Failing Up: Reflections on Running Start’s Resilience Summit

Thank you to our friends at RepresentWomen (a nonpartisan organization working to advance women’s representation and leadership through reforming recruitment practices and voting systems) for this excellent post from one of their interns, Katie Pruitt, and for allowing us to share it. You can find the original post here.

Katherine Baird looked put together. As the minister of congressional, public and governmental affairs, she oversees important business on behalf of the Canadian Embassy. Last Thursday, standing fall, shoulders back, and eyes ahead, she addressed a room of over fifty high-achieving young women: “I am failing right now,” she said. Relief flooded her face as she confessed that she feels that she is unqualified for the job she currently holds.

Baird took to the stage at the Resilience Summit, an event hosted by Running Start and the Canadian Embassy, to air out her failures. Young women are significantly more likely than young men to believe that they will be “unqualified” to run for office in the future, an idea that seems to stem from a fear of failing. The purpose of the summit was to help young women dispel those fears and embrace failure as a necessary complement to success. Attending the summit was a transformative and moving experience that challenged the way I think about women who fail in the public eye.

Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Debbie Dingell, & Will Hurd speaking at the Resilience Summit.

Many of the politicians at the conference talked about how they dealt with losing elections. Congressman Will Hurd (R-TX), the sole male speaker, discussed how he lost his first congressional race at age 32. He admitted that he had seriously considered applying for a job at a fast food restaurant outside of his district where no one would recognize him. Instead, he joined a cybersecurity firm doing meaningful work before successfully running again four years later. “You have to refine that process [for failing],” Hurd said. Though losing felt catastrophic at the time, it ultimately provided another opportunity for Hurd to contribute to his community.

Melissa Fitzgerald (The West Wing & Director, Advancing Justice Initiative, NADCP) & Charlotte Clymer (Press Secretary for Rapid Response, HRC) speaking at the Resilience Summit.

Other speakers discussed the day-to-day failures they’ve experienced as politicians. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) spoke about the votes she regretted making in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and against the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Though she faced backlash when she later changed her position on these issues, she’s said that she was glad she made the decision to speak her mind. “I don’t care what they say,” she said. “There’s no substitute for self-satisfaction.”

Moderator Cierra Jackson (#ILookLikeAPolitician Ambassador) and panelists Nishita Henry (Chief Innovation Officer for Consulting, Deloitte), Jeunesse Wright (Agent & Owner, State Farm Insurance Agency), Mara Palkovich (Vice President, Consumers Energy, CMS), Jessica Hogle (Senior Director, Federal Affairs, PG&E), & Marla Blow (Founder & CEO, FS Card) speaking at the Resilience Summit.

Several prolific businesswomen sat on a panel where they discussed the failures they’ve faced at work, from missed promotions to problems at home that bled into the workplace. “You have to stop thinking of it as a failure that stopped you,” Chief Innovation Officer for Consulting at Deloitte Nishita Henry said. Instead, she urged the audience to think of failure at work as an opportunity to reconsider end-goals.

Rebecca Thompson (Vice President, Deliver Strategies) speaking at the Resilience Summit.

Among the many speakers who opened up about their failures, I was particularly moved by Rebecca Thompson, vice president of Deliver Strategies. In 2014, she lost a Democratic primary for Michigan state representative by a mere six votes. The loss devastated her both emotionally and financially. She felt that she had betrayed her younger self by giving up on her childhood dream of holding office. After a period of reckoning and healing, she decided to follow a different path and went to work for a communications firm with the goal of helping other women of color run for office. Though at the time she was heartbroken, Thompson now feels that she made the right decision. “It’s okay to dream new dreams,” she said. As women we’re taught to work twice as hard as our male counterparts to get the promotion or win the election. Stepping down, even when that position is bad fit, can feel like a betrayal of all the effort that went into getting to that position. It was comforting to hear Thompson candidly discuss how she dealt with that guilt.

Running Start Staff (Susannah Wellford, Sara Blanco, Jessica Kelly, Natalie Caraballo, Reniya Dinkins, & Melissa Richmond) & Running Start Alum Imani Ross speaking at the Resilience Summit.

I’ve mulled over the conference quite a bit in the days since. The conference made me realize that though I am bombarded with stories of female success, I hardly hear positive stories about women’s failures. Every election cycle, we get excited for all the women running, and later for the women who win. But what about the women who fall short of the podium? These are the stories we need to tell more often: of the women who pick themselves up and try again, or change their path altogether.

Canadian MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes speaking at the Resilience Summit.
Resilience Summit participants sharing stories of struggle and bouncing back during an open mic session.

Katie Pruitt is an intern at RepresentWomen. She is a rising junior at Swarthmore College, where she is pursuing a double major in Political Science and Economics. She has studied voter suppression and institutional sexism in the classroom and is eager to work with RepresentWomen to address these issues. Katie has volunteered for several women candidates’ campaigns, including Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run. During the school year, you can find Katie editing news articles for Swarthmore’s only print newspaper The Phoenix, leading tours around campus, or listening to political podcasts.