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What it takes for Black girls to become leaders, according to Michelle Obama

“We need you, all of you, exactly as you are,” the former first lady said.
Becoming: An Intimate Conversation with Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama attends 'Becoming: An Intimate Conversation with Michelle Obama' at State Farm Arena on May 11, 2019 in Atlanta.Paras Griffin / Getty Images file

Michelle Obama has a message for Black girls in America.

“Don’t ever forget how much power you have.”

The former first lady recently relayed that missive to 1,000 attendees of the Black Girls Lead conference, which was held virtually this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The annual event, put on by Black Girls Rock, is aimed at empowering Black girls, ages 13 to 18, to become leaders.

Yet on top of issues such as the pay gap and lack of diversity in the C-suite, recent events like COVID-19, school closings and the reckoning with America’s history of racial inequality are also weighing heavily on teens’ minds.

“Some folks are going to try to tell you that you have to feel a certain way or act a certain way,” Obama said in a recorded speech. “Or maybe they’ll tell you that if you speak up you’re too loud or if you lead you’re being too bossy, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

“We need you, all of you, exactly as you are,” she added. “We need your voice out there calling for change. We need your thoughts and ideas.”

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The Black Girls Rock movement was started in 2006 in response to “the objectification, the stereotyping, and the dismissal and marginalization of Black women,” said its founder and CEO Beverly Bond, a former model and disc jockey.

“It’s a platform to inspire, and celebrate and elevate Black women,” she said.

She began the Black Girls Lead conference a few years later to help teach young Black women skills such has entrepreneurship, financial literacy and civic engagement.

Bond also connects them with powerful Black women, like musician Missy Elliott and Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee.

“There will be resistance to your ambition,” Harris told participants. “There will be people who say, ‘You are out of your lane.’”

From the lack of CEO roles to the glaring pay gap, Black women have a lot of ground to make up.

There are no Black female CEOs currently running Fortune 500 companies. When it comes to pay, women in general make an average 82 cents for every dollar paid to men. However, Black women make 62 cents on the dollar, according to a report by the American Association of University Women.

“We really believe that economic equity is the path to end oppression and racism and a lot of the things that can hold our community back,” said Cara Sabin, CEO of Sundial Brands,a subsidiary of the consumer goods giant Unilever.

With that fight to close the racial wealth gap comes a push for financial literacy.

Black Americans’ knowledge of investing and saving lags behind whites, research shows. A study by the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center at George Washington University and TIAA Institute, conducted in November 2019, found that, on average, African-Americans answered 38 percent of their joint Personal Finance Index questions correctly. Whites answered 55 percent of the questions correctly.

Tiffany Aliche, a financial educator known as The Budgetnista, grew up in a household where she and her sisters were taught about finances from an early age. She now wants to help other Black young women become financially savvy by providing knowledge, access to financial experts and a community that can help them be accountable and help normalize the process.

“I would love if my race did not play a role in the way I interact with money,” she said. “That would be amazing.

“But the fact is, it does play a role — unfairly so,” Aliche added. “So having financial educators that have lived through that experience and to be able to teach those folks who are in our community from that experience, is critically important.”

Having powerful role models can also be inspiring for young Black women.

“When you don’t see people that look like you in a position of power, it makes it more difficult to envision yourself in those kinds of positions,” Sundial Brands’ Sabin said.

She also believes networking is crucial.

For instance, women of color accounted for 89 percent of the new women-owned businesses started per day in 2019, according to American Express’ State of Women-Owned Businesses Report. However, startups led by Black women can’t necessarily rely on venture capital funding. They only received .06 percent of the $424.7 billion in total technology venture funding raised since 2009, according to ProjectDiane, a demographic study of Black women innovators.

“Being able to have a network and have mentorship really breaks down those barriers that institutionally are prohibitive,” Sabin said.

Striving to shift the world around them can also help empower young Black women.

“Long-term change is only possible when we pair our activism with our votes,” Michelle Obama said.

She urged those not old enough to vote to encourage others to do so.

“This is how you lead, how you go from being Black girls who rock to being Black women who rock,” she said.

“I’ve seen what you’re capable of, you already have everything you need to rock our communities, to rock our country, to rock this world and I, for one, can’t wait to see what you do with it.”

— CNBC producer Scott Stern contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Invest in You: Ready. Set. Grow. is a financial wellness and education initiative from CNBC and Acorns, the micro-investing app. NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.