By Tseday Alehegn
Published: Thursday, July 31st, 2014
Washington, D.C. (TADIAS)- At yesterday’s Presidential Summit for Young African Leaders First Lady Michelle Obama gave a speech focusing on increasing girls’ access to education. Addressing the 2014 Mandela Washington Fellows and invited guests at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC, the U.S. First Lady stated “Many of you are barely half my age, yet you have already founded businesses and NGOs. You’ve served as leaders in your government.. so you all represent the talent, energy, and diversity that is Africa’s life blood, and it is an honor to host you here.” She added “The roots of my family tree is in Africa. The blood of Africa runs through my veins.”
The First Lady pointed out that while great strides have been made by women in Africa — including that “the number of women who serve in parliament in Rwanda is over 50%, which by the way is more than double the percentage of women in the U.S. House” — greater efforts are still needed to address the consequences of harmful traditional practices.
“While I have great respect for cultural differences, I think we can all agree that things like female genital cutting, forced marriages, and domestic violence are not legitimate cultural practices,” The First Lady stated. “They are serious human rights violations, and they have no place in any country on this earth.”
Acknowledging the struggles girls face in pursuing their dreams for education, The First Lady shared her own unlikely ascent to leadership. Quoting Nelson Mandela, she stated “As Madiba once said: ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done,’” and she recounted her beginnings. “My ancestors came in chains. My grandparents and parents knew the sting of inequality. Yet I attended some of the best universities, and today I live in the White House, in a home that was constructed by slaves.” Following a standing ovation, The First Lady continued: “And I know my story and the story of my country is the story of the impossible getting done, and I know that can be your story.”
The First Lady also highlighted the stories of several Mandela Washington Fellows including that of Fikiri Nzoyisenga from Burundi who created a youth coalition to address violence against girls.
Mrs. Obama’s remarks was preceded by a forum on ‘Enabling Inclusive Economic Development,’ hosted by Ambassador Michael Froman. Panelist Steve Case, Founder of AOL, shared how only 3% of Americans were online at the time that he created AOL “It took us 10 years to get 1 million people online,” he said. “It was not easy in the beginning to literally get “Americans online.” Citing how the Mandela Washington Fellows have grown up in a more connected world, he noted: “Now we are seeing some of the great technologies coming out of Africa such as mobile banking. Some of the best ideas may not start in Silicon Valley; they may start in Nairobi.” He added: “The mentality of mobile first would create new infrastructure, but we also must make sure that the regulations in place make it easier for startup culture.”
Responding to a question from Ghanaian Fellow Ethel Delali Cofie regarding how to stay ahead of the curve and remain competitive, Steve Case responded that “competition is a signal that [your idea] is a big idea, so competition is a good thing.” Case also encouraged Fellows interested in entrepreneurship to remember the three Ps: “People, Partnerships, and Possibility.”
Panelist Alexa von Tobel, Founder of Learnvest, encouraged the audience to “dream big and perceive yourself as customer #1 when trying to solve a problem.” She admitted that it does take time to get ideas off the ground, but it helps to “pay it forward, look ahead, and get to work everyday.” Von Tobel also noted that “competition helps to sharpen your decision skills.”
Panelist Tcheguan Adebo Koba, Washington Fellow, addressed the need to go beyond acknowledging the rapid economic growth in African countries and find ways to make societies more inclusive. He lauded the Mandela Washington Fellowship’s public management track and called for greater opportunities for African youth entrepreneurs to gain access to markets across regional borders.
Yonas Moges, one of the 13 Mandela Washington Fellows from Ethiopia, told Tadias that he is inspired by his experiences as a participant. “I strongly feel the time has come to shine for Africa with the brilliant fellows I have met,” he said. Yonas has worked for more than a decade in the hospitality industry while focusing on international hotel chains. He is currently Managing Partner at Calibra Hospitality Consultancy and Business Plc, and “advises local developers in hotel design concept development, site selection, conducting feasibility studies, searching and selecting for hotel operators, and sourcing debt and equity finance for hotel projects.”
What has Yonas enjoyed most about the Young African Leaders Summit so far? “The networking, attending Obama’s speech and how he is simple to relate to for any aspiring young person, and community service culture in USA,” he shared.
Below are some photos from the Presidential Summit for Young African Leaders.
Meet the Mandela Washington Fellows From Ethiopia
Obama Renames Africa Young Leaders Program For Nelson Mandela
U.S.-AFRICA SUMMIT 2014: Preview
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Ambassador David Shinn on the 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit