Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brought the crowd to its feet in a standing ovation at the opening keynote session of this year’s Society for Human Resource Management conference being held in Atlanta this week.

Rice, who now works as a political science professor at Stanford, covered everything from immigration to education to politics in her address, which was followed by a Q&A session with CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien.

Of particular note to HR/benefits professionals, Rice said “these are very consequential and tumultuous times. We’re going to have to fully tap our human potential — all human potential. [And] the core essence of human potential is to give people access to education.”

Rice also spoke about the importance of mentoring as a way to bridge skills and knowledge gaps, and effectively prepare the next generation of talent. “It’s great if you can find a role model who looks like you, but had I been waiting for a black Soviet-specialist role model I’d still be waiting,” she said. “My mentors were old white males because those were the people who dominated my field.”

Whether through corporate mentoring or enhanced educational opportunities, Rice said that, “This is the country that’s been most able to mobilize human potential. In the 21st century, when human potential is key to greatness in the world, we are in danger of losing that. But I’m an optimist. I believe we’ll get it right. Free markets and free people hold the key to the future.”

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