Monthly Archives: May 2011

Michelle Obama is a New Kind of Role Model

There’s a lot of discussion of the President lately – perhaps even more than usual. His birth certificate, the successful anti-OBL operation, the budget negotiations, etc. are all hot topics. There’s a lot to talk about, and that’s great, but I want to talk about Michelle Obama.

Since the inauguration, Michelle Obama has leveraged her position as first lady to work on issues she cares about, and in the process has become a new kind of role model for a new generation of women.

She’s assertive, complex and likable. She has pursued nonpartisan goals in a unifying way. She is professionally accomplished, both before and after the election. She is seriously funny, and knows when to undercut herself with a joke. Also, she can dance.

I’m 29. I grew up in the era of emerging female professional role models like Hillary Clinton, Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey. All of these women are accomplished in their own ways, but they leave no room for error. In themselves or in others. Their every appearance is well-planned and their images are created with care by a hundred sculptors. That generation – of iron women – seems successful because of an exterior and interior built on relentless commitment, extreme attention to detail and perfect execution.

I don’t want to be those women, because they scare me. It seems impossible to duplicate their success.

Michelle Obama seems balanced. She cares, she loves, she believes, and makes it all seem possible. I’m not denying the possibility that Michelle Obama is confidentially an iron woman. It’s possible. But what matters for the sake of this appreciative blog post is what kind of role model she is.

The First Lady exhibits balance, flexibility and kindness. Mrs. Obama has led efforts to make the White House a home for cultural, family and art events. She spends time with military families. Her “Let’s Move” initiative has successfully started a new kind of conversation: one about fitness, children’s health and returning our country to valuing real things and real food. From the Easter Egg Roll to the White House concert series, she has welcomed diverse families and voices into her environment.

So, I don’t just want to be her: I want to hang out with her. I want her to be my mentor. Maybe go out sometime for girls’ night.

Ultimately, Mrs. Obama stands out because she fills a hole in our saturated culture: She’s a lady. She takes old-fashioned values like respect, motherhood, good taste and excellent manners and brings them to the modern cultural context of valuing success, strength and accomplishment.

As a young professional woman, I usually don’t fit in anywhere. I’m not quite an adult: not a mommy, not an accomplished professional, not settled. But nor am I a coed anymore; I feel like I’ve grown out of some of the posts on Jezebel, and certainly all the articles in Cosmo.

It’s an awkward in-between time, where I lack a set path to follow. I’m on the cusp of being really grown-up, and I want to know that there are women who have found complex success and happiness. I want not just fashion models but serious role models who believe in a serious future for themselves, their families and our country.

Michelle Obama is a visible, reliable example of a woman with a heart and big piles of success that she’s built in her own way. Her example helps me find patience for myself.


Why I Believe in Entrepreneurship

Africa is poorer now than it was 40 years ago, when the modern age of aid found its feet. There’s something wrong with aid, but no one is sure exactly what. That’s the trick, the hurdle and the nightmare, all rolled into one.
There’s more than one kind of “aid”:
  • Public development aid: This is government-to-government or quasi governmental org-to-government. This is the kind of aid that governments spend to reinforce humanitarian or policy goals in the developing world.
  • Private development aid: This is the kind of aid generally executed by organizations like Save the Children, CARE, Mercy Corps and thousands of other, smaller organizations. Whether they’re building schools or sending advisers to improve agricultural practices, this aid is defined by an organization pursuing humanitarian goals.
  • Emergency aid: This is the kind of aid that’s required in both the developed and developing world, as natural disasters and other unexpected events destabilize existing economies. Tsunamis, earthquakes, droughts, civil wars, etc.
In her book Dead Aid, economist Dambisa Moyo makes a case that government-to-government aid (let’s call it public aid, for short) is bad for Africa. Why? Aid flows prop up broken governments and institutions and discourage the development of capital markets. Big cash flows are susceptible to corruption and disincentivize entrepreneurial behavior.
While Moyo argues about the deleterious effects of public aid specifically, I believe the same dynamics apply in private development aid. This is not to say that no private aid is successful, but that giving things away – whether to governments, communities or individuals – is bad finance and bad practice. Aid of both the public and private variety reinforces old-fashioned relationships, with toxic results.When you give things away – buildings, money, equipment – you stifle the inspiration for people and communities to build systems and economies for themselves. (Nonetheless, I strongly believe that all people should be guaranteed a minimum level of subsistence, through health care, education, food and shelter.)

Moyo argues that the solutions lie in international capital markets: in African countries issuing debt in order to raise money for investment in their infrastructure and social programs.

She argues that the practice of issuing debt reinforces positive mechanisms within a democracy. Governments who must act responsibly in order to repay loans are better governors. And, in turn, people are motivated to vote for governors who exhibit responsible behavior.

Perhaps Moyo’s model about public aid applies to private aid as well. What’s the private equivalent of issuing bonds? Debt or equity investments in enterprise. This is why I believe in social entrepreneurship:

  • Ownership is empowering. It’s empowering for the investor and the invest-ee. It has powerful psychological effects.
  • Businesses are perpetual; not one-time infusions of activity or cash. Instead of building a single building or infrastructure project, investing in a business on a venture basis ensures that you’re investing in a future.
  • Businesses have knock-on effects. Funding the growth of a business creates self-sustaining jobs for the future. As a result, you’re funding the development of a whole class of entrepreneurs, the world over.
  • When an investor believes that his/her investment will produce a return, he or she believes in a future of growth for that country.

Organizations like the Acumen Fund, Grameen Bank, Kiva and Root Capital are making capital accessible to the poor in order to enable them to found and develop businesses.

I believe entrepreneurship is the future. This is why, this mother’s day, I gave my mom a Kiva card.

The End of an Era (And the Beginning of a New America)

Osama Bin Laden was a terrorist. He didn’t stand for anything worth respecting. As President Obama pointed out, bin Laden was a murderer, and one without boundaries or reason. He killed scores of Muslims along with his other targets.

I never celebrate death, and I don’t intend to start today. But if the celebrations by the White House and Ground Zero seem undignified, I want to say that I think most Americans are celebrating not specifically a death, but their perception of end of an era of fear, and also their feeling of closure from an immense trauma. Over and over again, the interviewees at Ground Zero and the White House talk about “closure” – an opportunity to put fear behind us. Maybe it feels like the moment we can be safe again.

But we won’t be safe from terrorist attacks until we repair the way we build relationships with the Muslim world – not just with the powerhouse figureheads, but with the people in Tahrir, Deraa and Misurata.

The Arab Spring has begun to render the old geopolitical relationships obsolete. I am grateful for that, and awed at the bravery of the protesters and rebels in those cities – just as brave as the New York city firefighters who ran up stairs while buildings were falling down.

Perhaps this event is the end of the beginning of a new era in America. It’s the moment for a new unity in America – behind a vision of peace. I hope it will also be the moment we revise our outlook on the outside world.

This is not an occasion for joy. It’s an occasion for relief, and for gratefulness for brave people – protesters in Tahrir Square, New York city firefighters and the Navy SEALs who risked their lives today to capture a murderer. May freedom ring.