Cultivating the Old Girls Club

By Susannah Wellford, CEO of Running Start & Alyse Nelson, CEO of Vital Voices

A few weeks ago, the two of us sat down together on a comfortable couch to chat about life and swap stories from our long friendship. We do this a lot, but this time we had a little company — the 1,200 women from the Generation W conference in Jacksonville, Florida who had come to hear us speak about how women can better support each other. We shared how we have helped each other succeed throughout our careers and how a deep personal friendship has grown as a result.

Here’s the story we told: back in 1998, we met at a meeting at the State Department. We were the youngest two people in the room, and we connected afterwards over a favor — Susannah worked with legendary former Governor Ann Richards, and Alyse wanted a signed copy of her book. Since that day, we have nominated each other for awards, spoken at each other’s events, and connected each other to useful contacts. We consider ourselves sponsors of each other — like mentors, but even better.

Most importantly, we have used each other as a sounding board for some of the toughest professional decisions we have had to make. For years we have used long runs or walks to talk through problems and to offer each other advice. It can be lonely at the top of an organization, and it’s an incredible comfort to have someone to talk to who knows what you are going through.

Our relationship is based on trust — we trust that the other will keep our secrets and not judge us based on the vulnerabilities we express. And even though we started out as professional contacts, we quickly became real friends who have shared some of the most intense good and bad moments of our lives (divorces, children, new relationships). Susannah is godmother to Alyse’s daughter, and Alyse introduced Susannah to her significant other.

Susannah Wellford and Alyse Nelson backstage at Generation W.

We worry that this type of relationship is far too rare, because on paper, we should be rivals. After all, we both run nonprofit organizations whose missions are similar. You might assume we were competitors in the cut-throat world of raising money and securing connections, but instead, we’ve been allies since the start. The way we see it, the work we are striving towards is way too big for any one group. It is only through working together that we can ever move the needle on the enormous culture shift required to bring more women to power. And so, our message to other women is: find someone at your level and sponsor each other. Look for someone who you admire and trust, preferably someone who works in your field. The key is to let go of ego and envy and realize that her success is your success. Only by working together as allies can women ever hope to close the leadership gap.


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, and is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, DC with her twins, Ben and James.

Alyse Nelson is president and CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership. A cofounder of Vital Voices, Alyse has worked for the organization for more than 20 years, serving as vice president and senior director of programs before assuming her current role in 2009. Under her leadership, Vital Voices has expanded its reach to serve over 16,000 women leaders in 181 countries. Alyse serves on Running Start’s Board of Directors.