Chelsea Clinton talks tech, social good and "Texts from Hillary" at SXSW Interactive


Chelsea Clinton gave a rather stiff, rehearsed keynote address at South By Southwest Interactive Tuesday in which she challenged attendees to improve the use technology for social good. However, it was four words she professed during the subsequent Q&A session that drew the most attention from the crowd: “I’m obsessed with diarrhea.”

Though the statement woke the audience up and was met with laughs, Clinton wasn’t joking. She explained that 750 thousand children around the world die each year from dehydration due to diarrhea. This no longer happens in the United States because of access to clean water, Clinton said.

The daughter of former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham-Clinton (and potential presidential candidate) said the problem is serious in underdeveloped countries, adding that it doesn’t bother her to talk about the topic. Clinton used much of her time on stage to talk about her favorite organizations using technology for social good, including a mobile banking startup based in Africa and an agricultural app that helps dairy farmers in Kenya track the fertility of their cows.

Of course, she devoted plenty of time discussing the work the Clinton Foundation is doing to improve global health care, including an initiative to lower the cost of zinc packets in Nigeria. The initiative has, in turn, lowered the diarrhea fatality rate, prompting the sound bite gracing most of the headlines about Clinton’s keynote.

Before Clinton’s speech, Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive, told the audience the former first daughter was asked to speak because an increasing amount of festival attendees are wanting to see more content related to social good.

Clinton said people need to look at existing technologies, compare them and decide which work best, because “innovation isn’t always new.” The technology industry and its entrepreneurs need to spend more time on existing initiatives that are making a difference and less on trying to be the first to roll out new technology, she said.

“We love people to do something that's never been done before. That celebration is important. But we also need to focus on what's working and celebrate those who are second or third,” Clinton said.

As with most keynotes, it was Clinton’s personal anecdotes that seemed to resonate the most. Clinton, 34, said her first computer, a Commodore, was a gift "from Santa Claus" as a child. She sent her first e-mail in high school in the mid-1990s. Her father sent the first presidential e-mail to astronaut John Glenn in space, which he is still "ridiculously" proud of.

Clinton taught her parents a thing or two in the tech department, saying she showed them how to text and charge their cell phones, which was a “very mysterious thing for them at the beginning.” She said her father is now a “pretty good tweeter and texter,” but her mother is the most famous texter in the family, showing the audience the photo of her mother wearing dark sunglasses with phone in hand, which inspired the “Texts from Hillary” meme.

At the age of six, Clinton said she would often debate on current events with one parent while the other moderated. It was expected that Clinton would have an opinion and a point of view, she said.

Clinton did not confirm if she would ever join her parents in the world of politics — but she did not exactly deny it, either.

“I don’t know,” she said. “For a long time, my answer to that question was no.”

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