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Michelle Obama’s Post-White House Entrepreneurial Era Is “Unprecedented”
In a first, the former first lady is on a mission to cement her legacy by shaking up the food and beverage industry with health-conscious startup PLEZi Nutrition.
There was a time when former First Lady Michelle Obama, like so many other busy parents, chose easy-for-you over good-for-you. Then, the warning came. Obama recalls a visit to the pediatrician when she was told if she wasn’t careful with her food and drink choices made out of convenience, that her children would be at higher risk not only for cavities and stomach aches, but for diabetes.
“If I’m being honest, I was a little ashamed,” she says in retrospect of that encounter with the doctor.
That much Michelle Obama divulged earlier this year at the Wall Street Journal Future of Everything Festival. There, she announced the launch of a new health-conscious food company called PLEZi Nutrition, a public benefit company designed to give back for the public-good of which Obama is co-founder. Also announced at its launch, was an initial donation of $1 million to FoodCorps' Nourishing Futures initiative, which advocates for students across the country to have access to nutrition education and free school meals by 2030. PLEZi Nutrition plans to more broadly invest 10% of its profits into promoting kids' health.
The company, headquartered in Washington, D.C., says in a statement released last May its mission is to create higher standards for how the United States makes and markets food and beverages for children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports childhood obesity is a serious problem in the U.S. with obesity prevalence among children and adolescents still too high — nearly 20% percent of children.
PLEZi is starting off with a beverage described as a flavored juice drink with less sugar than average leading 100% fruit juices, no added sugar, plus fiber and nutrients, like potassium, magnesium, and zinc. It launched with Michelle Obama’s bold announcement, her signature relatability and a noticeable departure from other first ladies’ post-White House eras.
Since the end of the Obama administration, the former first lady has authored two more books including her memoir “Becoming,” founded Higher Ground production company with her husband and 44th President Barack Obama, hosted podcasts and served as executive producer and presenter of the Netflix children’s cooking show “Waffles + Mochi.”
But with the launch of PLEZi Nutrition, Michelle Obama has, in her own way, embarked on a path unlike any other former first lady. Some first ladies scholars describe the entrepreneurial endeavor as “unprecedented” or “uncharted territory.” Michelle Obama, in her own words at the launch, also recognizes the pivot: “A little different, huh?”
Indeed, to some first ladies scholars, this is different.
When first ladies leave the White House, they typically have been involved in setting up foundations that perpetuate their legacies through literacy or education, domestic or globally, according to Nancy Kegan Smith, retired director of the presidential materials division at the National Archives and Records Administration and co-author of “U.S. First Ladies: Making History and Leaving Legacies.” Lady Bird Johnson, for example, was a conservation activist with a focus on wildflowers. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin was established by Johnson and actress Helen Hayes in 1982 and named in Johnson’s honor in 1997.
“I really feel that [Michelle Obama] building a business, which is a for-profit, but for the public good, … is unprecedented,” says Nancy Kegan Smith, retired director of the presidential materials division at the National Archives and Records Administration.
“I really feel that [Michelle Obama] building a business, which is a for-profit, but for the public good, … is unprecedented,” says Smith.
Yet, America’s presidential first ladies are not complete strangers to business. The first, first lady, Martha Washington, was tasked with running the Mount Vernon farm in George Washington’s absence. Or, take Eleanor Roosevelt, (married to the four-term President Franklin D. Roosevelt) who in 1959, post-White House, did a commercial for margarine and was paid $35,000 for it. The money was given to charity and is why she did the commercial, according to Smith. However, it stirred up controversy.
“It really tastes delicious,” Roosevelt says while sitting at a table with a stick of margarine on a butter plate in front of her in the commercial. “That’s what I’ve spread on my toast. Good luck.”
Those post-White House first ladies’ endeavors compared to Michelle Obama’s nutrition company are simply “not the same thing,” Smith says.
Similarly, yet notably different, is former First Lady Melania Trump’s non-fungible token venture. The NFTs give purchasers unique proof of ownership of the digital art and video assets. Her first release in 2021 was an auctioned NFT painting of her eyes entitled “Melania’s Vision.” Since then, other collections have been released with tenuous success as a result of volatile cryptocurrency values. When first launched, Trump in a statement said the venture would support her “ongoing commitment to children through her Be Best initiative.” In 2022, the former first lady was seen on Fox News awarding a “Fostering the Future” scholarship.
Again, scholars are quick to point out that these examples show how other first ladies explored their options in business and charity, but none quite compare to Michelle Obama co-founding her own enterprise and creating a commercial product.
Katherine A.S. Sibley, history professor at Saint Joseph’s University and author of “Southern First Ladies: Culture and Place in White House History,” agrees Michelle Obama’s venture stands out. “There’s nothing really quite like this,” she says.
The first lady’s initiative
The goals for Obama’s PLEZi Nutrition may sound familiar. During the Obama administration’s two terms, one of the former first lady’s main campaigns was the “Let’s Move!” initiative launched in 2010. It was dedicated to helping parents raise healthier children through education and healthier food in schools, ensuring access to healthy, affordable food, and modeling physical activity. By the time the Obamas left the White House in 2016, the “Let’s Move!” initiative resulted in tangible change — improving the federal school nutrition standards, garnering meaningful commitments from food companies and restaurants chains to lower calories, salt, sugar and trans fat in their products; and modernizing the Nutrition Facts label.
“[The East Wing provides] a platform to advocate for policies, [and] you have a platform to make partnerships possible that frankly, it's very difficult, sometimes, for the West Wing to do.” — Deb Eschmeyer, former executive director of the “Let’s Move!” initiative
Those accomplishments over a short time frame are made possible with the power of the East Wing, says Deb Eschmeyer, former executive director of the “Let’s Move!” initiative and former senior White House policy adviser for nutrition. “[The East Wing provides] a platform to advocate for policies, [and] you have a platform to make partnerships possible that frankly, it's very difficult, sometimes, for the West Wing to do.”
Eschmeyer, who now serves as chair of the PLEZi Nutrition Kitchen Cabinet, credits the success of “Let’s Move!” to when President Barack Obama signed an executive order creating the Task Force on Childhood Obesity in 2010.
“Mrs. Obama was the one that kept saying that everybody has a role to play, whether you're a doctor, a parent, a teacher, a farmer, or school food service director, or corporations,” Eschmeyer says in a recent Zoom interview with East Wing Magazine. “She tried to pull every lever where she could to make it easier on families.”
That was the multi-sector, multilevel approach taken within the White House. Years later, after her husband’s second term, things would change.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act
In 2010, public school lunches received a monumental nutritional upgrade under the Obama administration when Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) with bipartisan support. The legislation was designed to help ensure every American child had access to the nutrition they need to grow into healthy adults, exactly what Michelle Obama had been advocating. Among the act’s goals were reducing America’s childhood obesity epidemic by helping schools provide more whole grains, fruits and vegetables with school lunches.
By 2019, the United States Department of Agriculture under the Trump administration rolled back the Obama-era school lunch policies, lowering nutrition standards for grains, flavored milk, and sodium in school cafeterias. Then, the Trump administration contended that school administrators struggled to find food products that met the Obama-era standards, the New York Times reports.
“So [Michelle Obama] feels, I believe, a real emphasis to try to resurrect healthy eating because this is a passion of her heart. This is one way she’s saying ‘Well, you guys can gut this legislation, but I’m still going to fight you’.” — Nancy Kegan Smith
“Now, so much of the act that was passed has been gutted,” Smith says. “So [Michelle Obama] feels, I believe, a real emphasis to try to resurrect healthy eating because this is a passion of her heart. This is one way she’s saying ‘Well, you guys can gut this legislation, but I’m still going to fight you.’ In this case she is fighting internally.”
A year after the Trump administration changed the HHFKA, in 2020, a study published in the journal JAMA found the act was “associated with better dietary quality for lunch among low-income, low-middle–income, and middle-high–income students” that participate in the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provides nutritionally balanced, free or low-cost lunches to students.
Researchers say their study provides the “first nationally representative evidence for the original, more stringent formulation of this policy’s association with one of the intended health outcomes — the overall nutritional quality of students’ dietary intake.” The study further states it is unclear whether the higher levels of dietary quality for students will continue if nutrition standards of the HHFKA are altered.
“[Michelle Obama] has really been vindicated by serious research,” says Diana B. Carlin, a professor emerita of communication at Saint Louis University and co-author of the newly published book, “U.S. First Ladies: Making History and Leaving Legacies.” “So, she did have an impact and it was a measurable impact, which oftentimes [first ladies] initiatives you can't find something substantively measurable that really had an effect. That one did.”
“[Michelle Obama] has really been vindicated by serious research,” says Diana B. Carlin, a professor emerita of communication at Saint Louis University.
Michelle Obama also recognizes the limits of her reach, even from the White House.
“If you want to change the game, you can’t just work from the outside,” she says in May of this year during the launch of PLEZi. “You’ve got to get inside. You have to find ways to change the food and beverage industry itself.”
Future first lady entrepreneurs?
As PLEZi Nutrition enters its fourth month since the launch, consumers are starting to see the beverage in four flavors on shelves of national chains like Target, Walmart and Sprouts. The company’s social media campaign includes healthy eating tips, messaging that encourages kids to drink more water and even a boost saluting the former first lady from CBS News personality and Oprah Daily Editor-at-Large Gayle King.
In the future, Eschmeyer says PLEZi plans to expand beyond its first kids beverage to other beverages and snacks. And as far as what schools are serving for lunch, Eschmeyer adds that they hope the meal standards, which are currently under review, are updated and that they follow the latest science and allow for only water and milk.
“But if that doesn’t happen,” Eschmeyer says, “we’ll have a ready line of products that meets the updated standards.”
Time will tell what the ultimate impact will be of Michelle Obama’s post-White House entrepreneurial venture. But, it does say something about where women are in society right now, according to Carlin.
“First ladies have always been a model of what an ideal American woman should be,” she says. The number of women entrepreneurs are on the rise with more than 6,800 American, women-owned firms that employ people, according to the United States Census Bureau. “So [Michelle Obama] is emblematic, again, of where women have moved within society.”
“First ladies have always been a model of what an ideal American woman should be,” Diana B. Carlin says. “So [Michelle Obama] is emblematic, again, of where women have moved within society.”
Scholars agree the post-White House period is approached uniquely by each first lady. In the future, there may not be another first lady entrepreneur. The kind of initiatives undertaken while in the White House may dictate if future first ladies could parlay them into future businesses. Most of the initiatives by first ladies haven’t made the crossover into the business sector.
“Whether the public likes it or not, [first ladies] have a right when they leave office to do anything they want. It depends on their likes and how much they care about their legacy and what they want that to be,” Smith says.
If anything, first ladies scholars agree that it’s too soon to tell how history will regard Michelle Obama’s startup. So they will watch and wait.
But, for Michelle Obama, there’s no time to waste.
“I’m impatient,” she says in May during the PLEZi launch, “especially on this issue.”