Meeting Michelle Obama - My long term dream

I have often heard people talk about icons, heroes and inspirational people. I have heard many people speak about heroes and it has often left me thinking, who is my hero? I love reading and had always enjoyed reading fictitious books but over the years I moved from reading fiction to reading real life stories and inspirational books with educational themes. Often the books I read have a focus on people’s experiences which I find very educational and inspiring. My love for reading about people’s experiences and learning from people’s life journeys was great but I have no hero. However, I have people I find very inspirational and Michelle Obama was right at the top -the one person I always wanted to meet.

From the moment I was made aware of Michelle Obama’s first visit to Scotland, the excitement was barely containable and in the weeks that followed, I spoke about her nearly every day. I was not sure whether I would get a chance to, but I declared to my friends, family and colleagues that Michelle was coming, and I was going to meet her. I said it to myself and others so many times that my friends and family all knew how much I wanted it. So, they believed with me and my colleague even dreamt about it.

This belief lasted a number of weeks but as the day came closer, I got no invite and had no information as to how I could get my hands on a ticket. I stopped talking about it and decided it would be great if it happened, but I was not going to invest my energies into something I seemed to have no control over. I had told my niece whose desire to get back to designing had recently returned that she would design my dress for this special moment but as the days went by, I decided to stop talking to her about it and never went back to it again. The dream appeared to be fading away…

Then I got the call. I knew the former First Lady was coming on 17th July 2018 but I had stopped thinking about it. The caller knew I really wanted this, she asked how I was and then whether I was sitting down, before proceeding to ask whether I could join them on 17/07/2018 at a dinner with Michelle Obama. I screamed, jumped, sat down, stood up, paced and did it all again several times during the conversation that followed. I told her it was a dream come true and couldn’t wait. Soon as I came off the call, my daughter came to ask whether I had finally got an invite and we hugged. I called my husband who was away, told him and the excitement started again. It would be just under 3 weeks when I would finally get to meet Michelle Obama.

In the days that followed, it was all about D-Day. I told a few family members, my colleagues at work and a few friends most of whom had all been waiting and hoping for me to get an invite. Then I got on to the phone and started planning what dress I would wear with Zaina.

Sitting near my mentor and friend, I realised I was finally in the room with Michelle Obama. As I sat in the very last row on table 80 right at the back of the 900 people auditorium, I realised my dream had come true. We waited for the most iconic black woman I knew to walk into the room, wondering but mainly hoping she would come in through the back and walk up the stage. That way we would see her better.

Prior to this moment, I had the opportunity to meet the fabulous women I would be sitting with at the event. The very wonderful and organised Women’s Enterprise Scotland (WES) team had arranged for all of us to meet at a hotel nearby for pictures and a blether before we would take the 10 minute walk to EICC up the road. I would take the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh, meet other WES ambassadors and finally see the former First Lady.

Dressed in my beautiful yellow and African print dress (even if I say so myself) made by my niece, one of the very talented Bright Futures women, I was now ready. Over the years Zaina had shelved her desire, passion and exceptional talent in fashion design. Now, in one week, she had made me a beautiful tailored outfit which I would wear on what I knew would be a life changing moment in my life.

I walked up with all the gorgeously dressed WES (Women's Enterprise Scotland) women and there it was, the EICC. Right outside was this gorgeous looking black girl being interviewed by what looked like a media crew. I wondered who she was. I knew no black women in Scotland who are in the lime light. Who was this? As I got closer, I noticed who it was - Beverley Knight. Of course, she was performing on the night!

I remembered the selfie requests and all the kind and encouraging words from my family, community and friends who knew I was coming. My husband and kids had offered to pick me up because they couldn’t wait to hear all about it straight after the event. We were all going to share every bit of this day. It was no personal experience, this was a family experience, a community experience one for the Bright Futures women like me and families like mine who had been through tough times but could also meet Michelle Obama one day.

We sat down at the designated table, then she walked on stage. She walked in from behind the stage and within what seemed like less than a minute, she was seated down, getting welcomed and then interviewed by Dame Katherine Grainger. It was amazing to see two great women together. As Sir Tom Hunter the host put it that day, those in the room would say, we were there - I would say, I was there!

She was just what I thought. Poised, dignified, funny, authentic, gorgeous, confident and really just a likeable person. She spoke about her passion for children, her experience as the First Lady and gave a well rounded interview touching things that I imagine she’s most passionate about. Among other things she spoke about her reflection on what she thinks made her who she is and the importance of owning your story. She said she knew what kind of First Lady she wanted to be before she got into the White House. She was unapologetic about her life experiences, explaining that she came from a poor family, one that loved and adored her, something she believed was key in shaping who she was now. It was fascinating to watch her speak and there was no denying that she spoke to each person in the room. I was in no doubt as I listened, that everyone could relate to her in some way and would have something to take away.

I thought her message about owning your story was extremely key -at least for me. I would always remember to own my story. My story largely shapes my work so this is not new to me but something about how she said it and how she shared her own story hit home. She had what I conceived as both privileged and less privileged experiences which she seemed to share in equal measure. And it was great to watch and listen to her.

The interview lasted about an hour and then she was gone. That is when I began to realise what had happened, I had learned so much from this experience. In all of what I learned, two major lessons from that day which would stay with me for the rest of my life;

1. I had learned the importance of relationships. Relationships come in different ‘shapes and sizes’. It is important for one to understand relationships whether it be personal or business. They are all important because they shape us, teach and often influence who we are and how much we achieve. It was through my relationship with my two great women - Jackie Brierton of GrowBiz and Carolyn Currie from Women's Enterprise Scotland - that I was in this room with the previous First Lady of the United States. These women had encouraged me, mentored me, laughed with me and greatly supported my husband and I as we founded and grew Radiant and Brighter. As Carrie puts it, ‘she knew Radiant and Brighter when it was still a spreadsheet’. These two women had taught me the importance of bringing others along and the importance of relationships not only in Business but in life generally. And I would always be grateful, always appreciating people and who they are regardless of how different and where they were in life.

2. The second lesson came to me as a complete surprise. I had learned that one can never ride on the success of any other person, we all have to make our own success. I would like to think I knew this prior to this day, but something happens when you are in the presence of such iconic people. Suddenly something you thought you knew becomes clearer. I had sat in the same room with the one woman I greatly admired and almost desperately wanted to see. I had experienced another one of my dreams. I had no picture with her which was perhaps not very surprising considering who she was, but I didn’t even have a clear picture of just her. She had been so close and yet so far. From where I was sitting in this very big auditorium, I could barely see her. She was exceptionally admirable, and I had not really met her but I would never forget how she’d walked in the room and the power of her presence in that room. I needed to make my own success and this I would always remember, I would never forget.

It was truly a momentous day, one I could never have seen coming and one I will forever thank God for the wonderful relationships I have and the amazing people I meet. I continue to learn from other people’s journeys and experiences. I hope you can also learn a thing or two from my own.

Pheona Matovu is a Women's Enterprise Scotland Ambassador and Director of Community Interest Company Radiant and Brighter

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