Former First Lady Michelle Obama is busy travelling and giving speeches these days. As the first African American First Lady, with a background in the c-suite and Ivy-League education, she should have good wisdom to share in her speeches.
Sadly, her advice on women in tech and the responsibility that tech leaders should have to making the world better doesn't match what she's done and misses a fundamental truth about the free market system.
The former FLOTUS was welcomed to Apple's annual worldwide developer's conference this week and sat for a talk with CEO Tim Cook and a company vice president who was the former EPA chief under her husband.
Obama covered a number of topics but two stood out – women in tech and having a higher purpose in life than just making apps and money.
First, she scolded the developers in the room for not hiring enough women:
"Girls walk away from tech and science. … There's something about how this subject is being taught," said Obama. "You guys are smarter than that. You're better than that, let's figure it out."
In order to get more women in tech, "we have to want to," Obama said, according to CNN. She continued: "And that's where I look to the fellas in the room and say, 'Are you ready? Are you really ready to have women at the table? Then make room.'"
"If women aren't at the table, you're going to miss my dollar. Because you don't really know me."
It's true that women are under-represented in the technology field. At Apple, 37 percent of new hires and 32 percent of current employees are women. As many companies looking to boost their female representation are learning, attracting women is hard to do. It begins with education at the K-12 level to develop a pipeline of talent.
The element that many crusaders ignore is personal choice in education and how those choices lead women away from tech careers and to other more preferred careers. Young women choose what they want to study in college. They don’t overwhelmingly choose math, science, and tech studies but health, social science, history, and education.
The widespread movement to get girls and women into STEM may drive some change in the years to come, and that’s a positive. However, in two or three decades after a developed pipeline, if women still choose other careers and industries over tech, we have to respect the results of their choices.
Even more egregious though was Michelle Obama's ending charge:
She ended the talk by advising the audience to think about a "higher purpose," stating that the country needs problem solvers "who believe in the values and the diversity, who believe in the value of immigrants, who believe that global warming is real. We need people out there who are operating with a level of empathy.
"I hope that as you develop your app, yourselves and your business, you develop with an air of empathy and compassion, always thinking about, 'What more can I be doing for somebody else?'" she said. "If you do that, we'll be good."
Obama seems to be suggesting that there is a higher purpose than business: social awareness, "empathy," and "compassion."
That assessment ignores lessons of history and economics. When we look back at the evolution of civilizations, it wasn't empathy and compassion that drove innovation, but self-interest. Capitalism and markets exist because individuals trade their goods or services (including labor and time) in exchange for the goods and services of others. Adam Smith articulated it best in the "Wealth of Nations" when he penned:
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
Self-interest is not the same as selfishness and self-interest can be good. The motivation of starting a business or working to earn money, improve your life, and better the situation of your family is just as noble as the motivation to sell all of your worldly possessions and give it to the poor. These app developers are creating products that make life easier, more efficient, and better. They are stimulating economic activity that provides goods and services as well as jobs and opportunities for users and other employed. They are driving forward progress. Even U2’s Bono has acknowledged that capitalism takes more people out of poverty than aid. That’s a lesson that Michelle Obama should take to heart.