And we’re funding programs that address poverty, HIV and other issues that keep girls out of school. We’ve also partnered, as you heard, with the Peace Corps. And in the coming years, they will be training all 7,000 of their volunteers on girls’ education. And many of those volunteers will be working full time on education projects across the globe—things like running girls’ leadership camps and mentorship programs, building school libraries and bathrooms, and so much more.
Because while girls’ education is a global problem, we know that the best solutions are often local. The challenges are different in every community. But here’s why the Peace Corps is such a great volunteer—because Peace Corps volunteers actually live in these communities for two years, so they can work side by side with local leaders and the families and the girls themselves to create projects that meet the needs and aspirations of the people they serve. And just as important, our volunteers can serve as scouts—they can find projects that are already working in communities, and they can support social local entrepreneurs who are getting real results.
And as we’re promoting community efforts and searching for new solutions on the ground, we’re also seeking innovative ideas from folks like you. And that’s why, tonight, we’re launching our $25 million Let Girls Learn Challenge Fund, and we’re challenging the private sector and education experts to partner with us to find the best solutions to our girls’ education crisis. And finally, through Let Girls Learn, we’ve been calling on countries across the globe to make their own investments in girls’ education. And when they do, I will be the first to stand with their leaders and publicize their commitments, and I will continue to visit developing countries to highlight the impact these investments can have on girls’ lives.
So we’re doing some exciting work on girls’ education, and I’m proud of what we’ve done so far. But I also want to be very clear that government doesn’t have all the answers or all the resources we need to solve this problem—not even close. And that’s where all of you come in. Because the truth is that we desperately need your help in this effort. We need your financial support. We need your expertise. We need your products. We need your technologies. Every single one of you and every company and organization in this room has something to contribute.
For example, you could fund one of our Peace Corps projects; volunteers are already posting their project proposals online. All you have to do is go to LetGirlsLearn.gov and choose the project you’d like to support. That’s what UPS and Land’s End and Xerox are already doing. They’ve already pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars to support these projects. Thank you.
You can also help by doing whatever you and your company or organization does best. For example, IBM is deploying consultants to work with Peace Corps volunteers and the people they serve on their education projects. Edelman is offering digital marketing support. Girl Scouts and Girls Inc. are educating their girls about this issue so that they can be advocates for girls worldwide. Alex and Ani is designing a custom bangle and donating a portion of the proceeds to support Peace Corps projects. I could go on, and I want to go on and on and on.
So tonight, if you haven’t done so already, I want every single one of you to ask yourself one simple question: What can I and my company or organization do to help? So many women have asked that exact question on our behalf—our mentors, our friends, our colleagues—the women in our networks who have been there for us every step of the way. In fact, part of the reason why so many of us are here tonight is because we know the importance of networking. We know that we need women in our lives who will tell us the truth—they will tell us, you should absolutely go after that promotion, or they’ll—how can I can help you with that, I know exactly who to call.
But these 62 million girls, they don’t have anyone to call. They have so much talent and so much to say, but they have no outlet, no voice in their societies. It’s like they know the answers but no one will call on them. And every single one of us in this room knows how that feels, and we all know what a tragic waste of potential that is. So we need to be these girls’ network. We need to do for them what so many women did for us—women who fought so that we could walk through those classroom doors, and down those halls of power, and into those C-Suites.
We need to get these girls into school, because we know that education is the single most important stepping stone to power, to freedom, and to equality. This is our moral imperative as women and as human beings. And I’d also argue that, in the long term, it’s your economic imperative as business leaders. I’d argue that this is truly what it means to be “Leading with Purpose.”
These girls are counting on us. And tonight, I just want to share one last story about one of these girls—a young woman who I met this past spring at a high school in Cambodia. This young lady wakes up at 4:00 every morning to cook for her family, to water their crops, to tend to their cows. Then she gets on a rickety bicycle and she pedals for an hour to get to school where she studies as hard as she can to fulfill her dream of becoming a math teacher.
She stood up in front of me, the First Lady of Cambodia, and dozens of international reporters and camera crews, and let me tell you, she spoke so eloquently about her life. She was poised and confident. And this is what she told us. She said—and these are her words—she said, “I have been through a lot of hardships. I know that I need to overcome them.” She said, “I’ve never thought that they are the barrier to stop me. I’ve never thought of giving up,” she said. “I never lose hope in myself.”
She said, “I never lose hope in myself.” So if these girls can cling so fiercely to their hopes, then surely we can do our part to help them realize those hopes. Because right now, in remote villages and struggling inner cities, there are future scientists and entrepreneurs, our future teachers, our members of parliament. I know that somewhere out there is the next Ursula Burns, or Mary Barra, or Gabby Giffords. They’re out there waiting for us. The question is whether they will have the chance to become who and what they are meant to be. And the answer to that question is up to us.
So I hope you will join me in this work to let girls learn. I hope you’ll do whatever you can to help these girls transform themselves and their communities, and our world. And everyone at every age can be a part of this. And I know that all—I want you all to know that while I might be in my final stretch of my time as First Lady—I’m not counting down or anything like that—but I plan to continue this work for the rest of my life. I’m in this for the long haul—and I hope that you all are too. Because I know that together, we can solve this problem, and we can give every girl on this planet a future that is worthy of her talents and her dreams.
I look forward to working with all of you on this mission in the years ahead. Thank you all. Congratulations. And God bless.
For more about Michelle Obama’s speech, watch this Fortune video: