NPR: In D.C., A Politics Camp For Girls

July 5, 2017

This year’s Young Women’s Political Leadership program participants were featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition.

Reaching Women Where They Are

June 15, 2017

Allyson Carpenter at YWPL 2016

My mom is the type of woman I wish I could vote for — honest, hardworking, and passionate about her community. A hair stylist by trade and child advocate by passion, my mom has unfortunately never considered running for office. For many women, like my mom, politics is inaccessible. Really amazing women in our communities never find themselves on a ballot, even when they are probably the most qualified.

Many incredible organizations share the mission of getting more women elected to political office. Luckily, they have also begun to figure out that this includes women of color. They’re figuring out that this includes lesbian, bisexual, and trans women. But it also includes women living in poverty. It includes single mothers. It includes women with disabilities.

If these groups will continue to be successful, it will be because they are intentionally seeking women from diverse backgrounds and experiences. It must be because they remain committed to knocking down barriers for all women, making public office accessible for everyone. If we reach gender parity in government, but nearly all of the women represented come from privileged backgrounds, we are still at a deficit in representation. If we truly want to see more women in government, we have to meet women and girls where they are.

During my first few years in Washington, DC, I was overwhelmed by the availability of resources to young women like me who were considering running for office.  Originally from the Midwest, my experiences made me consider, “How can we reach women from distant and/or rural communities? How do we inspire women who may never hear a female elected speak at conference? How do we engage women who may not be college educated?”

Running Start met me where I was — literally. I walked into my college residence hall and somehow ended up in a daylong conference called Elect Her. Lured by the free breakfast, I stayed for an experience that would alter my path forever.

They didn’t just convince me that I could run for office one day — they convinced me that I could do it right then. The only thing that stood in my way were election laws that don’t allow a 17-year-old college freshman hold elected office. But six short months after attending Running Start’s Elect Her training, I ran to represent my neighborhood, which included my college, in Washington, DC’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission. With only one semester and two political science classes under my belt, I was elected to office.

I owe a lot of credit to Running Start for giving me the tools I needed to mount a successful campaign. I owe them even more credit for the work they do to reach everyday women who come from modest means. Every year, Running Start holds more than 100 campaign trainings for high school, colleges, and young professional women across the country.

This summer, I am interning at Running Start and get to work on my favorite program, the Young Women’s Political Leadership Program, which runs June 19th – 24th this year. We will host 65 high school girls, ages 13 – 18, in Washington, DC for a weeklong conference exposing them to what it takes to run for office. Understanding the socioeconomic barriers that exist for many girls, Running Starts provides scholarships for more than half of the program’s participants.

This isn’t meant to brag but rather to shed light on an example of going the extra mile to reach women and girls who might otherwise never consider running for office. As we continue to work toward getting more women in office, we have to keep accessibility at the front of our minds.

Much of the work I’ve done at Running Start this summer centers on making political office more accessible for everyday women, using data and civic technology. I am currently leading the charge to create a campaign manual for women and girls that encapsulates all that I’ve learned while attending fancy political leadership schools and running my own campaigns. By the end of the summer, this manual will be available to all of the women and girls who attend Running Start programs.

One organization can’t solve the accessibility problem in our politics entirely, but together, we can begin to chip away at the barriers that keep so many women out of the fold. If we continue to make accessibility our primary focus, one day, I will be able to vote for someone like my mom.

Allyson Carpenter is a Harry S. Truman Scholar currently interning at Running Start. She studies political science and community development at Howard University. She is the youngest person elected to office in the Washington, DC history, having served as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in 2014 at age 18. She most recently served on the National Organizing Committee for the Women’s March on Washington and hopes to inspire more young women to run for office.

Call Out Sexism in Politics: Women who run for office should deal with gendered attacks head-on.

May 31, 2017

Rep. Avery Bourne at Running Start’s Young Women to Watch Awards

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

No one doubts that women face more scrutiny that men for their looks. The scrutiny starts early, and no female is immune – we are judged by our bodies, our attractiveness, our hair and our clothes. If we hold leadership positions, we can almost guarantee we’ll be judged more on the way we look than on how we lead.

As political strategist Celinda Lake said, “When women’s ideas are threatening or women’s power is threatening, you often see them referred to in terms of their appearance.” Lake continued, “It’s a way to distract, to trivialize and to divert attention from the important things women are saying and doing.”

Last summer, at the 2016 Republican National Convention, I was shocked to see pins and T-shirts for sale, criticizing then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the most personal ways. One awful example: “KFC Hillary special. 2 fat thighs. 2 small breasts … left wing.”

But this behavior isn’t unique to Republicans – nor men. As Susan Chira wrote recently in the New York Times, “Misogyny, it seems, remains a bipartisan exercise.” She cites a recent tweet from a woman asking: “Why does Kellyanne Conway always look like she’s still drunk & wearing makeup from last night’s bender?” Yes, attacks on appearance often come from women, too.

When you are running for office as a young woman, you are not just criticized for your appearance – you are often sexualized as well. In 2010, Virginia Democratic candidate Krystal Ball had an old racy photo used to discredit her campaign for Congress. Last year, someone sent out fake nude photos of Illinois State Rep. Avery Bourne to her campaign mailing list. And Alejandra Campoverdi, currently running for Congress in California, said her stint as a model has been used to show she isn’t a serious candidate.

Sexual shaming has always existed, but it is so much more prevalent now thanks to social media. As Campoverdi wrote recently in Cosmopolitan, “From this generation forward, every woman will have grown up in the digital age where, unless she sat in a turtleneck at home for all her teens, she will have pictures readily available online that can be used to shame her.”

In my role with Running Start, I speak to thousands of young women every year about running for office. These twin issues – scrutiny over appearance and worry about social media skeletons – come up in almost every training. My job is to persuade women that they don’t have to look “perfect” and that shaming over social media content is something they can stand up to. Authenticity is my buzzword.

True, when the world judges you by your sexuality and your appearance, as it clearly does, no amount of authenticity can fully shield you. I end up urging them to be authentic while doing my best to prepare them for the nastiness of how the world will sometimes view them.

But I also ask young women to take part in the #ILookLikeAPolitician campaign, where people who don’t look like traditional (read: old, white, male) candidates post photos showing that they, too, can run for office. And I refer them to the Name It. Change It. campaign, which calls out out the media when they attack female candidates based on their gender or sexuality. The campaign tells candidates to deal with sexist or gendered attacks head-on, instead of avoiding the comments or trying to ignore them, as conventional wisdom used to advise.

I saw this approach work beautifully with Krystal Ball. Instead of hanging her head and dropping out of the race when her reputation was attacked, she held a press conference and addressed the controversy. She didn’t win the race, but she gained a lot of supporters that day.

As she wrote in The Atlantic in 2011:
People may not have the right to know about your personal, private life … but they do have the right to know whether you are honest, candid and forthcoming. When you resist the scrutiny, you magnify the underlying embarrassment of the photo or whatever it is and you bring into question your own candor and forthrightness…and that is fair game. Let the media savage you a little bit. Your dignity gets a bit ruffled, but the storm blows over and people know that you don’t duck and hide.

I hope more young women will follow Ball’s hard-nosed advice. If instead, as Campoverdi wrote, “these women decide to sit this one out because of [fear of personal attacks], we will miss out on talented, transformational women leaders in every public-facing field, especially politics.” And that would be the real shame.



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.

The Inspirational Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

May 2, 2017

As a Latina working in the women in politics world, I often push for greater representation of Latinas. We are underrepresented in the halls of government, and our stories and leadership matter. When I was just starting at Running Start, I had the honor to meet Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Latina elected to Congress. She couldn’t have been warmer or more enthusiastic about our work. That was plenty for me to become a fan, but she added icing to the cake.  A few days later, I received a letter of support from her—on her official stationery! It now sits in a special spot on the windowsill by my desk, framed and proudly displayed.

The Congresswoman’s support for Running Start has never waned. She served as our 2016 Republican Co-Chair, she’s hosted several of our Running Start/Walmart Star Fellows as Congressional interns, she made a speech on the House floor in praise of our mission (below), and she is always one of the first elected officials to say yes when we ask her to speak to our young women to inspire them.

I was sad to hear the Congresswoman announce that she will not seek reelection in 2018. We will miss one of our best champions in Congress and one of the best role models for girls and young women interested in politics. Just this year, two more Latinas followed in her footsteps and started their first terms in Congress: Congresswoman Nanette Barragán and the first Latina Senator, Catherine Cortez Masto.

To give her the sendoff she deserves, I reached out to some of our alums who have worked in her office and asked them what it meant to them to work for Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen. They all wrote back right away—I couldn’t believe it; that never happens! But the Congresswoman is special. The speed of their responses was a testament to the loyalty and dedication she inspires. 


Lucinda Borque, Fall 2015 Star Fellow @Andrealucinda

I was one of the lucky ones. I say this because I interned for the honorable Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. If you ever visited Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s office, you would be reenergized with her famous Cuban cafecito (coffee) and her staff. I was asked what Ileana Ros-Lehtinen means to me and I find myself lost for words. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen opened doors for me—I did not know what a Republican truly was until I interned for one. She truly reaches across the aisle, someone who always educates, and someone who truly cares about the present and future of our country.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a woman of honesty, integrity, and dedication. She is the voice for the voiceless: Ros-Lehtinen is a woman of character who always speaks her mind and speaks the mind of her people. She takes the time to speak to her constituents and she takes the time to get to know her interns. (I was able to intern for the Congresswoman after completing the Running Start Star Fellowship.) She even gave a speech praising my mother for all the hard work she has done raising her daughters. Being a Latina and a first generation college graduate in my family, and hearing those words being said to my mother will forever be engraved in my memory. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is an inspiration and I thank her for allowing me to be a part of her world. She is my inspiration to keep striving and when I run for office, I can look back and know, I am a lucky one!    


Alexandria Murphy, Fall 2016 Star Fellow @murphalexandria

I am saddened to see that my former boss Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen is retiring, but amazed at the incredible career that she has had in public service. I have no doubt that because of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, many future leaders will emerge through her inspiration and leadership. Working for the Congresswoman as a Running Start Star Fellow was simply the greatest time of my life so far. Each day we were greeted in the office with cheerful hellos and cafecito, and the Congresswoman listened to our updates on life, even from the interns. She took the time to make every single person feel important and worthy of being there. Working on Capitol Hill is magnificent in and of itself, but to work for a female Member who so dearly cares about her district and her staff and who paves the way for those that come after her is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I couldn’t have imagined being a part of a better experience in Washington. There are three portraits in the Capitol which inspire me: Jeannette Rankin, Shirley Chisholm, and (in the House Foreign Affairs Committee Room, as a beacon of hope for future women in public service) the undeniably resilient and forward thinking Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.


Taylor Johnson, Fall 2015 Star Fellow LinkedIn

Photo by Erin Schaff

Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen has been an inspiration to me and thousands of young women across our country with political aspirations. Many know her as the first Cuban-American Member of Congress, the first Hispanic woman ever elected to Congress, or the first woman to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee. I know her as the woman that other Members of Congress look up to. I have come to know her as a fearless individual who never hesitates to put her party lines aside to stand up for what she believes in and what is truly best for South Florida. During my time in Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen’s office, I have sacrificed many early mornings and a few late nights and I have developed a serious dependency on Cuban coffee, but all of those sacrifices become worth it in a job where you truly believe in what you do and the Member that you represent. She has taught me to never give up or give in when you believe in something, and that having a crazy work schedule is no excuse to not play on the softball team. She has set the bar on having a successful marriage and loving your children unconditionally. One of the things I will miss the most about the Congresswoman will be the daily phone calls that always begin with a loud, “Dexter Wayne! Love of my life!” that bring all business in the office to an immediate halt.

Above all, Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen taught me to not sweat the small stuff, to always take time to laugh throughout the day, even when there are a million and one things left to do before the sun sets. The personal impact she has had on me will stay with me throughout my life, and I could not be more grateful for the opportunities that have been afforded to me while working for Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen. I am honored to serve her and the constituents of the 27th Congressional District of Florida through her last day in Congress.


Alexandra Curtis, Fall 2014 Star Fellow @AllieCurtisRI

My time as a Running Start Star Fellow in Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen’s office was invaluable to me and many other Running Start alums and how we see our place in the chambers of Congress. Ileana took a genuine interest in her interns, and would even ask us about our thoughts on issues and legislation. The fact that Republicans and Democrats alike are saddened by the news of her retirement is a testament to her honor and legacy. She has been one of the most effective leaders I have seen in action and thanks to the example she set, I left her office knowing that as a young woman I have a place in Congress and I am not only capable of serving in that capacity—I am needed. The Congresswoman embodies all that Running Start stands for and I’m grateful for her exemplary dedication to the program and her leadership in Congress.



Sara Blanco is a women’s empowerment advocate. She graduated from Swarthmore in 2012, where she studied English literature and gender and sexuality studies, and joined Running Start soon after. Currently pursuing a master of public policy at the George Washington University, Sara co-chairs their Women’s Leadership Fellows Program after participating last year. Sara lives in her hometown, Arlington, Virginia. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of Running Start.

I stood firm and I was powerful.

April 4, 2017

I am eighteen years old, 4’11”, the daughter of a driven Moroccan Muslim father and outspoken Jersey-born Jewish mother, and #ILookLikeAPolitician. In fact, I plan to run for a seat in the United States Senate. Politics may not run through my blood, but certainly politics permeated the air I breathed growing up inside the beltway. My family, teachers and my classmates’ parents fostered my interest in running for office. They are newly-arrived immigrants, single fathers, passionate mentors, lawyers, founders of nonprofits that protect children, entrepreneurs, ambassadors, and even Capitol Hill’s most influential policymakers, businessman and lobbyists. My community taught me the importance of social justice and making a difference. Spending a great deal of time overseas and peering back at America from that new perspective inspired me to speak for others with no voice and to listen more than talk.

By eight, I was attending political rallies, campaign meetings, and had the opportunity to meet my favorite presidential candidate. As I got older, I considered myself to be an aspiring political activist, not an aspiring public servant. Nonetheless, at 15, I was selected for Running Start’s Young Women’s Political Leadership program (YWPL), a summer program for 60 high school girls designed to inspire them to run for office. YWPL offers workshops on networking, public speaking, how to fundraise, and how to run a campaign, and it instilled a newfound confidence in all of us. On the first day, a Running Start staffer asked us how many planned to run for public office; eight girls stood. When asked the same question a week later, all 60 of us stood. This was a true testament to the work and influence of Running Start.

Photo by Erin Schaff

Competing to serve as Running Start’s Ambassador was an opportunity to help spread the message of the #ILookLikeAPolitician campaign. The movement counteracts the lack of existing female role models in our nation’s government and highlights the way that sexism complicates the lives of women seeking public office. I know that when I run for office, I’ll have an important perspective and experience to offer. My platform will be steeped in my family’s philosophy that progress includes understanding our commonalities and celebrating the power that comes from our differences. I also want to bring my commitment to intersectionality and my vision for the future to the table. To get these principles into the political arena, I’ll face some unique challenges as a woman. Women entering male-dominated fields are often told to “man up.” I want to flip the script and show young girls that they can “woman up” and be successful, powerful individuals. I decided that running for Running Start’s #ILookLikeAPolitician Ambassador position would inspire other young girls, maybe even ones from similar blended backgrounds, to run for office. 

Competing at the Young Women to Watch Awards on March 20th was both an inspiring and humbling experience. The audience included

Photo by Erin Schaff

impressive people at the tops of their fields, which made me more nervous.  Receiving feedback on my “stump speech” from Congresswoman Joyce Beatty as we fought to hear each other above the roar of guests networking was surreal. The Congresswoman shared one particularly compelling piece of advice. “If you forget something,” she told me, “stand firm. Plant your feet, and make them wait. Because that next sentence is sure to be powerful.”

Photo by Erin Schaff

In the three minutes when I stood on the balcony at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, I thanked Susannah Wellford, Melissa Richmond, and countless others, on both sides of the aisle, for their commitment to seeing first-generation faces like mine running for office and preparing us to take action. I celebrated the ways in which Running Start has changed my life, by simply telling me that I look like a political leader. I proclaimed that “men run for office to be something and women run for office do something. I want to do something!” I stood firm and I was powerful. 

And it worked! I am incredibly honored to have been elected Running Start’s 2017 #ILookLikeAPolitician Ambassador. Having the opportunity to speak before Members of Congress, role models, and my mother, and boldly declare that I want to and will run for office was an extraordinary experience. On behalf of Running Start, I am committed to promoting tolerance and, most importantly, working to empower young girls to realize their potential as our nation’s leaders of tomorrow.

I look like a politician.

Sophia Houdaigui is Running Start’s 2017 #ILookLikeAPolitician Ambassador. She is a senior at Sidwell Friends high school who will attend Barnard College (an affiliate of Columbia University) in the fall, where she will join 2,500 young women who are “majoring in the unafraid.” Sophia’s participation in the Young Women’s Political Leadership program ignited her interested in politics, which grew when she served as Director General of her school’s Model United Nations club. Sophia also interned for CARLAC (Council for Arab Relations with Latin America and the Caribbean) in Morocco and worked on projects relating to food security and educational challenges faced by young girls in rural Morocco. Sophia played a small role in trying to shatter the glass ceiling by knocking on doors, making calls, and managing a Teens for Hillary Twitter account during Secretary Clinton’s historic campaign. Sophia is excited to start her first job on the Hill with Senator Tim Kaine next month.

Making the #ILookLikeAPolitician Movement

February 17, 2017

“You’re the hottest woman [at our office].” “Good thing you’re working out, because you wouldn’t want to get porky.” “Look at that face!” “She’s the best looking attorney general in the country.” “I like my girls chubby.” “What are your measurements?” “I’m going to treat you like a lady … now act like one.” Surprisingly, none of these are Tinder pick-up lines inspired by the “negging” strategy promoted by so-called “pick-up artists”. These are comments made about women in politics by their colleagues and opponents. The office in that first line? It’s the United States Senate.

At Running Start, we train young women to run for office and challenge them to change how we see women leaders with our #ILookLikeAPolitician social media campaign. With each #ILookLikeAPolitician post, they make the case that all young women look like leaders. And in our entry to the Project for Awesome video contest, we reached new audiences with this critical message.

But we can’t make this culture shift alone.

Because even though we equip the young women we train with the skills and confidence they need to defy stereotypes and expectations, it will take a larger movement to create a world that accepts and celebrates what they have to offer. In fact, some of our alums have faced incredibly inappropriate comments when they attain public office: “Hey, new girl.” “You look so young, you could be a teenager.” “You’re cute!” “I’d love to see nude photos of you.” And this isn’t idle chatter: research shows that when you talk about the appearance of a woman in politics, even positively, you reduce voter’s confidence in her qualifications.

Young women are listening, and some of them have told us that the prospect of being the object of remarks like these discourages them from pursuing political leadership. And many of the 10,000+ young women we’ve trained share that they didn’t see themselves as leaders before, in large part because so many of the political leaders they see around them don’t look like them. About half of our participants and trainers are women of color, who see even fewer role models representing them in politics. This is the classic “you can’t be what you can’t see” problem (as famously described by founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman, and echoed by founder of The White House Project, Marie Wilson). Our #ILookLikeAPolitician campaign counteracts both the scarcity of existing role models and the sexism that turns women away from leading in politics. We’re harnessing the power of social media to shift the leadership narrative.

At the end of last year, Running Start took this effort to the next level by participating in the Project for Awesome, a video contest that raises money for charities. We released a video explaining the importance of what we do and we harnessed our network of alums and supporters to share it and vote for us so that we could compete for a grant. Although we didn’t win a grant, together, we accomplished an important goal. We added to the growing chorus of voices encouraging young women to run for office, which helps inspire more young women to get into politics and makes more people around them receptive to it. It’s exciting to know so many people supported our contest entry—knowing that we have so many backers renews our commitment to continue building the pipeline. There are young women who are hungry for the skills training and mentorship we offer, and we’re ready for them.

Please keep sharing our video and make videos of your own! Make a video telling us why you look like a politician and post it using #ILookLikeAPolitician. All of us together can make a stand for young women: our video and yours will declare that we believe in their power and abilities.


Sara Blanco Headshot 2016 - CroppedRunning Start Communications Director Sara Blanco is a women’s empowerment advocate. She graduated from Swarthmore in 2012, where she studied English literature and gender and sexuality studies, and joined Running Start soon after. Currently pursuing a master of public policy at the George Washington University, Sara co-chairs their Women’s Leadership Fellows Program after participating last year. Sara lives in her hometown, Arlington, Virginia. Find her on twitter @sarablancosays.

#ILookLikeAPolitician Flyers

January 18, 2017

Print these #ILookLikeAPolitician flyers to pass out at events! For example, Running Start alums will be handing them out at #Inaug2017 and #WomensMarch. Click on the below thumbnail to download and print.

NOTE: When you print do NOT “fit to margin” or similar. It is already perfectly scaled so that it’s easy to cut.

Running Start Takes Sole Ownership of Elect Her Program

November 16, 2016


Running Start Takes Sole Ownership of Elect Her Program
Founded in 2007, Running Start Has Trained More than 10,000 Young Women

Wednesday, November 16, 2016—Washington, DC—Since 2009, Elect Her has trained 7,500 college women to run for student government. Running Start, a national nonpartisan, nonprofit organization located in Washington, DC, has just transitioned from partnering to taking sole ownership of the program. Elect Her was developed with AAUW, the American Association of University Women. Running Start credits a generous $100,000 grant from the Coca-Cola Foundation with making this change possible.

“We are so excited to take on the whole scope of Elect Her as we grow the program,” said Running Start’s President and Founder,Susannah Wellford. “This allows us to plan a smart, strong expansion of Elect Her. We thank AAUW for working with us on the program over the years and for making this a smooth transition.”

Elect Her is a daylong workshop that trains 1,750 college women at 50 colleges each year in the practical skills they need to lead on campus. It has been held at 86 schools and in 36 states (as well as in Mexico and Jamaica), for a total of 225 workshops. About 50% of participants and 50% of trainers are women of color and 99% of 2015 participants reported that they would recommend Elect Her to a friend. Of the 2015 participants who reported running for student government office, 76% won their elections.

Elect Her addresses a leadership gender gap in colleges and universities that continues in the halls of government. Congress is less than 20% women and more than 50% of Congresswomen participated in student government. Elect Her addresses the lack of parity in campus leadership and trains young women in the skills they can use to run for public office. Running Start works to build the pipeline of women candidates and Elect Her plays a crucial role in that effort.

“As a young woman who has personally seen what Elect Her can do, I am thrilled that Running Start will use this opportunity to bring it to even more young women,” said Allyson Carpenter, alumna. After participating in Elect Her, Allyson ran for Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Washington, DC and became the city’s youngest-ever elected official. This year, she became the first woman elected President of Howard University’s Student Association. “I can’t wait to see what Running Start can do with Elect Her moving forward!”

“At Coca-Cola, we are investing in and supporting programs that empower women and girls” said Katherine Rumbaugh, Vice President of Government Relations, Coca-Cola North America. “Through programs like Running Start we can help empower young girls and women to reach their dreams.” Thanks to Coca-Cola, Running Start can continue to create a movement of young women with the skills to confidently take on leadership positions at their colleges and universities who also know that they are qualified and ready to seek public office.

In partnership with the National Campus Leadership Council, Running Start will hold an Elect Her Summit February 17-19, 2017, in Washington, DC, to celebrate relaunching the program. The Elect Her Summit will bring together women in college student government to reinforce their leadership and build a network of women ready to lead in politics.

Running Start is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to training young women to run for political office. Find Running Start on Twitter @runningstart, on Facebook at, and on the web at


Melissa Richmond, Vice President, Running Start
O: 202-223-3895 | C: 818-903-9150 |

Available on Twitter:



For a PDF of this press release, click here.



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.