Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady During a Roundtable with Business Leaders at the Private Equity Industry Veterans Initiative Summit

October 08, 2015

MRS. OBAMA: Good afternoon. Thank you for rising, that was so kind. (Laughter.) I wish they did that at home. (Laughter.)

Well, it's really a thrill for me to join you and the media to talk about all of the phenomenal work we've been doing together to get our veterans and military spouses hired. And, Steve, I am just incredibly grateful for your leadership. You have stepped up in a way that just leaves me awestruck. And you're leading by example, bringing other leaders together, and really understanding that there's a real business imperative that's at stake to getting these men and women hired. They're some of the best-trained folks we have in the country. And I think you're witnessing that firsthand.

Q: Well, all the firms here -- whether it's TPG or Carlyle or KKR -- have all been doing things in this area. And you actually provided the organizing principle, and -- both you and Mrs. Biden.

So when -- you set the stage for this. And it's very difficult not to respond in a positive way. Because when you were talking at the Business Roundtable, it was really -- for those who weren't there, it was really a terrific, passionate speech. And the thing that got me at the end was when you were talking about how 22 military people a day take their lives. This was so stunning. You make it through Iraq, you make it through Afghanistan, you make it through other problems, and you have this huge personal tragedies because of a number of factors, but including the fact you can't get a job. If you can't get a job, it's really hard to take care of a family. It just -- it changes everything.

And so we were, like -- I mean, I listened to this, I said, how can we not do something really significant. So we basically just set a goal of 50,000 people. You look at all of us around the table. We're not that extraordinary; every firm does that. And you know, if you set a goal -- we have 600,000 people working for us, and each firm has hundreds of thousands of people.

So how can we not deliver, right, for the military? The only way you can't deliver is not focusing. Because if we focus -- we're used to being focused. Each of these four firms, they are focused people. (Laughter.) And we're friendly, even though we compete from time to time.

And so you can make it happen. We can make a lot of stuff happen. It's a question of just priorities. And I think each of the four firms wants things to go well for other people. It's a nice, human sort of response.

And so we're up to, like, 28,000 now, and I guess that was two years four months or something.

MRS. OBAMA: You're ahead of schedule.

Q: Yes, we're ahead. (Laughter.) We'll get to somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000, which is what we thought.

And what's fascinating is that everybody at our firm is really proud of this. I mean, it was like I was responding to you, actually, and your leadership. But what we found -- and I'm sure it's the same at the other firms -- is that when everybody found out what we were doing, they thought it was terrific. And then, in the individual companies that we own, they think it's terrific.

So there's a sense of pride that helps things become mutually reinforcing.

MRS. OBAMA: Well, and that's something that Dr. Biden and I found -- that we have a receptive nation. Most people just don't understand the dilemmas that our military, our veterans and their families are facing. But once you explain it and tell the story -- and that's part of what Jill and I feel is our mission, is that we can be that big voice for all of these men and women who are so focused on their missions that they don't have time to advocate for themselves.

And every time Jill and I have set a goal and reached out, we have been received with the same kind of pride and enthusiasm. Because this is a country that wants to support its men and women in uniform. And it is so gratifying to these veterans and servicemembers and their families to know that they live in a grateful nation.

So being able to -- they're feeling this on the ground. So I can't express to you how critical this is to morale, to that transition that sometimes is difficult from military to civilian life. It is critical. And these are some of our best-trained citizens that we have. We have invested millions in these men and women, and they have developed that character of service. They don't want to leave service once they take off that uniform; they just want to find a new mission. And being able to find it within companies that are helping this country grow is the best thing we can do on so many different levels.

So I just want to make sure that we're sharing with other companies this truth -- that these servicemembers, these veterans that are coming out are coming out with the kind of skills and character and abilities that any company would want. And I can say it, but you guys are living it.

Q: To give you an idea, these four private equity firms represent a million and a half employees in this country. If we hired 2 percent of that a year, it would be 30,000. So I think it's important to the vets coming back -- have an opportunity. Because it's not enough to say, thank you for your service. We owe them a debt of gratitude.

And I think it also extends to their family. For example, about a month ago, just in the senior leadership at Carlyle, we raised $3 million in one week for the Marine Scholarship Fund. Because these young people that are coming into college now, their parents -- their father, their mother -- were serving in the early-2000 timeframe. They may have come back injured, they may not have come back at all, they may have come back healthy. But if you're a Marine, that young man, that young women needs an education too.

So it extends into the family to ensure that they're taken care of. And the Travis Manion Foundation is another one that's important. Because, as Steve said, one of the things they do -- the Manion family lost their son and his roommate. In fact, President Obama -- as you may recall -- they were buried next to one another at Arlington. But one of the things they do is they focus on veterans coming back that have high risk for suicide. And they're really engaged in trying to reduce that and getting help to these young men and women.

So it's a comprehensive effort that I think we can go -- that we have to -- actually, I agree with Steve. You need a job. You need a job. But then there are either the collateral impacts of -- children are coming along where their parents may not be able to afford a college education, or need assistance just get past some of the difficulties they may have experienced in combat.

Q: One thing I don't think most people recognize is that this is really effective government, led by yourself and Jill Biden. You've mobilized the different parts of the government -- whether it's DOD or Department of Labor, whatever. And there are all kinds of --

MRS. OBAMA: Coordination. (Laughter.)

Q: Right. It's like the way it's supposed to work in life but doesn't always work that way. But it is interesting, just as a private sector person, to watch how effective things are and how the system -- the governmental system is changing so that we can get to people who are going to leave the service early. You can train them, you can introduce them to things, you can give them mentors -- all kinds of coordination that take the effectiveness of good intention and make it happen.

So you own that one. It's a good thing. And most people who -- on the outside don't see that.

MRS. OBAMA: Well, to the credit of our military leadership, they're understanding these transition needs. They know that we're going to see hundreds of thousands more men and women transitioning. So now, they're thinking very differently about what service means, even during basic training.

They're starting from the very beginning to get these young men and women to think about what their life is going to be after service in a way that they start coming in and they start thinking about the training they're going to have, and how that's going to translate. They're bringing employers onto bases sooner. They're working with companies like yours to help translate that military experience into the civilian workforce. Because many of your human relations folks who are doing the hiring -- that's one of the challenges. How do you take a military resumé if you're not familiar with it and figure out, well, where does that fit into my company?

And the VA, DOD, along with our military leadership in conjunction with all of you have started to help make those translations to make that connection. We wouldn't be here without business, though. And that's -- as effective as this initiative has been from a government perspective, what it recognizes is that we have to have corporate cooperation.

We wouldn't be here with these numbers with the government trying to do this alone. The government doesn't produce enough jobs, but our American companies do. So as well as this initiative has worked on the inside, it would be nothing without willing partners like all of you.

So one of the reasons why I'm here is to continue to express my gratitude on behalf of our men and women for what you have been willing to do to make sure they get the benefits and support that they have earned. So I'm grateful. Grateful and quite impressed.

Q: But it's a win-win game.

MRS. OBAMA: Absolutely.

Q: It's not charity. The people are excellent.

MRS. OBAMA: That's the point, yes.

Q: And if you match the capabilities of the people with the job opportunities, everybody's a winner. And those are the best things to do. Because it's not a stretch.

MRS. OBAMA: I went to a company -- Tina, you'll help me -- they manufacture the chips in computers.

MS. TCHEN: Chips, right. In Northern Virginia.

MRS. OBAMA: And the individual who runs their cleanroom was a veteran. And just in talking to him, he described how -- this is really -- it's a high-stakes job. It's a 24-hour thing. If something goes wrong, you've got to be able to react on a dime. It's very stressful. And one false move, you could ruin a whole batch of product.

And I said, well, how is this compared to your military service? He's like, this is nothing. (Laughter.) It's like, I did this in my sleep. And that's what we have to realize. I mean, these folks have been trained to walk on a tightrope in the air with folks shooting at them, and high stress levels. So you think about bringing somebody like that into your company and being able to operate at high levels, that's what makes it a win-win.

And that's what we want to make sure people understand. The vast majority -- the overwhelming majority of men and women who leave the service are not dealing with mental health issues. They are trained, highly skilled, highly functioning individuals. And their spouses are the same. Because these individuals are managing households, keeping their families together when they have to move every two or three years and start all over again, and maintain a job. You imagine -- you talk about multitasking. You want a military spouse running your stuff. (Laughter.)

But that's what we really need to -- that's the branding we need to put on our men and women who serve this country.

Q: And that's the best thing about this, from my perspective. Because not only is it the right thing to do, but it is actually good business. And what we have found time and again is the training, the skillset, the leadership capabilities, the ability to live in situations like you're talking about means that veterans tend to be better employees, and have longer potential, or greater potential than others.

And so that is I think - there is that cobranding that's really important; that people understand how powerful that is and how this group of veterans is such a great potential talent pool for us.

I do also, just to emphasize the one other thing you said -- because I think we've done and will continue to do, I hope, a good job on hiring more and more veterans. But what I think we're all now trying to do is go to stage two, which is how do we work with our portfolio companies to make these veterans successful? How do we figure out how to make them have long-term careers as opposed to just jobs?

And so I know that we're working with a number of our HR departments and senior leadership at some of our portfolio companies -- I know that our peers are as well -- to start to think about training, mentorship, other types of guidance that I think will even further benefits the veterans and our companies.

Q: A good example would be -- I returned to Carlyle from General Motors. The average time to train an electrician, the Navy spends one year, 52 weeks. Because when you're at sea and a ship loses its power, as the one recently did in the Caribbean, you're not -- you're in a very perilous situation. So you have to have that power plant running all the time. Well, you've got to have electricians that are distributing that power.

And I can't think of -- I had cousins that served in the Navy as well as myself. And they came back and they were master electricians in two years. On the assembly line, we loved getting veterans on there, because the skilled tradesmen that we had on the assembly line took six, seven years to train through the civilian process. They'd come in right out of the service.

And I think because it's a volunteer force now, too many senior and midlevel managers do not understand or appreciate the amount of training that the military does provide, as you suggested. I mean, these are very highly trained, talented young men and women.

Q: Mrs. Obama, one of the other real advantages that we've seen through the Joining Forces initiative is in addition to the employment priority, the balanced support for education and wellness is something that has helped motivate our companies become involved in supporting and partnering with veterans' service organization in their communities. And that's just spotting a whole lot of other very -- activity across the country.

MRS. OBAMA: Absolutely. We have some strong resources out there. And it's also important to talk about those resources, because there are veterans out there who don't even know those resources exist.

So Nicole, we all have worked to make sure that veterans out there understand that there are these strong vet centers, and a number of veterans' services organizations that can connect them into the pipeline of these opportunities. So I have to acknowledge the great work of those service organizations, because they're part of that partnership too. It's not just the government, it's not just the private sector, but it's these veteran nonprofit organizations too who have been working tirelessly on these issues.

And now we make it easier, because we organize ourselves on this end so that they're not trying to figure out these systems of employment and training. So you're absolutely correct.

And the question, as you point out, is how do we continue to not just hire and train, but retain and promote? That's the next level. And many of you are already doing that. And we continue to reach out to new industries as well. Nicole, you may want to talk about sort of our next set of industry hopefuls while we have the attention of folks so that they know we're coming for them. (Laughter.)

COLONEL MALACHOWSKI: Yes, ma'am. We will continue to have employment, obviously, with our three pillars. Employment is going to be continue to be important for Joining Forces over these next 14 months.

And one of the sectors that we are looking at and that we would like to I guess put the challenge out to now is the tech sector. And so I anticipate my team going out and looking at the tech sector and knocking on doors, and looking to see if we can get similar employment commitments, high-level, large commitments to hire our military veterans, as well as military spouses.

And a lot of people have said, oh, the tech sector, you mean coders and software developers? Yes, our military does in fact create some coders and software developers. But it's the tech sector's HR departments, their logistics and supply chains, their event planners -- you name it. There's more to the tech sector than just the coders and the software developers.

And so we're looking to see if we can engage the tech sector in all of those areas. And we'll be knocking on your doors and making phone calls very soon. (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: And we're going to be looking for this kind of leadership commitment too. Because the reason why this works is that all of you set goals, business, focused goals. As you both have said, you had targets, you had clear guidelines, you had training within. And you all will be the model for those other industries.

And the fact that you all are competitors doing it within your own industry is a wonderful model. Because that's what we want all these industries to do, is to share those lessons learned, and to make room for bringing our best talent into our companies.

So we're excited about all that you all have done and will continue to do. And my commitment is that this is something -- and I know this is true for Jill as well -- this is something we're going to do for the rest of our lives, no matter where we are. Because once you meet these men and women -- and this is something I always say -- I wish every American had the opportunity to spend some time on a base, or to spend some time with a military family. Because that's what moved me to be in this position.

I don't come from a military family. Jill does; they're a Blue Star family, as you all know. But to spend time with these men and women, their children; to see the grace and the courage that they exhibit every single day; to sort of understand the true nature of their sacrifice, and how they do this without complaint -- it moves you to want to be better for them, to use whatever platform we all have to shine that light on these men and women so that they return and they live out the healthy lives and continue to contribute in ways that we know that -- we can't afford to waste that talent.

So I'll be knocking at your doors for quite a long time. (Laughter.) I'll be around. And hopefully, we'll have more reason to celebrate these milestones that we reach.

So I'm just grateful to you all, and look forward to more.

Q: One comment I would make, as you're going out and knocking on the door of the people in the tech sector -- there's two things that you bring to them that I think sometimes you may undersell a little bit. And one of them, which I think we're all beginning to understand, is that only 25 percent of Americans are qualified to be in the military. And then you invest a minimum of $100,000 into training of -- a minimum. It could be up to a million. So now that resource has -- as you were saying, shows up. And the time to effectiveness, and even the time to promotion, is -- it's much smaller. So the business case for hiring these people is overwhelming.

And the second thing is the point that Steve was making, is you're bringing an effective supply-side partner, meaning you. Because the coordination that has come from the Joining Forces team in terms of bringing Labor and Veterans Affairs and DOD -- the whole supply side of -- we have the need, we have the demand, but you have the supply. You've coordinated that and gotten it to us in a way that it makes the hiring happen faster.

Because things are happening fast in our businesses. And we say to our people all the time, if it's hard, it'll be slow. If it's slow, we're going to hire less. If it's easy, it'll be fast. And if it's fast, we'll hire more. And in fact, you've helped us to make it fast.

And this point about effective government -- from time to time, we have people from different aspects of the government that come through Blackstone, and they'll go into a vitriolic kind of thing about the government this, and the government that, and I say, hey, hold on a second, let me give you an example of what it's like when it works, when it really works. And this really works.

Q: One thing, First Lady, you said that I think, from a military point of view -- when I got out in '75, right after Vietnam, I went to a senior management meeting of the company I worked for. It was a Fortune 25. The CEO asked the veterans to stand up -- 70 percent of the crowd stood up.

And so going to the point you made that the HR people today in most companies don't understand what the military does -- if you could somehow bridge the gap and try to draw a correlation between a military MOS or a Navy specialty, that how it applies to a civilian HR organization would facilitate to hire -- it's a detail that -- if you're talking to people or you're speaking Greek and they're speaking Italian, it's not going to work.

So I think somehow the military could do some homework to help educate the civilian HR organizations to understand and appreciate the amount of training that goes in. For example, most of our nuclear power plants in this country -- I went to the Nuclear Power School out of the Naval Academy -- they're run by people that served in the Navy. I would say having the guy sitting in front of a nuclear control panel -- were on submarines or on an aircraft carrier at some point in their career. I mean, the nuclear industry has benefitted from the Navy's investment, I would say, at least a half a million dollars in training an officer (inaudible). So that's a detail that I think sometimes we overlook.

COLONEL MALACHOWSKI: It's an interesting point, this idea of skills translation and us being more proactive in educating your HR managers. And I think events like this are exactly what we're doing. This is a great first start of that outreach.

And I do know our partners in the federal government continue to put effort into that very point. And looking at it from a different point, you started us off by saying, I asked the veterans to stand -- I think if more companies did that with their veterans affinity groups, or asked them to self-identify, you actually have that resource too. Your HR shop could then utilize them to better help the resumé-screening process, or to better help the job description process.

And so there's several different ways to come at that. But it's a very wonderful observation. Thank you.

Q: And I do think, as Sandy said earlier, this is not that hard of a sell. And Sandy said he called 15 CEOs of portfolio companies and they all said, I'm in. We have the same story. I'm sure Carlyle and TPG have the same story. You've got probably a hundred CEOs between the four firms -- some of which are technology businesses, by the way, or quasi-technology businesses.

MRS. OBAMA: Great. (Laughter.) All right, sign them up.

Q: You got to start at that top. Because what we found -- you look at a company like First Data -- that was a CEO saying this is a priority. Put someone in charge. We're going to measure it. And lo and behold, they've hired two times the number of veterans that they've hired in the last three years, aggregated this year.

And I just think it won't be that hard to sell. You've got to do what we're saying on the HR. But I think you get a few technology CEOs, you go to a few venture capital firms, do the same thing that you're doing here, I think you'll have a real impact.

Q: Yes, Mrs. Obama, and, Colonel, I was going to add the same point -- that you can actually look within the private equity sector for technology companies. First Data, which is the largest credit card processing company in the world. It's a huge technology company. They have, certainly within the KKR portfolio, probably one of the leading veterans' effort, both around hiring but then around development, retention. They've created a military affinity group. And they're also now realizing that a lot of veterans leave the service and want to be entrepreneurs and small business people. First Data is marketing to them and providing discounted credit card processing and opportunities, support for veterans to grow their businesses.

And then GoDaddy, which is another company we all know, right? GoDaddy was founded by a Vietnam vet, Bob Parsons. GoDaddy is also another technology company that has a very active military hiring program.

Q: I'd just like to say that before we wrap up -- I've been involved in veterans affairs since I got out of the Marine Corps in 1968. I'm not going to try to pull rank, but I will pull age. (Laughter.)

I was frankly a little skeptical about this summit because I thought I knew a lot about what was going and what we were doing within TPG and the TPG portfolio. And I think this has been an astounding two days in terms of what I've learned, in terms of the sort of the cross-fertilization and cross-company and cross-portfolio company sharing. I really had no idea, Nicole, what the military was doing on this; what the -- Soldier Forever, what those programs were, how our companies could relate to those. I think that may have been the single-most valuable -- at least for me personally -- part of this entire two days. I think it's really been terrific.

And I really just want thank you, Steve, and Blackstone for sort of leading the effort on this, because I think it has really been terrific and productive. And certainly, Mrs. Obama, thank you for your leadership on this. Really been terrific.

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. Well, just to leave on a quick story that moved me this year. Jill and I visited a veterans' services center. And we met several vets who were in different stages. There was on gentleman, older gentleman who was a Vietnam vet. And Jill and I were like wondering whether the efforts that we were doing on high with Joining Forces were tricking down at all -- because that's ultimately what we want to know. It's not just words. And are these efforts really being felt on the ground.

And this gentleman said that when he first came back from Vietnam, for many years after that, he never wanted to identify as a veteran. He said he was just so terrified of the reaction he would get that he wouldn't wear a pin or a hat. He said in the last few years, he said he won't leave his house without something that indicates that he's a veteran, because nowadays everyone stops him and says, thank you for your service. We're so proud of you. He says, everywhere he goes.

So he said he makes it a point every day before he leaves the house, he's going to find his pin, his --

Q: I always wear my Marine Corps pin my lapel. And when somebody says to me, thank you for your service. You know what I say? I say, hire a veteran.

MRS. OBAMA: There you go. (Laughter.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady During a Roundtable with Business Leaders at the Private Equity Industry Veterans Initiative Summit Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/321800

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