In this blog post, I wanted to gather my impressions after attending the Town Hall Europe event in Berlin with Barack Obama. It was a memorable day shared with a collection of incredibly ambitious and courageous individuals, all of whom were doing something extraordinary from 37 different countries.
Below is a screenshot of an email invitation I received on March 8, and what a gift it was, my own International Women’s Day celebration! The day after, the phone started buzzing with other friends who had received the same invitation, so we planned to meet, decided what to wear, and thought about what we would ask Obama given the chance. It was an exciting time for sure!
Town Hall Europe took place in Berlin at the European School of Management and Technology on a warm, sunny Saturday.
The day started with networking as we all waited outside the building. Once we were let inside, the event kicked off with some welcoming words followed by a panel discussion including Ben Rhodes, Obama’s speechwriter, and foreign policy adviser, and various young leaders across Europe like French parliamentarian Delphine O and two fellow European Young Leaders: Klen Rajääts, a director of European Union affairs, and Flavia Kleiner, a co-founder and co-president of Operation Libero in Switzerland.
Next, Aminata Touré, the youngest and first black member of parliament in Germany’s Schleswig-Holstein state, welcomed Obama on stage.
“Guten Tag Berlin,” began Obama…
Obama was brimming with wit and commanded a powerful presence, maintaining strong eye contact and conviction throughout. It was not difficult to notice this given that I was sat within five meters of him at the lectern. Obama talked to us about the future struggles in Europe, such as climate change, migration, fake news, the meaning of democracy, how to make democracy work, and how to bring about change in a time of rising populism and exclusion.
He gave social media as an example of something that helps us communicate globally, but it can also serve to spread misinformation and cause conflicts as a result. I liked how he touched upon personal leadership, namely the importance of avoiding burn out and ensuring sustainability in our own actions. Whomever we are, we should also be mindful to take time off in this unrelenting endeavor. He said that he always made time for his gym workouts!
The power of networks and young voices
Americans have the ability to network and gather communities and support and invest in them. I was an exchange student at San Antonio, Texas as part of the Future Leaders Exchange Program between former Soviet republics and the US. I could already see how it was being taught and supported there through speech classes, sports, and in building loyalty toward schools and universities.
In Europe, community culture and networking are gaining momentum, but we can of course do better, including in Uzbekistan. I have worked for many years as a social activist in Denmark and Finland and been invited to join two networks: the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders and the European Young Leaders. Obama’s Town Hall Europe was therefore also an opportunity to reunite with friends from near and far.
Obama was there to empower the voices of young people and especially to get them engaged in political participation for national and EU elections:
“You can change the world. You do not let your grandfather or grandmother decide what clothes you wear or what music you listen to. So why would you let them decide the world you’re gonna live in?”
“The government is not separate from us”
He also encouraged young people to get involved with politicians and speak up about things:
“Sometimes we think of the government as this ‘thing’ that is separate from us. But if we’re active citizens, then part of our job is not just to get government to respond to you — it’s also to improve the government.”
Through his work at the Obama Foundation, he helps equip motivators for change worldwide with the tools, resources, mentoring, and collaboration skills needed for the next generation. According to Obama, this will be the biggest impact he will have in partnering with the next generation:
“If we can teach you how to learn from each other, you will change the world and I can relax and sit back a little bit.”
There was a strong team of community leaders from Finland, including Maryan Abdulkarim, Ozan Yanar, Sean Ricks, and Hassan Maikal. I have worked with all of them on various initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion in Finland. You can see them in the middle photo below. To the right, you will see a dinner gathering of #GMFTILN friends at Each one teach one (EOTO), a Berlin-based education and empowerment project for Black, African, and African-diasporic people in Germany.
After Obama’s speech and Q&A session, he went to shake hands with everyone, and I was lucky to exchange a few words with him. Now onto something very important: Obama does not do selfies, so people of course found other ways to mark this day! When he came to my side of the floor, I said: “Hello, Mr. President. My name is Kamilla Sultanova, and I would like to invite you to Uzbekistan on behalf of the women and young girls there!”
Uzbekistan is a nation of 34 million people in the heart of Central Asia, a region of about 72 million people, around half of which are female. But how much do we hear about this region? He asked about how things were there, and I told him that things were changing rapidly but that it needed more momentum.
I invited Obama to visit Ubzekistan
I invited Obama to visit my home country and inspire our leaders to make Uzbekistan a place where women leaders can also participate in change and reform, because the Obama Foundation actively promotes inclusive leadership and gender equality. I gave his assistant a traditional Uzbek men’s skullcap (called a “doppi” in Uzbek) and said that Obama and his foundation could inspire change in the Central Asian region, where there is a need to attract global ideas and practices, as well as invest in human capital.
The skullcap makes for a nice souvenir, and I have often given them to friends. It is also a symbolic artifact that I am sure will help Obama vividly recall my request. As a father of two daughters and husband to a successful woman, Obama is a strong role model for promoting gender equality. Who could be a better person to inspire many Uzbek fathers to enable their daughters to get ahead in life and have the lives they dream of?
This meeting surely left a lasting impression and a feeling of accomplishment. The event with Barack Obama only lasted around two hours, yet I also had the time to re-connect with around fifty fellow members of various networks in the evenings before and after the event. We bonded and energized. At the event, everything was well-organized with security, badges, seats, and refreshments all set out and checked, so there was plenty of time for networking before, during, and after the event.
I was 18 years old when I left Uzbekistan in 2002. I have come a long way to achieve my current level of recognition in Denmark and Finland. When you move to a new country, you need to start over and essentially recreate yourself! This is a big challenge for anyone, regardless of how extroverted or introverted you are.
What’s more, immigrants do not generally enjoy a good reputation, especially these days. I simply could not lose the battle, though, because I had to prove to my parents and my society that girls can also succeed! While at the Aarhus Technical School (now the Aarhus Business Academy), I worked my way through my study with cleaning jobs at the harbor, cafes, and restaurants of the city before getting my first office job, something that was quite an achievement for an international student in Denmark in 2010.
But there also came loneliness and isolation. With their preexisting friendships and networks, people simply did not have time to invest in communicating face-to-face with a foreign student. What’s more, when I moved to Finland, I saw social media as a further obstacle, so making friends is difficult! Entering the world of civic society and volunteering for various causes, however, has opened doors for meeting people with similar interests and realizing there is more that unites us than divides us. This gave me hope every single time. I came to my own wisdom: All people are equal in their right to attain their own potential, and neither gender nor ethnicity is an obstacle to leading a full life. Of course, I had to go out and create that environment where I could thrive. I did just that, and I was fortunate to find a partner who supported me 100% in it.
What does it take to meet Obama?
I believe you need to be committed to whatever you do—you’ve got to be bold and keep doing whatever you believe in and never “sell out.” Regardless of my several moves between Denmark and Finland, I have always strived for consistency. These are some highlights of how it all started for me:
- started mentoring activities and speaking on behalf of immigrant women in Denmark
- joined the board of Novum, a Danish association for internationals
- signed up for the political mentoring network of the European Women Lobby
- campaigned for diversity days and debates with Copenhagen Municipality
- was selected for the German Marshall Fund’s transatlantic network of inclusion leaders
- arranged seminars and debates on belonging and inclusion leadership in Copenhagen and Helsinki
- trained immigrants through pro bono courses on export careers, sales, and networking
- received the Women of the Decade in Community Leadership award from Nobel Laureate Ouidad Bouchamaoui of Tunisia and Dr. Harbeen Arora of India, who was nominated as one of the 100 Most Reputable People On Earth.
- opened a Finnish branch of Global Dignity with Tanja Lankia (see Global Dignity Girls & Boys). Over four years, I arranged motivational volunteer-driven community events that reached some 4,000 students, such as speaker events, art projects and workshops, and cross-sectoral events.
- reached 4,000 people in Uzbekistan between 2018 and 2019 with the focus being on empowerment, education, and civic engagement through workshops, seminars, and webinars.
Yes, I invested time and money in cultivating these networks, as well as other business-related connections. It was about standing up for social justice, cross-cultural dialogue, fair representation in the job market, youth empowerment, and gender equality.
Meeting Obama only gave me more strength to continue working with people who dare to change the world.
Next time then!
- In fact, I had already been invited to a meeting with Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. in 2011, while I was living and working in Denmark. Due to work commitments at Nordic Tankers at the time, I regrettably had to decline the offer, but I said to myself, “Next time then!” Looking back, I feel honored at being on the list of young leaders invited, as well as being recognized for my civic action work over the years. I believe meeting Obama strengthened the spirit of activism in all of us with the power of one individual, one voice, and one choice that we all have to make a change. “He was here as a former activist; he is a bringer of hope,” said Leonie Eland, a journalist from Germany.
While living all these years in Scandinavian countries, I came upon my own wisdom: We are equal in our right to achieve our own potential, and neither gender nor ethnicity is an obstacle to leading a full life. Obama encouraged us to not just work in communities—he also said, “be able to share YOUR story.” I did last year in my TED talk on empowerment and volunteering. My one wish is for young boys and girls to learn the art of storytelling, to be able to find ways to express themselves, whether it be writing an online diary or publishing on Instagram or Telegram. I want them to get involved in some hobby where find they can find their own voice and space in society.
In the Nordic countries, lifelong learning, entrepreneurship, healthcare, and welfare support is offered by the state. People just need knowledge and understanding of what motivates people, and I believe this provides the energy to achieve the desired result. At the same time, though, this can be challenging for people with ethnic minority backgrounds, because job discrimination and racism still persists in all spheres of society. Just like elsewhere in Europe, populism and nationalism in recent elections show that the situation has only grown worse.
The recent Finnish Parliamentary elections brought discrimination and deep-seated racism into the mainstream. Around 60 foreign-background candidates stood for seats in the election according to Statistics Finland. However, only Iraqi-born Hussein al-Taee and Bella Forsgrén, who was adopted from Ethiopia as an infant, were the only minority-background candidates to join the legislature. On a more positive note, though, women now occupy 92 of the 200 positions as lawmakers, up from the previous record of 85 in 2011. In addition, this year saw more women than ever among the most-voted-for candidates.
Watch a short highlight from Town Hall Europe.
What can I do for you?
- Identify community-based needs for youth engagement and help implement your company’s CSR, both locally and regionally
- Give you the benefit of my significant network of business professionals, entrepreneurs, opinion leaders, media specialists, influencers, and politicians, both locally and throughout Europe
- Offer energizing keynotes and interventions on the future of work, workforce diversity, and recruitment and retention to inspire change towards a stronger, more diverse, and inclusive company culture
- In Uzbekistan, let’s get to work on creating an online platform for youth empowerment and mentoring, one that will offer various way for professional development, skills building, and active citizenship in the country.
- Get in touch today!
Watch the full live transmission here.