A Running Start for Political Entrepreneurs: Susannah Shakow on Teaching Young Women Leadership

by Jill Foster on July 3, 2009

Guest contributor Susannah Shakow, founder of Running Start. Susannah is passionate about empowering young women to lead. And over the past eight years, she has founded two organizations designed to raise the political voice of young women in America. In spring 2007, she founded Running Start, a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring young women to political leadership. This new organization furthers the work begun by the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee (WUFPAC). WUFPAC, which Susannah co-founded in 1999, is a national women’s group dedicated to electing young women to political office.

A political entrepreneur sees a need.
I have always been very interested in politics. As a young lawyer in 1998 and 1999, a colleague and I decided to start a Political Action Committee (PAC) that would help address a problem we were seeing with more frequency with each election cycle – there were very few women in Congress and there were no women in Congress who were in the same place in life that we were – young, thinking about starting families, possibly single or unmarried – who were running for office. There were a lot of young men in these situations but not women who were on campaign ballots.

Why is that?
We thought that if we could support young women that were thinking about running for Congress, then we could help to raise the numbers a bit, and so we started the group WUFPAC (Women Under Forty PAC).

The goal was to give money and support to young women under forty running for Congress.

Shaping good elected officials -and- business leadership
The skills that make you a good elected official are very similar skills to those that you need to succeed in business.

The ability to be persuasive, form an idea and act on it, to figure out the solution to a problem and to actually realize the solution, and the networking skills that you need as a politician are so crucial to leading a company and succeeding in business.

You have to motivate other people, have determination to get things done. We help [participants in Running Start programs] breakdown the internalized mental barrier that tells them they cannot succeed in a male dominated field – politics or business.

WUFPAC is still doing really well.
And they have done a lot to encourage young women to run who might not have received support from any other group. It’s often the first group to support these young candidates, and they really greatly appreciate the support.

Confronting a concern
Over the years I became concerned that, despite the hard work we did to fundraise for these wonderful women and all the support we gave them, there was such a small pool of women who were even running for office. The best year we had, to date, there were only 20 women candidates under forty, and there were many times more young men were running.

Teaching women to view themselves as leaders, as viable candidates
It was this small pool of candidates that led a group of us to branch off from WUFPAC in 2007 and start the nonprofit organization, Running Start, with the goal of increasing the number of young women in that pool to think of themselves as candidates, so that we can start earlier to increase that number of people.

Changing attitudes about leadership & politics
The goal at Running Start is to change attitudes not just about politics, but about political leadership.

We want to make politics interesting and exciting and explain to young women why they should care – why it should be important to them.

And one approach to emerging these beliefs is through our Young Women’s Political Leadership Program.

The larger goal
The driving goal remains to help them (women) envision themselves as candidates. If we get more women into office earlier, if we are successful in changing the mindset of these high school girls, and they do end up running for Congress or other offices, then we’ll have a whole group of women who start out at a much, much younger age than we see now.

Value of competing early
Traditionally women wait until their children are grown before they run for office. They do not consider running for office in their communities and states until much later in life. Men corner the political market by running young, conquering the fear of being voted out and working toward the security of incumbency campaigns that all but promise they need not fear being voted out of office simply because they already hold the seat.

Preparing a new leadershp generation
Because women often don’t start so young [in campaigning], they don’t develop the same seniority, and they don’t rise as quickly to leadership positions. We want to get a whole new crop of young women ready early – a new generation for Congress. We have made great strides in just the last five years – a woman serves as Speaker of the House; we had the first viable female candidate of a leading political party in Senator Clinton in the 2008 Primary Campaign.

Despite the great strides these women have made, the women are still outnumbered in Congress and in the leadership ranks, and working to change the mindsets of girls will help address this problem.

Challenges facing participants in our leadership program
First and foremost, we are challenged by the fact that, for many of these girls, the idea of running for office is not one with which they are familiar.
There are not other programs or forces in their lives talking to them about the importance of running for office.

There are not enough people in their lives saying, “You can do this.” If you have always thought you wanted to be somebody who changes the world or does something to help your community, we want to encourage you to shift to thinking,

“[We help high school girls learn the mindset of] “I could do this as an elected official. Instead of lobbying people, or creating non-profits, I could actually be the person who changes the law and makes things better… I could go to the source, and change it.”

They often come in without a lot of confidence in public speaking, or expressing their opinions and ideas, but we really encourage them to do that. And they leave much more energized.

What our program students bring to the table
The girls who apply and are selected for our program are natural leaders and have already accomplished much in their young lives. They come in with confidence in certain skills, and we help them build on those skills while encouraging their confidence in new ones.

They have a lot of determination, and we show them a more direct way to make change.

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