President Obama on Thursday launched a new initiative to help young black and Hispanic man, calling it an issue of “national importance.”

In an event at the White House, Obama was joined by participants in a Chicago counseling program -- Becoming a Man -- that aids urban young men.

Obama spoke of his own challenges as a young man, saying that he had experienced many of the same struggles and had shared those stories when he met the participants at a Chicago roundtable.

“I explained to them that when I was their age, I was a lot like that. I didn't have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn't necessarily realize it at the time,” said Obama. “I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn't always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.”

The president joked that when he first shared those experiences, “after I was finished, the guy sitting next to me said, ‘are you talking about you?’”

“The point was I could see myself in these young men. And the only difference is that I grew up in an environment that was a little bit more forgiving. So when I made a mistake, the consequences were not as severe,” said Obama, praising his family, teachers and community workers.

The “My Brother's Keeper” program launched Thursday unites businesses and nonprofit groups to help young men of color stay in school and find better educational and job opportunities.

The groups participating have pledged to invest $200 million over the next five years, according to the White House.

Obama tied the initiative into his larger push to raise living standards for the middle class and fight income inequality. And he said ‘My Brother's Keeper” would help those most at harm from those trends.

“There are some Americans who, in the aggregate, are consistently doing worse in our society, groups that have had the odds stacked against them in unique ways that require unique solutions, groups who've seen fewer opportunities that have spanned generations,” said the president.

“And by almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century, in this country, are boys and young men of color,” he added.

Attendees at the event included Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and MSNBC host Rev. Al Sharpton.