Get to the Top Together: Five ways women can elevate each other through peer-to-peer sponsorship.

September 26, 2016

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

download-5I met Alyse Nelson in my late twenties when I was a young associate at a law firm and she was a young State Department staffer. Now I am the president of the national nonprofit Running Start, and Alyse is the CEO of the global nonprofit Vital Voices. Over the almost 20 years since we first met in a meeting where we were the youngest people in the room, we have taken every opportunity to help each other get to the top. I have nominated her for awards, and she has nominated me for awards. She has spoken at my events, and I have spoken at her events. When we have difficult business decisions to make, we call each other to talk them over. We introduce each other to helpful people, and we invite each other to strategically important events. I can’t count the number of times Alyse has introduced me to people by saying, “This is Susannah Wellford, President of Running Start. You should know her – she does great work!” And I do the same for her.

This type of peer-to-peer sponsorship is incredibly important. It not only credentials a rising leader as someone to pay attention to, it also helps make leadership less lonely when you can rise alongside a colleague instead of climbing the ladder alone. Different from traditional sponsorship or mentorship, peer-to-peer sponsorship is something that you can start doing right away in your career to elevate your friends and colleagues and to get the support you need to rise. Men already do this for each other (think meetings on the golf course), and we should get smart about doing it too.

Here’s a blueprint for concrete ways you can sponsor the women coming up beside you:

Amplify. The Washington Post had a great piece last week on how senior women in the White House “amplified” each other’s opinions in high level meetings: “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution – and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.” So make sure you speak up to support your colleagues, both in professional and social settings.

Repost. When a Facebook or LinkedIn contact of yours posts an article or an accomplishment, repost with a positive comment. Better yet, post something positive yourself when you hear good news about a peer’s success. Most women still are not as comfortable touting their success as men are, so you can help by posting for them.

Nominate. When you see a call for nominations for an award, nominate a woman in your network. Nominating someone is not a short process, but if your peer gets the award it can be life-changing for them. Take the time to nominate your peer and make sure to tell them when you do. Even if they don’t win, they’ll know you truly support them. Google “nominate a woman” to see dozens of opportunities.

Invite. When you are invited to a work-related event, ask for a plus one and instead of bringing a date, bring a woman in your professional network. Having a date at a networking event is stressful anyway – you should be there to meet as many people as possible which is hard to do with someone on your arm. The key to success in politics and business is networking and being in the right rooms. So help a colleague out by bringing her along and then talking her up to the people you meet.

Recommend. When you are asked who would be good to sit on a panel, attend an event or fill a job, put the women in your network forward. Positive word of mouth goes a long way, and when you promote your peers, you help to get their names known. Remember that “binders full of women” comment from the 2012 election? Well, you actually should have your own binder full of amazing women at the ready when you are asked, “Who would be good for this?”

The great thing about all of these tips is that if you do these things for your peers, they will reciprocate and do them for you. Leadership for women has for too long fallen into the “crabs in a barrel” trap: If only one woman can get to the top, she must do whatever she can to hold the rest of the women down. We are better than that. We need to pull each other up each step of the way so that we can make it to the top together. And an added bonus: Along the way these peers who you support often grow into your closest friends.

Susannah Wellford
founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.

Leading as an Introvert

September 26, 2016

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

downloadWhen I was a child, I realized that I liked being alone – and that most people didn’t. When other girls begged to go to sleepovers or to have playdates after school, I was happier alone in my room, cozy under the covers reading a book. Even my choice of friends reflected this preference: My best friend knew that when she came over she should find something to play with in my house while I did my own thing, sometimes in another room. We got along great.

This wasn’t easy as a kid, and it’s not much easier as an adult. The world loves extroverts, those people who are always “on,” who love interacting and engaging with people and who look totally comfortable with the spotlight on them. The people we see in the news every day – politicians, CEOs, media stars – are all perceived as extroverts, and their extroversion seems integral to their success. So where are the role models for an introvert who wants to lead?

When I speak to groups of young women, I ask them to raise their hands if they think the world would be a better place if more women were in power. Every hand in the room goes up, no matter where I am in the world. But when I ask them to raise their hands if they want to be that woman in power, almost all of the hands stay down. Why don’t they want to run? Well, there are lots of reasons, but one I am so tired of hearing is: “I am a behind-the-scenes person.” When I dig deeper into what they mean by this, they often tell me that they are introverts, and that they could never do the things you need to be a candidate: ask people for money, speak in public, do media interviews, knock on strangers’ doors.

The reason I am bothered by this response is that I strongly believe that anyone can learn to lead. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, speaking in public is hard. You are not going to be good at it the first few times you do it, no matter what your personality, and you only get better through lots of practice and experience. The same goes for asking people for money or their vote. We are all uneasy with asking others to invest in us, and it takes real skill and practice to feel comfortable with the ask. No one is born with these skills, and everyone can learn them.

As an introvert, I know what I am talking about here. Years ago I had the opportunity to become president of the Women Under Forty PAC, a group I had cofounded. I really wanted the job, but I knew that stepping up to president would mean doing all the things I “couldn’t” do as an introvert, particularly public speaking. I had a long talk with myself and realized that this was a fear I needed to overcome because I was deeply invested in the mission of the organization. A few weeks later I was invited to speak on a panel at American University, and I was both incredibly nervous and pretty terrible. But the next time I was invited to speak at an event I was better, and the time after that I even enjoyed myself a bit, and the time after that I felt fairly competent.

Now, as the president of the nonprofit Running Start, I probably look like an extrovert. I speak in public frequently, throw myself into every networking opportunity I can find, and fundraise like a pro. But I am still an introvert: After a speaking engagement or networking with folks at an event, I recharge by being alone. While some people get their energy from being around other people, I get my energy from being by myself. Once I understood this, leadership got easier.

In Susan Cain’s excellent book “Quiet,” she posits that some of the best leaders are actually introverts because introverts tend to think before they act and to focus more on other people than on themselves. And clearly many of the people in the public eye who we think of as extroverts are actually introverts in disguise. So I make sure the young women I speak to know that it takes people from all kinds of backgrounds and with all kinds of personalities to produce the best leaders – and that they should stop hiding behind the scenes if their real talents lie in taking the lead.

Susannah Wellford
founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.

What Can Politics Learn from Uber?

September 7, 2016

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

download (3)In the business world, if you don’t keep your customers happy, you’ll be out of a job. Consumers who love the product experience and the company behind it will buy more, be more loyal and will even be willing to use their social capital to spread the love. Businesses have done a great job lately of listening to consumers and innovating systems that can bridge the gap between customer satisfaction and corporate success. Politics has been much slower to respond to this new customer-driven, tech-focused economy – and would be wise to take notes from the business world.

First, let’s look at how businesses used to be. Industrial-age businesses were designed to produce their products better, faster and cheaper. They were hierarchical and often HIPPO-driven (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). This worked because in a non-tech focused world, time horizons were much longer, competition was seldom global and workers had one kind of job year after year. The mission was to create consistent and predictable business outcomes through astute management. And it was feasible that a leader at the top could make definitive decisions for the whole company based on a tiny fraction of the knowledge available today.

Modern businesses are a different animal. They are tech-native, consumer-focused, globally connected and growth-oriented. Successful ones have shed the outmoded operating and leadership models of the last century and are experimenting with new ways to do business, lead people and interact with customers. They lure diverse talent using powerful missions and values and unleash that talent to tackle new challenges.

Our leaders in government and political institutions can learn a lot from modern business to adapt to the world’s changing landscape. So, what can politics do to respond to these demands?

For starters, harnessing social technology to connect with constituents on the real issues facing their lives is right in front of us. We can also embrace innovative solutions that break down the power structures that help old school leaders prevail, including the power of money and the power that parties play in who gets elected. What if politics tomorrow looked more like Uber? Uber creates an incentive for the two stakeholders – the passenger and the driver – to treat each other in a civilized manner. Both parties are accountable for their actions. If the driver is late or doesn’t drive safely, he gets one star instead of five. If the passenger is rude or abusive, her reviews are likewise downgraded. Dual accountability driven across a social business platform powers a system that is better for everyone.

But we have a long way to go before we can get the Uber experience in politics. Here are some standout attributes that the world of politics can adopt from modern business to create a better system for both voters and candidates:

Become Consumer-Focused. Use technology to access the customer voice, then use it to guide and refine outcomes. Social businesses connect buyers and suppliers and foster conversations from which insights can be gleaned and put to use in developing new paths forward.

Susannah Wellford
founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.


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Chris Baer leads Global Experience Design for Marriott International’s Learning and Development practice and has a background in brand marketing, operations and digital experience design. He holds a certification in coaching from Georgetown University’s Institute for Transformational Leadership and is a graduate of RISD. Chris is a contemporary artist in his free time.


Cultivating the Old Girls Club

September 7, 2016

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

download (2)I got a card in the mail last week that I can’t stop thinking about. I’d lost a close friend, and Patti Russo wanted me to know that she was thinking about me and hoped I was doing OK. I also got a text from Anne Moses telling me she was there if I needed to talk.

Why is this unusual? Because Patti, Anne and I run national political organizations training women to run (Women’s Campaign School at Yale, Ignite and Running Start). We are direct competitors, fighting for the same funding, the same publicity and a share of the same demographic. But the women’s political world that we belong to is groundbreaking in our commitment to work together to get more women elected, rather than to pull each other down to elevate our own groups.

When I speak to women around the world about barriers to leadership, I consistently hear that other women are their worst enemies. This is so widespread that I’d put it in the top 10 of reasons why women feel they can’t succeed. Women are said to be the worst bosses, not supportive of their peers’ ambition and reluctant to pull up those coming behind them. The “mean girls” stereotype is alive and well. Meanwhile, the men have theOld Boys Club which still seals deals on the golf course or over a cigar at the club. Theysponsor each other while we too often hold each other back. How can women hope to succeed in business and politics when we aren’t opening doors for each other?

A few years ago, philanthropist Swanee Hunt created a group called Political Parity to address how we can do a better job of getting more women elected to political office. She invited the leaders of women’s political empowerment groups from around the country to meet regularly to share ideas and find ways to work together. And while I had a passing acquaintance with these women before our Parity meetings, it was at these day long sessions that I developed real relationships with many of them that were both personally fulfilling and that led to innovative partnerships. These meetings remind us that our greatest strength comes from putting our heads together to solve problems, and that as allies we are far more powerful than we would be in our individual silos, carefully guarding our ideas.

At an impromptu lunch this July during the Democratic National Convention, Russo, Erin Loos Cutraro (She Should Run), , Erin Vilardi (Vote Run Lead), Cynthia Terrell (Representation 2020), Tiffany Dufu (Levo League), Jessica Grounds (Project Mine the Gap) and I sat together talking. It can be lonely being the head of an organization, difficult to be a working mother, hard to navigate fundraising, board relationships and keeping staff happy. We talked equally about personal trials and business opportunities. We laughed a lot. I am so grateful to this network of women who support me and make me smarter about how I do my job.

And I’m glad that we are setting a good example for the women we serve that we are stronger when we work together.

Susannah Wellford
founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.

Clinton Can’t Break Every Glass Ceiling

September 7, 2016

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

download (1)In 1920, the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. Yet, 45 years later, black women in the South like Annie Lee Cooper still could not register to vote because of Jim Crow laws. Cooper was denied the right to vote over three times in Selma, Alabama, and upon finally successfully registering, she was fired from her job.

Experiences like this are why black women in America cannot fully identify with white women. As black women, we’ve faced exclusion from the Women’s Suffrage Movement,demeaning stereotypes of deviance and the relentless struggle of defending our femininity. Sojourner Truth attests in her infamous speech “Ain’t I A Woman?” that black women weren’t included in the idea of the ideal American woman. The neglect and invisibility of black women’s existence and their struggle is still ongoing today with issues that black men tend to be the face of, such as police brutality and the school-to-prison pipeline.

And so, as a black woman, when I hear Hillary Clinton say, “I can’t believe we just put the biggest crack in that glass ceiling yet,” I feel that the symbol of her presidency doesn’t really break the glass ceiling for me, even with her platform of avid feminism for women as a whole.

The term “glass ceiling” first emerged in the 1980s to describe the transparent barrier that prevents women and other minorities from climbing up the corporate ladder in the workplace. Particularly in the field of politics, women have historically been underrepresented in leadership. If Clinton wins the presidency, it will be a monumental step for women towards more representative government. To some, the election of this country’s first female president means the shattering of the ancient glass ceiling that hangs over the head of every woman who enters politics.

But the glass ceiling is more than a vivid metaphor of exclusivity that will disappear after one election; it exists as a barrier within the minds of many young women in the way that they view themselves and their capabilities as women of different races, sexual orientations and belief systems. Until every young woman can look at the country’s leaders in political office and see an accurate representation of themselves, the glass ceiling will still exist.

Clinton is a 68-year old straight white woman, and as inspirational as her candidacy and possible presidency might be, there are still young American women who would never consider running for office because of their intersectional identities. Clinton cannot represent every type of woman in America because she has not had the same experience as a black woman, a Latina woman, a Muslim woman, a transgender woman, a lesbian woman or many others. Although she supports many issues and policies that I believe can positively impact women as a whole, I cannot fully relate to her on the experience of being a woman in America.

Representation is about more than the issues that a leader supports; it’s about the archetypal image of a politician being one that reflects every constituent. For me, seeing a black woman serving in a position like president of the United States would break a completely different glass ceiling because of the empowerment that comes from knowing that it is possible to overcome the struggles unique to women like myself. In the United States, fewer than one in four political leaders are women, and within that group, women of color are terribly underrepresented. We still have a long way to go before the glass ceiling for every American woman is broken.

downloadReniya Dinkins was a Summer 2016 intern at Running Start. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., she is currently a rising junior at Columbia University with a major in political science and concentration in sociology.

The Second Choice, and the Right One

August 22, 2016

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

This election season, I have spent a lot of time looking into innovations to make politics better represent us. From using technology to make voting more accessible, to apps that make us more politically aware, to campaigns to bring in new voices, I am encouraged that there is a groundswell to change politics as we know it. This summer I got to test out ranked choice voting to see firsthand whether it really does result in a better choice for the majority of voters. Here’s what I found.

downloadAt our week-long political leadership program in June, Running Start held a campaign simulation. Our 60 high school young women from across the country divided into six teams and choose from a hat to see which campaign positions they would hold, including who would be the candidate. Normally in these simulations, the participants volunteer to be the candidate and they tend to be who you would expect: confident, extroverted and practiced at public speaking. But in ours the candidates were thrust into the spotlight, which took some of them far out of their comfort zones.

This is how Nen Mai, a quiet Kachin girl from Houston ended up being one of our six candidates. Nen is a passionate young woman who emigrated a few years ago from the Kachin State in Burma without knowing a word of English. The first day of the program I never heard her say a word. When she finally did speak to me her voice was so quiet that I had to lean in to hear her. Definitely not the typical candidate. But Nen was at Running Start for a reason. She was an ethnic Kachin and her family had suffered back in Burma. She was granted asylum in America and felt lucky to be here. But she quickly learned that no one in America had ever heard of the Kachin people or had any idea of the persecution they were suffering. She came to Running Start to learn how to be a voice for her community.

Running Start attracts many students like Nen. They have something they want to say, but they don’t know how to be the messenger. They are quiet, shy, unsure of their voice. These people don’t usually get much of a chance to influence others. Especially in politics, we tend to favor the natural extroverts – people who are comfortable in their own skin, socially gifted, and who can speak with a loud, clear voice. These are not always the best people to elect, but just like in high school, politics can be a popularity contest where the captain of the football team is the most likely choice.

So during our campaign simulation I watched Nen struggle. Making a campaign video, speaking in public and networking to support her candidacy were all hard for her. She was not a natural. But she learned some things. If you have a quiet voice, a microphone can make all the difference. Owning your shyness can be incredibly endearing to people. And persistently advocating for your cause will get people to listen to you, if not the first time then certainly by the fourth.

Nen made a big impression on all of us, but I didn’t expect her to win the overall race. The other candidates were strong and confident. Their videos were more polished, their social media campaigns cooler with better graphics, and they were master networkers. The final day the candidates gave speeches. Nen’s was not the conventional best – she was awkward and halting in her speech – but she spoke passionately about her Kachin identity and her mission to educate the world about their struggle. People roared when she was done – in part because they knew how hard it was for her to be up there.

When it came time for voting we gave the students a choice: they could vote to elect their first choice (winner takes all) or they could try ranked choice voting where voters rank candidates in their order of choice, with an instant runoff if no candidate gets more than 50 percent. They overwhelmingly chose to use ranked choice voting. Then we voted twice. First, everyone cast one vote for their first choice. Next we voted again and had them rank the candidates in order of preference, one through six.

Here is what we learned: While the traditional vote yielded a great choice, she only got 30 percent of the total votes. 70 percent of the voters had chosen someone else and were disappointed. With ranked choice voting, no one got over 50 percent of the vote and so the instant runoff was triggered. The result was that everyone’s second choice won with huge support. And, no surprise, it was Nen. Everyone was happy that Nen had won – they all supported her almost as much as their first choice candidate. Ranked choice voting gave the group a consensus winner – as well as allowing someone decidedly non-mainstream to prevail. Maybe it is time to look at new voting systems so that we are all happier with who we elect.

Susannah Wellford
founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.

On Her Own Terms

August 2, 2016

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

Hillary Clinton, our country’s first female major party nominee, presided over a Democratic National Convention last week where the feminine side of leadership was on strong display. From the speeches on the floor to the buttons on sale in the street, unity, love and empathy were the watchwords of the convention. That Hillary didn’t feel the need to exert a macho leadership style at the convention was a tipping point for women’s equality. There was hardly a macho moment to the whole affair, and that in itself was groundbreaking.

download (2)The buttons and T-shirts I saw while walking around the convention were almost all positive. There were some people wearing “Dump Trump” T-shirts, but they were overshadowed by the hundreds of buttons, signs and T-shirts proclaiming “Love Trumps Hate” and “I’m With Her!” All week the theme in the hall was unity and empathy, even in the face of contentious news coverage and lingering dissenters. Michelle Obama spoke about how “when they go low, we go high.” Tim Kaine spoke about how America has “an incredible cultural diversity that succeeds when we embrace everyone in love.” AndPresident Barack Obama asked us “to reject cynicism and reject fear, to summon what is best in us.” Especially compared to Cleveland the week before, Philly was a love fest of epic proportions.

When Hillary took the stage Thursday night she spoke to us not just as a candidate, but as a woman. She spoke openly about the historic nature of her race and what it means for the country: “Standing here as my mother’s daughter, and my daughter’s mother, I’m so happy this day has come. Happy for grandmothers and little girls and everyone in between. Happy for boys and men, too, because when any barrier falls in America, it clears the way for everyone.” She spoke about her faith and her values: “No one gets through life alone. We have to look out for each other and lift each other up. … Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can as long as ever you can.” She spoke about the importance of uniting people as a leader: “I will be a president for Democrats, Republicans, independents. For the struggling, the striving, the successful. For those who vote for me and those who don’t. For all Americans together!” And she spoke about how kindness and love are crucial to what makes us Americans.

All of this is remarkable because women historically have felt great pressure to show toughness: to make sure the voters know that they may be women, but that they are as strong as men, as hard-hitting as men and as unsentimental about serious issues as men. As a senator and secretary of state, Hillary has had ample opportunity to show her toughness and to prove herself in the hyper-masculine worlds of defense and diplomacy. No one can say she isn’t tough and battle-ready. And maybe this is why she is now free to show her softer side.

Women really do have a different style of governing, but they have not always felt comfortable emphasizing this uniqueness. When women are elected to positions of power, they tend to be more collaborative, more creative in solving problems and more willing to work across the aisle than men. (In fact, because of these traits, women in Congress really do get more done.) As those most often in the caretaking roles, they are especially cognizant of the needs of the weakest in society. They tend to govern in a way that gives power to others rather than keeps power for themselves. I know these are stereotypes, but I have spoken with so many elected women over the years, up and down the ticket, that I feel strongly that there is great truth in these generalizations.

Last week we reached a major milestone in women’s rights because the tenor of the convention, and Hillary’s remarks show that we are not only at the point where a woman can be her party’s nominee; she can also do it on her own terms.

Susannah Wellford
founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.

Political Disruptors

August 2, 2016

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

Politics is in need of a makeover. The current party-controlled system has left us with elected leaders who aren’t representative of the people they serve and with barriers to entry that repel those who aren’t already part of the elite. People feel they have no voice, and this is especially true for the millennials generation. Millennials could have real power to affect elections, but they still don’t get out to vote or run for office in numbers that would make a real difference to the political status quo.

So it was refreshing to meet up with several groups at the Republican National Convention who are working to turn politics on its head and make it more accessible for everyone. These groups are using technology to open politics up, make it cool to the younger voter and get rid of barriers that keep youth disaffected and politically disengaged.

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The first is Brigade, which is working to create a social media platform like Facebook – but for politics. Brigade’s app allows users to explore their positions on policy issues and then share them with their friends. Even better, the app tells voters which candidates align with their positions, so that they can be knowledgeable when they go to the polls. Brigade is still relatively new, but as more people join it has the power to make politics cool and fun in a way that will get youth to the polls as informed and enthusiastic participants. During a quick chat at The Washington Post hub, Matt Mahan, the visionary behind Brigade, told me that the goal is not to further silo people into issue ghettos but to get people talking to each other about the issues of the day and what they believe, so that they can better understand the other side.

Where Brigade uses technology to connect voters and keep them informed, Crowdpac,the brain child of British political insider Steve Hilton, uses tech to make it easier for people to run. Fundraising is one of the biggest obstacles to running for office, and people who don’t come from wealth are severely disadvantaged when it comes to launching their campaigns. So Crowdpac has developed an online fundraising tool, like Kickstarter, to help people solicit campaign donations online. Mason Harrison, their head of communications, told me that the best part is that the app allows prospective candidates to gather pledges to weigh support, which become active when the candidate decides to run. Young people don’t give money to political candidates and so they have little influence on who is elected. Crowdpac offers the millennial generation an easy, familiar way to give to political campaigns. Combine this idea with Brigade’s more informed young electorate and we really might see some new people getting into power.

Democracy Works was also there spreading the word about their TurboVote app, designed to make voter registration foolproof and easy. This is good for everyone but could especially help millennials whose voter registration numbers have fallen steadily since 2008. The app takes away a major barrier to youth voting: Millennials move around so much during college and first jobs, and it can be time consuming and difficult to figure out how to vote absentee or register in a new place. TurboVote holds your hand and makes the process easy.

Combined, these new ideas have the power to really change youth engagement in politics. And they are not the only ones working to disrupt politics as we know it. The teams atFairVote and Representation 2020 are working to change our voting systems by encouraging rank choice and proportional voting, systems that many in the rest of the world use because they work better and produce more fair results. And groups like She Should Run, All in Together and of course my organization Running Start are working to break down the barriers that keep women, especially young women, from becoming political leaders.

It was important for these groups to be at the RNC because political reforms that target youth engagement are often dismissed as surrogates for the Democratic Party. Young people do tend to vote more on the progressive side, but getting millennials more informed and active will help create a more robust dialogue around politics that ultimately will help both sides. The growing number of under-40s who are registered independent is a sign that younger people want to be open to vote their mind rather than be told by a party what to believe.

I have always admired the disruptors. We tend to get complacent with the systems we are used to, and the disruptors remind us that we can and should strive for better. There is real hope that the future of politics will be something we can all feel good about.

Susannah Wellford
founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.

Feminism at the GOP Convention

August 2, 2016

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

The fact that I am bringing my women’s empowerment organization to the GOP convention has raised some eyebrows and sprinkled hate mail in my usually cheerful inbox.

Sixteen years ago, I helped create the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee (WUFPAC) to support young women from all parties running for Congress. My work with the PAC illuminated a much larger issue: There were not enough young women of either major party running for political office. This realization led to the 2007 creation of Running Start, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to educating high school and college-age women on how and why they should run for office. At Running Start, my goal is to make elected office accessible and acceptable for young women, regardless of political party. My job is not to shape the political ideologies of these young women but to give them the confidence and tools they need to fight for the issues they believe in at the highest levels.

downloadThe Republican National Convention is a perfect place to spread the word about Running Start. The convention will be attended by politically minded women from all over the country who are interested in politics and curious about what it takes to run. There aren’t a lot of role models for women in Republican politics. Democrats outnumber Republican women 76 to 28 in Congress, and many conservative women tell me that it is refreshing to find a nonpartisan group interested in getting them elected.

The nonpartisan nature of my organizations has raised eyebrows before. Years ago, the head of a major women’s organization pulled me aside at an event to tell me, “Honey, we all say we are nonpartisan, but that doesn’t mean you have to allow Republicans on your board!” There seems to be an unwritten rule that if you are working to empower women, you must be a liberal group. And even when women’s groups do support Republicans, many of them only open their doors to the pro-choice crowd. At a meeting of women’s organizations that I attended, a prominent Democrat declared that women who aren’t pro-choice aren’t real women.

I disagree. I made Running Start nonpartisan because I believe that electing women from both sides of the aisle is the key to a better functioning, more effective government. And the research bears me out: Women are more likely to cosponsor legislation across the aisle and to work harder to find common ground. The idea that only certain women should be encouraged to run is extremely counterproductive. There should not and cannot be a standard for how women in politics should think and act. Right now Congress is arguably the most divided it has ever been. The collective effect of having women in office is strengthened by having women on both sides of the aisle working together to sponsor legislation and push important issues otherwise left untouched. Bipartisan legislationsuch as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, The Breast and Cervical Cancer Mortality Prevention Act, The Women’s Business Ownership Act and The Violence Against Women Act, to name a few, shows that regardless of a woman’s political ideology, she understands what is it to be a woman, and will legislate accordingly.

All of the Republican women I know believe in gender parity. As one of our alums, Antonia Okafor, told me: “Being a feminist and being conservative are not mutually exclusive. A conservative feminist believes that women should be able to reach any height because of ‘equal opportunity.’ True feminism does not diminish the role of men but rather focuses on the right of women to become everything they want to be.”

My goal at the RNC is to offer conservative young women a home where they can learn how to rise up in a party that doesn’t always do the best job to encourage women’s participation. There is no EMILY’s List for Republican women; they need all the help they can get to increase their numbers in politics.

Running Start’s presence at the convention is in no universe an endorsement of Trump. (In fact, as a nonprofit Running Start can’t endorse.) Trump’s misogynistic, racist rants are an affront to everything that Running Start stands for. My dislike of Trump isn’t a partisan thing’ it’s a moral thing. There have been plenty of strong Republican women who have spoken out against him, including Rina Shah who was removed from her position as a Washington, D.C. delegate as a result, and Kendal Unruh, a high school teacher and RNC delegate who raised $3.5 million to spread the message that convention delegates can and should vote their conscience.

We need to embrace strong female leaders who will force party officials to think about women’s issues and sponsor legislation that affects women. I am a Democrat, but my organization is not a reflection of my party views. Running Start embodies the idea that if Congress is a more representative body it will serve all people better. Staying home next week sends the message that Running Start doesn’t care about all women. So stop sending hate mail and come watch us inspire young women to run in Cleveland!

Susannah Wellford
founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.

Where Are the Young Women in Election 2016?

May 23, 2016

With Hillary and Carly making history, why aren’t more young women interested in politics this cycle?

susannah-5In 2008, with women at the top of presidential politics, Running Start saw a jaw-dropping 30,000 girls apply for 50 spots in our political leadership program. But despite the success of women in election 2016, this year we only had a tiny fraction of that number apply. What’s going on?

Each year our nonpartisan nonprofit organization brings 50 high school girls from around the country to DC for a week of political leadership training. Most years we get hundreds of applications for these spots. In 2008, when we received such a record number, the girls were applying a few weeks after the historic election that saw the first Black man win the presidency and Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin close behind. Boxes and boxes of applications had to be filed and piled wherever they could go. In the end, we picked our class of young women, but were left reeling from the onslaught. We wondered: would this happen every time prominent women drew the national political spotlight?

susannahIn 2016, we finally had the chance to find out. With Hillary Clinton a front-runner for the Democratic nomination and Carly Fiorina a major player on the Republican side, we braced ourselves for a year like 2008 when our mailman threatened to quit and our office looked like it belonged to a hoarder. But now that applications are in and tallied, we find that instead of thousands of applicants, we are left with a mystery. In this “year of the woman” we got the same number of applications that we got last year, maybe fewer.

In 2008 we attributed the glut of applications to the role model effect. When something seems unattainable, it can be incredibly powerful to see someone like you doing it. It makes your goal seem possible instead of unreachable. Researchers have even seen it work in very short periods of time: when a woman is shown a portrait of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, she does a better job at public speaking.

Running Start uses the power of role models in all of our programs. When so many of the faces in the news don’t look like the young women we train, finding and showing them the ones who do lets them visualize themselves in the halls of power. Suddenly, political leadership goes from an abstract goal to a concrete possibility.

With women so prominent this election cycle, why didn’t the role model effect bring thousands of girls to our program?

We deputized our high school intern Lauren to do some detective work. She looked through a very unscientific sample of 2008 applications and noticed some interesting patterns. Maybe those 30,000 applications in 2008 were less about a woman running for president and more about politics finally looking like something young women could be proud to be a part of.

DSC_0007 (7)One of my favorite quotes from a 2008 application is from a young woman in California: “When I was growing up, a Black female president was an improbable idea. After the recent election, however, I’m convinced that this great nation is ready for some big changes.” Another student wrote: “Although Hillary Clinton did not make it to the oval office, I believe that soon, perhaps in my lifetime, a woman may be seated at the big wooden desk.”

Most importantly, they talked about a barrier being broken: no longer did old white men have a monopoly on the presidency. One young woman wrote: “I told my father that I wanted Barack Obama to be our next president. My father looked at me and said ‘Grace, unfortunately, a Black man with the name Barack Obama will not be elected as President of the United States in my lifetime’. No man has ever been happier to be proven wrong.”

DSC_0012 (5)Flash forward to 2016, and that barrier is already broken. Sure two women made it incredibly far, but that is the way it is now. You don’t have to be old and white to win. It’s easy to take the trailblazing candidates of this cycle for granted. For many of the girls applying to our high school program, big-name women seriously running for president is the only paradigm they’ve ever known. At Running Start, we know that not nearly enough women ever consider political leadership. But to young women surveying the political landscape maybe it seems like we’ve already solved the problem.

It is also clear that the stunningly negative tenor of the current election has turned youth off. The window of time when politics was hopeful and admirable is closed. “Being a politician has many negative connotations, nowadays,” says one 2016 applicant. Another despairs, “it has become a fact that politicians are full of empty promises.”

Young women also are acutely aware that running as a woman carries even more baggage. “I have noticed that women are treated very differently in politics—our ideas are ridiculed, and we’re seen as more emotional and ‘b****y,” a 2016 applicant wrote. Another pledges to stand against “a derogatory standard of women in the media” that causes girls to be “fearful of disparagement and feel less competent than males to lead”. Studies show that women are less likely to run for office for these same reasons.

These points of frustration come from young women motivated enough to apply to a political training program. Young women as a whole are probably much more cynical about politics.

To find out more about why young women this year aren’t as interested in political leadership, we’re asking young women to speak up and tell us what their thoughts really are on election 2016.  Our #YoungWomenSpeak poll is up on Twitter right now.  We’ll continue the conversation @rsprez and @runningstart and share what politically engaged young women have to say about this election.


Susannah Wellford is the President & Founder of Running Start, a national nonprofit organization that trains and inspires young women to run for political office.  Susannah is also the co-founder of Women Under Forty Political Action Committee, the only bipartisan organization in the U.S. financially supporting women under the age of 40 running for Congress.  Susannah is a recognized expert in the arena of women’s political leadership.