Women in Politics Feel Like We Can’t Say “I Don’t Know.” Here’s Why We Have to.

By Jessica Kelly, Running Start Chief of Staff

As much as I hate to admit it (and as much as my little sister will be shocked to hear me admit this), I don’t know everything.

It feels vulnerable to admit what you don’t know and ask for help. Women leaders (and other folks who don’t look like those who have traditionally been in power) can feel pressure to appear as though we know everything. We tend to over-prepare, so we don’t ever have to say “I don’t know,” and risk being seen as unqualified.

But as I was recently reminded, saying “I don’t know” is when the magic happens.

Last month, Running Start staff spent two days straight asking for help, and it was incredible. We were fortunate enough to be chosen by WAKE International for a Tech2Empower Impact Fellowship, where 10 women from the tech sector came to DC to learn about our work and advise us on a variety of tech projects we were struggling with.

The staff of Running Start have a lot of strengths and skills. I could write a whole blog post on each person and the amazing things they bring to the table. But collectively, we lack expertise in some areas, like data management, user experience design, and email marketing.

Getting advice on those topics (and more) from a group of women who work in those fields for a living was a huge privilege. Now, Running Start has a list of new tech tools that will make our lives easier and concrete next steps to bring our work to the next level. But more importantly, we also have a brand new community of women who are invested in our work and want to help us change the face of politics.

As part of the Fellowship, we even invited other women in politics organizations to come together at an event and share a “pain point,” or something their organization struggles with, so that the visiting experts could offer advice. It was unusual to have an event where people shared their struggles and asked for help — normally we only share successes in such a public forum.

It got me thinking about how running for and serving in office means getting used to asking for help constantly.

When running, you need to ask for volunteers, donations, and votes. No one can run for office alone. Once in office, every elected official has a team who rounds out her knowledge. No one person can know the details on every issue — so much so that electeds have entire legislative teams to divide the work.

I encountered this idea again only a few days ago.

Every Friday, during our weekly leadership sessions with the Running Start/Walmart Congressional Fellows, one Fellow starts the day off by giving a report about a piece of legislation that is coming up in Congress. The goal is to help one another stay up to date on what’s happening on the Hill, so they can be the best Congressional interns they can be. Last week, the resident engineer of the group gave an illuminating talk about a bill regarding energy storage facilities (watch out for Leela’s future YouTube series explaining complicated science for policymakers, as I am currently trying to convince her to make one).

After the incredible engineering lesson, another Fellow reflected on how beneficial it is to have people in office who come from specific career backgrounds, like engineering, healthcare, or education. She worried that she didn’t have deep expertise in anything the way Leela did in engineering, but rather a little bit of knowledge on a lot of things, and wondered aloud about her qualifications to run.

Fall 2019 Running Start/Walmart Congressional Fellows on the steps of the Supreme Court

I had barely opened my mouth to respond when the rest of her cohort jumped in with supportive and wise advice. “You don’t need to be an expert,” one person said. “You’ll know how to bring together a team to support you where you need it — every Member of Congress does.” Even at the very beginning of their careers, in their early 20s, these young women already know that being authentic and vulnerable is what is going to make them successful.

Essentially, everyone needs to ask for help, even at the pinnacle of their career. It’s humbling to admit what you don’t know, but amazing things happen when you do. You become a more effective leader. You bring other people into your mission and your work, creating a larger and more diverse community of support. And you boost the confidence of the people around you, because it feels great to be asked for help.

I will leave you with a challenge: find two people in your life who have a skill you lack and ask for their help this week.

Maybe it’s tech expertise like the Tech2Empower advisors who helped Running Start. Maybe it’s a friend who is good at handling difficult conversations who can prepare you for a tough meeting. (I’m about to ask my partner, who writes for a living, to read over and give honest feedback on this blog post!)

The more people you ask for help, the more people will be engaged and invested in your future and your cause. Women in politics are under incredible pressure, both from themselves and others, to seem like the perfect expert on every topic. So it’s up to all of us to resist that urge and show the next generation of women leaders that they already have what it takes, because they have a community surrounding them who are excited to roll up their sleeves and help out!

Connections — The Power of Mentoring Young Women

At Running Start, our trainings provide each young woman with the 3 C’s that prepare her to lead in politics: confidence, capabilities, and connections. That last C — connections — is why we have created the Running Start Network. More on that later, but first: here’s what mentorship through Running Start has meant for some of our amazing alums.

Ewurama Appiagyei-Dankah, Misaki Collins, and Tarina Ahuja have collectively participated in the following Running Start programs: Elect Her, High School Program, Congressional Fellowship, and Run with Running Start.

How has mentoring contributed to your success so far?

Ewurama Appiagyei-Dankah: “The mentorship of others has been crucial to me in my very nascent career. One of the most important mentoring relationships I have has helped me get an internship and my current job, and the relationships I have with peer mentors have helped me make many critical decisions in the confusing time period that is early adulthood.”

Misaki Collins: “I owe practically every single one of my successes to mentors that believed in me.”

Do you have any advice to other alums who might use the Running Start Network for mentoring purposes?

Ewurama: “Some of the best advice I’ve ever read about mentoring comes from Stacey Abrams, who said ‘What I learned early on is if someone said I want to help you, believe them. But I understood what they meant is help me help you.’ Running Start has ties to an array of amazing, accomplished people, and these people are participating in the Network because they are invested in cultivating young talent — so don’t be afraid to reach out to them, and help them help you!”

Misaki: “I would HIGHLY recommend for all alum to utilize the Running Start Network regardless of how they were previously involved in Running Start. Whether it was years ago that one week in high school or the Congressional Fellowship that got you involved, there is an entire network for women who are eager to empower you.”

Tarina Ahuja: “Mentoring has the capacity to inspire and instigate change in a young person. My mentors have opened doors for me and guided me in cultivating my passions. The Running Start Network is an incredible opportunity to meet and connect with phenomenal women. It has allowed me a portal into a world of movers, shakers, and changemakers that I aspire to be like.”

“Don’t be afraid to connect with and seek mentorship from people who may seem vastly different than you. Hearing from people with different lived experiences than you can be extremely valuable.”

Running Start mentors and mentees at the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in September 2019.

Any other words of advice?

Ewurama: “Embrace the fact that there are many kinds of mentors you will form relationships with who each serve a specific and unique purpose. Some mentors will know you very intimately and offer you advice based on their closeness with you, and others are more high-level mentors who you connect with about a specific topic or for a specific ask. Both relationships are equally important in different ways and seek out mentors of each kind. Also, don’t be afraid to connect with and seek mentorship from people who may seem vastly different than you. Hearing from people with different lived experiences than you can be extremely valuable.”

Misaki: “I’ve been amazed by the network’s support for one another and how it truly transcends party lines, geographical distance, age, etc.”


Curious about the Running Start Network?

It’s a private Network of Running Start alums, mentors, and other friends intended to facilitate the kinds of relationships that help young women succeed in politics and beyond.

The Network makes it easy to create formal and informal mentoring relationships between younger peers and also between high-level advisors and younger Running Start alums. Simply search for users by name, location, area of interest, or another factor you find compelling — then send them a message to start the conversation. The Network is also where Running Start posts various resources and events, and where you can post jobs and other opportunities.

For those wondering if you have space in your life to start mentoring someone else, consider that investing in others’ development can lead to lower levels of stress for both mentors and mentees. The Network allows you to set your preferences so that others know what types of interactions you are open to, whether they be in-person meetups, phone calls, video chats, etc. Busy working professionals can take advantage of the Network by setting limits on the number of interactions you are able to have each month.

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant has said that the difference between a good mentor and a great mentor is that “A good mentor is someone who’s willing to meet with you and give you advice, but a great mentor is someone who recognizes that there’s no one person that could give you all the advice that you would need. So a great mentor is someone who would actually introduce you to other mentors and help you expand your network of advisors.” If you know others who would like to mentor young women on Running Start’s Network, send them a referral link!

“A great mentor is someone who would actually introduce you to other mentors and help you expand your network of advisors.”

If you are ready to support young women in their path to leadership in politics, join us on the Network!

Summer Reading for Future Congresswomen

The 11 Books Recommended During Running Start’s 2019 High School Program

This June, Running Start’s annual week-long, residential political leadership program brought together 50 high school women leaders from across the country. In addition to meeting their Member of Congress and participating in a campaign simulation, the participants heard from over 40 speakers from the world of politics and leadership. A common theme among all of these speakers’ remarks? Book recommendations! Here are all of the books our expert speakers say helped them on their leadership journey.

The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — -What Women Need to Know by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay

Confidence. We know it when we see it or think we do. And we want it for ourselves. The authors of the New York Times bestseller Womenomics deconstruct this essential, elusive, and misunderstood quality and offer a blueprint to bring more of it into our lives. Ultimately, they argue, while confidence is partly influenced by genetics, it is not a fixed psychological state. You won’t discover it by thinking positive thoughts or telling yourself (or your children) that you are perfect as you are. You won’t find it either by simply squaring your shoulders and faking it. But it does require a choice: less worrying about people-pleasing and perfection and more action, risk taking, and fast failure. Inspiring, insightful, and persuasive, The Confidence Code shows that by acting on our best instincts and by daring to be authentic, women can feel the transformative power of a life on confidence.

Represent: The Woman’s Guide to Running for Office and Changing the World by June Raphael and Kate Black

Turn “can I do this?” into “yes, I can!”

Join the growing wave of women leaders with Represent, an energetic, interactive, and inspiring step-by-step guide showing how to run for the approximately 500,000 elected offices in the US. Written with humor and honesty by writer, comedian, actress, and activist June Diane Raphael and Kate Black, former chief of staff at EMILY’s list, Represent is structured around a 21-point document called “I’m Running for Office: The Checklist.” Doubling as a workbook, Represent covers it all, from the nuts and bolts of where to run, fundraising, and filing deadlines, to issues like balancing family and campaigning, managing social media and how running for office can work in your real life. With infographics, profiles of women politicians, and wisdom and advice from women in office, this is a must-own for any woman thinking of joining the pink wave.

Go Fish: How to Catch (And Keep) Contributors: A Practical Guide to Fundraising by Nancy Bocksor

This 66-page book is full of practical advice about how to ask for money, organize finance committees, host profitable events, write successful fundraising letters and other best practices for political and non-profit fundraisers. You’ll learn how to develop successful strategies in this step-by-step guide that demystifies the fundraising process. In Go Fish, Nancy Bocskor has translated her years of fundraising experience into the definitive fundraiser’s handbook.

7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

Stephen R. Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People®, continues to be a best seller for the simple reason that it ignores trends and pop psychology and focuses on timeless principles of fairness, integrity, honesty, and human dignity.

One of the most compelling books ever written, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People®, have empowered and inspired readers for over 25 years and played a part in the transformation of millions of lives, across all age groups and professions.

Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt by Arthur C. Brooks

In Love Your Enemies, the New York Times bestselling author and social scientist Arthur C. Brooks shows that abuse and outrage are not the right formula for lasting success. Brooks blends cutting-edge behavioral research, ancient wisdom, and a decade of experience leading one of America’s top policy think tanks in a work that offers a better way to lead based on bridging divides and mending relationships.

Love Your Enemies offers a clear strategy for victory for a new generation of leaders. It is a rallying cry for people hoping for a new era of American progress. Most of all, it is a roadmap to arrive at the happiness that comes when we choose to love one another, despite our differences.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

You can go after the job you want…and get it! You can take the job you have…and improve it! You can take any situation you’re in…and make it work for you!

Since its release in 1936, How to Win Friends and Influence People has sold more than 15 million copies. Dale Carnegie’s first book is a timeless bestseller, packed with rock-solid advice that has carried thousands of now famous people up the ladder of success in their business and personal lives.

As relevant as ever before, Dale Carnegie’s principles endure, and will help you achieve your maximum potential in the complex and competitive modern age.

Learn the six ways to make people like you, the twelve ways to win people to your way of thinking, and the nine ways to change people without arousing resentment.

How to Win Friends and Influence People for Teen Girls by Donna Dale Carnegie

Donna Dale Carnegie, daughter of the late motivational author and teacher Dale Carnegie, brings her father’s time-tested, invaluable lessons to the newest generation of young women on their way to becoming savvy, self-assured friends and leaders.

How to Win Friends and Influence People for Teen Girls offers concrete advice on teen topics such as peer pressure, gossip, and popularity. Teen girls will learn the most powerful ways to influence others, defuse arguments, admit mistakes, and make self-defining choices. The Carnegie techniques promote clear and constructive communication, praise rather than criticism, emotional sensitivity, tolerance, and a positive attitude — important skills for every girl to develop at an early age. Of course, no book for teen girls would be complete without taking a look commitment issues and break-ups with romantic partners. Carnegie also provides solid advice for older teens beginning to explore their influence in the adult world, such as driving and handling college interviews.

Full of fun quizzes, “reality check” sections, and true-life examples, How to Win Friends and Influence People for Teen Girls offers every teenage girl candid, insightful, and timely advice on how to influence friends in a positive manner.

Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in CIA’s Clandestine Service by Henry A. Crumpton

Revelatory and groundbreaking, The Art of Intelligence will change the way people view the CIA, domestic and foreign intelligence, and international terrorism. Henry A. “Hank” Crumpton, a twenty-four-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service, offers a thrilling account that delivers profound lessons about what it means to serve as an honorable spy. From CIA recruiting missions in Africa to pioneering new programs like the UAV Predator, from running post–9/11 missions in Afghanistan to heading up all clandestine CIA operations in the United States, Crumpton chronicles his role — in the battlefield and in the Oval Office — in transforming the way America wages war and sheds light on issues of domestic espionage.

Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In The Sun, and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes

The instant New York Times bestseller from the creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal and executive producer of How to Get Away With Murder shares how saying YES changed her life. “As fun to read as Rhimes’s TV series are to watch” (Los Angeles Times). With three children at home and three hit television shows, it was easy for Shonda to say she was simply too busy. But in truth, she was also afraid. And then, over Thanksgiving dinner, her sister muttered something that was both a wake up and a call to arms: You never say yes to anything. Shonda knew she had to embrace the challenge: for one year, she would say YES to everything that scared her.

This poignant, intimate, and hilarious memoir explores Shonda’s life before her Year of Yes — from her nerdy, book-loving childhood to her devotion to creating television characters who reflected the world she saw around her. The book chronicles her life after her Year of Yes had begun — when Shonda forced herself out of the house and onto the stage; when she learned to explore, empower, applaud, and love her truest self. Yes.

The 5 Second Rule: Transform your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage by Mel Robbins

Throughout your life, you’ve had parents, coaches, teachers, friends and mentors who have pushed you to be better than your excuses and bigger than your fears. What if the secret to having the confidence and courage to enrich your life and work is simply knowing how to push yourself?

Using the science of habits, riveting stories and surprising facts from some of the most famous moments in history, art and business, Mel Robbins will explain the power of a “push moment.” Then, she’ll give you one simple tool you can use to become your greatest self.

It takes just five seconds to use this tool, and every time you do you’ll be in great company. More than 8 million people have watched Mel’s TEDx Talk, and executives inside of the world’s largest brands are using the tool to increase productivity, collaboration, and engagement. The 5 Second Rule is a simple, one-size-fits-all solution for the one problem we all face — we hold ourselves back.

Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

At least one-third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over working in teams. It is to introverts — Rosa Parks, Chopin, Dr. Seuss, Steve Wozniak — that we owe many of the great contributions to society.

In Quiet, Susan Cain argues that we dramatically undervalue introverts and shows how much we lose in doing so. She charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal throughout the twentieth century and explores how deeply it has come to permeate our culture. She also introduces us to successful introverts — from a witty, high-octane public speaker who recharges in solitude after his talks, to a record-breaking salesman who quietly taps into the power of questions. Passionately argued, superbly researched, and filled with indelible stories of real people, Quiet has the power to permanently change how we see introverts and, equally important, how they see themselves.

Notes from the Running Start Campaign Trail

By Sara Blanco (email interviews conducted by Alex Aiello)

Running Start alum Congresswoman Lauren Underwood, the youngest-ever Black woman elected to Congress, shared her story with our high school students earlier this summer, and that got us thinking. What other gems could our amazing alums share?

Meet Maryland State Delegate Lesley Lopez, Dallas Independent School District Board of Trustees Member Karla Garcia, Fairfax County School Board candidate Abrar Omeish, Prince William County Board of County Supervisors candidate Margaret Angela Franklin, former New York State Assembly candidate Morgan Zegers, and former Polk County School Board candidate Kala Tedder.

Here’s what these real young women candidates took away from Running Start’s political leadership programs and their advice for young women leaders.

Excerpted and edited for clarity.


LL: I think that in order to recognize certain leadership qualities in myself, I needed to be exposed to a group of equally passionate peers who I could start to see myself in, as well as meet speakers in positions that were aspirational but still attainable. I had the energy and conviction, just needed a spark to help me connect the dots and see that potential in myself.

KG: I don’t think there’s anything more empowering than convening young women from all backgrounds and addressing their concerns (because we already know what we want — that’s why we’re here) through training and mentorship by leaders we see ourselves reflected in. I am affirmed that I belong — and that I can do this — in every sense of the word.

MZ: When you run for office you have to be able to push yourself outside of your comfort zone every day, even if you’re struggling with impostor syndrome or feel out of place. Running Start gave me the courage to embrace the awkwardness of being a young, female candidate and instead focus on the most important factor: I was a member of my community who cared and wanted to bring positive change.

AO: I learned the power and importance of fighting, fighting some more, and continuing to fight despite the discouragement and dismay of those around you. I learned to derive confidence from within and to lean on those mentors and women who are out there rooting for me and who are counting on me to get there because politics is not easy… In the same way some of the senior leading ladies we met were able to make it in a time that rejected them, perhaps I, a young Muslim woman, may be able to push for my values and make it today.

Left: Abrar Omeish (second from left) participating in Running Start’s 2012 High School Program. Right: Kala Tedder (left) participating in Running Start’s 2018 High School Program.

KT: Prior to Running Start, I had the confidence needed to run, but not the confidence make the most out of my run. I was unsure of myself and what people would think of an 18-year-old running for office, and the more time I spent thinking about what other people thought, the less time I spent actually communicating with those very people. Running Start helped me to put myself out there and be apologetically me in a world where authenticity is not always valued.


LL: Being collaborative, more results-driven than ego-driven, being unafraid of compromise — these are what women effective leaders in government.

KG: The importance of building relationships. Extend your hand, give a firm handshake, confidently state who you are and what your aspirations are, and work on it — you’ll never know where it takes you!

MZ: Running Start taught me the power that comes from lifting up those around you and building relationships. As an underdog candidate, building a strong network of key stakeholders and party leaders in the district was key to securing needed endorsements, volunteers and supporters.

KT: Running Start taught me to view networking differently. I learned how to make strong connections with people from the beginning and, most importantly, how to maintain those connections, which was absolutely crucial for campaigning.


LL: The fact that it’s a nonpartisan org was also really helpful, not just because it strips the tactics down to the essentials, but because you work on shared missions with women from the other side — just as I do now as a legislator.

MAF: Running Start not only introduced us to women who are elected officials, but they also introduced us to consultants, heads of agencies, and other dignitaries who helped us envision ourselves as candidates and elected officials. They gave us the courage to step up and run for office and normalized the idea of women running for office, particularly women of color.

Right: Margaret Angela Franklin, at Running Start’s 2012 Young Women to Watch Awards.

AO: I should add — the mentorship of women and seeing what they were willing to do for us inspired me to further value mentorship and giving back as I go up. There is never a time when I can justify not giving back for being “too busy.” I am not too important for anyone and no one is too unimportant for my full attention.


KG: Build your network of support. When times get tough (and they inevitably will) have a solid team of mentors, advisors, and simply good friends.

MZ: Don’t allow yourself to be pressured into using campaign tactics or messaging that doesn’t fit your personality or come from your heart. Authenticity gives you extra confidence in yourself and in your campaign, and increases the effectiveness of your message to your community members.

Speak up when you are mistreated. I experienced sexual harassment when I was a candidate, and I wish it took me less time to gain the confidence to speak out about it… Sexual harassment can be uncomfortable to discuss, but I would rather feel uncomfortable for a small time if it means young women who run for office and experience these negative situations won’t feel alone. If we don’t share our experiences, they will continue to be brushed under the rug. If we share our experiences, we can move forward with a plan for change and serve as mentors and supporters for each other.

AO: Stay true to you and to the principles that guide us towards a better world.

KT: One of the most invaluable tools Running Start will ever give you are the people in the program with you. Those bonds, if you choose to put the work into maintaining them, form a national network of support. Learn from each other, grow with each other, support each other, and you will find friendships that cross political and geographic boundaries.

As a Latina, Running Start Outreach Director Sara Blanco is especially interested in empowering women of color to run for office. Her leadership experience includes participating in and then co-chairing a women’s leadership development series in her grad program. Sara is a current and lifelong Arlingtonian. Under her fresh leadership, Running Start’s social media presence has grown 500%!

BA, English Literature & Gender and Sexuality Studies, Swarthmore College (2012); MPP, Gender Policy, the George Washington University (2018)

@sarablancosays, LinkedIn, www.sarablancosays.com

Running Start Summer 2019 Intern Alex Aiello is a sociology and religious studies double-major at Davidson College, Class of 2021. She has served as secretary for Amnesty International, small group Bible study leader for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and treasurer for a mental health awareness club. Alex is a member of the Davidson College Democrats and advocates on campus for students to get involved in politics. She is from New York City and loves trying new coffee shops in Manhattan and going for runs along the East River or in Central Park. She hopes to attend law school and then represent sexual assault survivors. Ultimately, Alex hopes to run for office and make lasting policy changes protecting women from sexual assault and harassment.

@AlexAiello8, LinkedIn

Recap: 2019 High School Program

Running Start’s 2019 High School Program had too many amazing moments to fully capture in a blog post, but here are a a few highlights from the elected Class Representative, Roxie Richner.

Throughout the week, we participated in a campaign simulation where we worked in groups to run a mock campaign. Each group had a candidate, campaign manager, communications director, political director, and new media director. Our campaign deliverables included a 60-second speech, a campaign video, a research report on our district, a fundraising strategy, and a social media campaign.

Left: us with Congresswoman Lauren Underwood; top right: me meeting Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema at the Congressional Women’s Softball Game; middle right: Aliza, Molly, Naomi, and Sophie at McDermott Will & Emery; bottom right: us meeting Congresswomen at the Congressional Women’s Softball Game.

We also visited Capitol Hill to meet our representatives in Congress. During the Congressional Reception at McDermott Will & Emery, we were welcomed by Congressman Will Hurd, Congresswoman Jenniffer González-Colón, and Congresswoman Lauren Underwood. We not only engaged with members of Congress on the Hill, but on the field too after the Congressional Women’s Softball Game.

Top: executives from Forbes Tate Partners facilitating a session on campaign video production; bottom: award-winning actress Jayne Atkinson-Gill (from House of Cards and The Walking Dead) teaching about public speaking and presence.

Each day, we listened to experts in fundraising, campaigning, social media, public speaking, campaign video production, and networking. In addition to skill-building and leadership training, we also learned about finding common ground, self-defense, and resilience.

Top left: career coach Rebecca Thompson with Emily; bottom left: Molly and Aliza at the networking reception; right: Leena participating in the networking workshop.

We also attended a networking workshop and reception at The Wing in Georgetown, a network of work and community spaces for women, to help us practice our networking skills.

Running Start High School Program Class of 2019

I am so grateful for the opportunity to have met everyone, and I can’t wait to see what we’ll be up to in the future! Thank you to everyone for sharing a week of your summer with me and with Running Start.

2019 High School Program Speakers

Thank you to our volunteer speakers for making this week so wonderful!

Click here to learn more about the program.


Congresswoman Jenniffer González-Colón (R-PR), bit.ly/JennifferGonzález-Colón

Congresswoman Yvette Clarke (D-NY), bit.ly/Yvette-Clarke

Congresswoman Lauren Underwood (D-IL), bit.ly/RepUnderwood

Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence (D-MI), bit.ly/RepLawrence

Congressman Will Hurd (R-TX), bit.ly/WillHurd

Laura Cox Kaplan, Board Co-Chair, Running Start; Adjunct Professor, American University; Board Member, The Hunt Companies, bit.ly/LauraCoxKaplan

Krysta Jones, Founder & CEO, Virginia Leadership Institute, bit.ly/KrystaJones

Chief Chanel Dickerson, Assistant Chief of Patrol Services South, DC Metropolitan Police

Department, bit.ly/ChiefDickerson

Ariel Hill-Davis, Director of Policy, Republican Women for Progress; Vice President, Industry & Regulatory Affairs, bit.ly/ArielHill-Davis

Audrey Henson, Founder and CEO, College to Congress, bit.ly/AudreyHenson

Danielle Prendergast, Principle Consultant, Policy By Design LLC; National Elect Her Training Facilitator, Running Start, bit.ly/DaniellePrendergast

Heather Barmore, Advisor, VoteRunLead, bit.ly/HeatherBarmore

Jennifer Higgins, Partner, Chamber Hill Strategies, bit.ly/JenniferHiggins

Jessica Grounds, Co-Founder, Mine the Gap; Co-Chair Emeritus of the Board of Directors, Running Start, bit.ly/GroundsJessica

Kelly Gibson, Partner, Hamburger Gibson Creative, bit.ly/KellyGibson

Martina Fitzgerald, Irish Political Journalist and Author, bit.ly/MartinaFitzgerald

Regina Monge, Finance Assistant, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell for Congress, bit.ly/ReginaMonge1

Sohini Gupta, Principal, Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, bit.ly/Sohini-Gupta

Kate Black, Policy Advisor, Federal Communications Commission; author, bit.ly/KateBlack-

Nancy Bocskor, Director, Texas Woman’s University Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy; Running Start Board Member, bit.ly/Nancy-Bocskor

Allyson Carpenter, Director of Public Engagement, DC Council, bit.ly/AllysonCarpenter

Jayne Atkinson-Gill, actress, bit.ly/JayneAtkinson-Gill

Sarah Beccio, CEO, Indigecomms, bit.ly/SarahBeccio

Sarah Blahovec, Disability Vote Organizer, The National Council on Independent Living, bit.ly/SarahBlahovec

Charlotte Clymer, Press Secretary for Rapid Response, Human Rights Campaign, bit.ly/Charlotte-Clymer

Elliott Kozuch, Deputy Press Secretary, Human Rights Campaign, bit.ly/ElliottKozuch

Farah Melendez, Political Director, Democratic Attorneys General Association, bit.ly/FarahMelendez

Lucky Sasiphong, Scheduling/Operations Intern, US Senator Kamala Harris, bit.ly/Lucky-S

Rina Shah, Co-Founder, Women Influencers Network, bit.ly/RinaShah

Chris Baer, artist, bit.ly/ChristopherBaer

Sabrina Siddiqui, Vice President, Forbes Tate, bit.ly/SabrinaSiddiqui

Ewurama Appiagyei-Dankah, Director of Constituent Relations, Office of Senator

Winnie Brinks (MI-29), bit.ly/EwuramaAppiagyei-Dankah

Hind Essayegh, Regional Director, MALIKAH DMV, bit.ly/H-


Rebecca Thompson, Clarity + Confidence Coach, bit.ly/RebeccaThom

Running Start Staff


Susannah Wellford, Running Start, CEO and Founder

Melissa Richmond, Running Start, Chief Strategy Officer

Jessica Kelly, Running Start, Leadership and Programs Director

Sara Blanco, Running Start, Communications Director

Natalie Caraballo, Running Start, Operations Assistant

Reniya Dinkins, Running Start, Development Coordinator

Carly Madsen, Running Start, Program and Events Coordinator

Political Pipeline Design: Insights from a Survey of Women Serving in State Legislatures

By Reniya Dinkins

According to the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP), 29% of the 7,383 state legislators in the United States are currently women. This is a step forward from 2018, when only 25% were women.

From June 2018 to April 2019, Running Start surveyed women serving as state legislators in US states, territories, and the District of Columbia, who were in office June 2018 in order to collect self-identified demographic information and to learn more about their leadership training, experience running for office, and ties to mentorship. We’d like to thank our partners at the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University and at Women in Government for providing us with the data resources in order to make our outreach successful. Thanks also to supporting partners The National Foundation for Women Legislators and Women in Public Service Project at the Wilson Center.

Most legislators responded by filling out an online form we emailed them; we also conducted some phone surveys and recorded their responses. We recognize that these preliminary findings are not perfect, as our methods were not perfectly scientific. However, we received a 19% response rate from legislators and believe that this data is generally reflective of women state legislators across the country.


Compared to women in the US population, the demographic data we found on women state legislators reveals that their backgrounds are not always a perfect representation of the country. Two characteristics especially jump out: age and education. Most of these women are at least 40 years old (65%) and only 7% are under 40. Yet, across the US, a whopping 26% of women are younger than 40 and only 49% are 40 or older. And while 88% of our women state legislators have a bachelor’s degree or higher, among all women in the US, only 32% have attained these educational credentials. Clearly, there is still work to be done to make sure women of all backgrounds and identities run for office. (A forthcoming formal report will paint a more detailed picture with the rest of the characteristics we collected data on.)

What encourages women to run? According to our survey results, community involvement, support from family and friends, being asked to run, and having a supportive partner are among the top factors that motivate women to run for office, revealing that encouragement from others is indeed key to women deciding to run. In addition, we found that when women participate in leadership activities at a young age, they are more likely to run for office in the future. 52% of legislators were Girl Scouts and 47% were in student government in school. Running Start trains young women to run for student government in our Elect Her program, which we bring to over 75 schools (2,500+ students) every year. These results support the importance of this work to create a pipeline of young women who will run for elected office.

In addition, 50% of women state legislators are mentoring a successor. While it was the least popular motivator for them to run for office (perhaps indicative of the lack of women in leadership in the past), mentorship still seems to be important to these women for raising up the next generation of leaders.

Check out a sneak peek of some of our other most interesting findings below!

Geographic Demographics

We received responses from legislators in all 50 states. The most responses came from the following states:

10% New Hampshire
6% Kansas
4% Pennsylvania
4% Maine
4% Oregon

Party Affiliation

67% Democrat
30% Republican
3% Other Party

According to Pew Research Center, here is the party breakdown among women in the US:
54% Democrat (or lean Democrat)
38% Republican (or lean Republican)

Women Under 40

7% are under 40 years old
65% are 40 years old and older
28% preferred to not respond

For context, 26% of women in the US are between the ages of 18–39, while 49% are 40 and older.

Race & Ethnicity

80% White
11% Black/African American
3% American Indian/Alaska Native
2% Asian American
0.2% Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander
8% Hispanic or Latino
0.8% Multiracial
7% preferred to not respond

According to the 2010 Census, here are the race and ethnicity demographics of women in the US population:
77% White
13% Black/African American
1% American Indian/Alaska Native
3% Asian
0.2% Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander
16% Hispanic or Latino
2% Multiracial


44% Heterosexual
2% Lesbian/Gay
1% Bisexual
52% preferred to not respond

According to the CDC, here are the sexuality demographics of women in the US population:
98% Heterosexual
1.5% Lesbian/Gay
1% Bisexual


80% identify as a cisgender woman
20% preferred to not respond

First-Generation College Student

23% were first-generation college students
73% were not first-generation college students
4% preferred to not respond

Veteran Status

2% are US veterans
96% are not US veterans
2% preferred to not respond

According to the US Census Bureau, 1.2% of women in the US are veterans.


2% have a disability
96% do not have a disability
2% preferred to not respond

According to the US Census Bureau, about 20% of women have a disability.


2% are immigrants
96% are not immigrants
2% preferred to not respond

Religious Minority

8% identify as religious minorities
89% do not identify as religious minorities
3% preferred to not respond

Highest Level of Education

1% received high school diploma or equivalent
5% completed some college, no degree
4% received an associate’s degree
30% received a bachelor’s degree
36% received a master’s degree
11% received some professional degree
11% received a doctorate degree
2% preferred to not respond
(88% have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher)

Compared to the US Census’ women in the US attained have the following levels of education:
20% received high school diploma or equivalent
36% completed some college or received an associate’s degree
32% received a bachelor’s degree or higher

Household Income Growing Up

13% low income
26% low-middle income
32% middle income
14% middle-high income
1% high income
1% varied
13% preferred to not respond

Current Household Income

1% low income
4% low-middle income
31% middle income
37% middle-high income
13% high income
14% preferred to not respond

Lost an Election

30% have lost an election before
69% have never lost an election
1% preferred to not respond

Motivation to Run for Office

1. Involvement in your community (85%)
2. Support from family/friends (73%)
3. Being asked to run (68%)
4. Having a supportive partner (65%)
5. Interest in a specific issue (54%)
6. Financial security (49%)
7. Involvement with a political party (46%)
8. Mentorship (29%)

Legislators with a Woman as a Chief of Staff

33% have a woman as a chief of staff
61% do not have a woman as a chief of staff
6% preferred to not respond

Legislators with Legislative Staff Experience

15% were once legislative staffers
83% have never been legislative staffers
2% preferred to not respond

Former Girl Scouts

52% were Girl Scouts
41% were never Girl Scouts
7% preferred to not respond

Student Government Experience

47% were in student government in high school and/or college
46% were never in student government
7% preferred to not respond

Campaign School & Leadership Training

36% went to a campaign school or had other leadership training before running
58% never went to a campaign school or had other leadership training before running
6% preferred to not respond

Popular campaign schools listed include Emerge, EMILY’s List, Wellstone, and the Women’s Campaign School at Yale.

Running for Higher Office

70% would consider running for higher office
28% would not consider running for higher office
2% preferred to not respond

Mentoring a Successor

50% are currently mentoring a successor
44% are not currently mentoring a successor
6% preferred to not respond

Sara Blanco contributed to this post.


Reniya Dinkins was born and raised in Washington, DC. She recently graduated from Columbia University with a double major in Political Science and Sociology, and her academic interests are centered on radical black feminism and black political thought. In 2016, Reniya was a Running Start intern through Urban Alliance, and while in college, she also interned at the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Eric H. Holder Jr. Initiative for Civil and Political Rights. She also helped run a nonprofit called the WomanHOOD Project. Reniya’s passion is serving and uplifting underrepresented and underserved communities. Women’s leadership is particularly important to her because she values the importance of redefining what political leadership looks like.

Reniya currently serves as the Development Coordiantor at Running Start. Outside of work, she loves finding new books to read and enjoying the many things to do in DC.


As a Latina, Sara Blanco is especially interested in empowering women of color to run for office. Her leadership experience includes participating in and then co-chairing a women’s leadership development series in her grad program. Sara is a current and lifelong Arlingtonian. Under her fresh leadership, Running Start’s social media presence has grown 500%!

BA, English Literature & Gender and Sexuality Studies, Swarthmore College (2012); MPP, Gender Policy, the George Washington University (2018)

@sarablancosays, LinkedIn, www.sarablancosays.com


Elect Her was developed with AAUW, the American Association of University Women.

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.

“We must lift others as we rise.” — How Running Start is changing the status quo of political power.

by Ewurama Appiagyei-Dankah

I am a first-generation American who for some reason found myself drawn to politics as a child. Maybe it is because as I grew up, I saw that while my parents lived in a country they loved, they did not have much ability to influence the decisions made about their community because they were not citizens. Maybe it was because I realized on some fundamental level, even as a child, that women, especially women of color, were not often in positions where they were calling the shots. (As a fifth grader, my student council president speech ended with — I kid you not — “Don’t stick to the status quo! It’s time for a female president!”)

Either way, though I was interested in politics and ran for leadership positions from fifth grade student council president all the way to student body vice president at my university, I never had the opportunity to see what things looked like within the great halls of power. At least, not until my Congressional Fellowship with Running Start.

I was placed in the office of a Senator I admire, in part because of her position on a Senate Committee I am interested in and the work she has done around issues I am passionate about. Unusually contentious committee business that took place during my internship made the experience especially challenging. But there were other profound issues at play as well.

Before my internship, I’d had an idea about what Capitol Hill might look like. Even as a child, I was attuned to the fact that not many women had the opportunity to serve as leaders in any capacity. I looked up to the women closest to me but had few women to look up to as political role models. So, I approached my time on the Hill clear-eyed, and with the understanding that I just wouldn’t see many people who looked like me. Even with my expectations, it was still disheartening for me to see how few women and people of color, especially women of color, there were throughout the Hill, in both staff and elected positions. It was frustrating that the nation’s highest body of government felt in many ways unrepresentative of our country.

It was in these disheartening moments, though, that I was most grateful for my involvement with Running Start. As a Congressional Fellow, I was told every week in different forms and from different people, that I was strong, smart, capable, and tough — and that though it might be hard for me to see at times, I could do anything I put my mind to.

Left: Ewurama Appiagyei-Dankah making her #ILookLikeAPolitician contest speech to the crowd of DC movers and shakers at the Young Women to Watch Awards. Right: Ewurama and Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin taking a selfie at the event’s reception.

After my fellowship, in a beautiful full-circle moment at Running Start’s Young Women to Watch Awards, I had my own newly-elected Congresswoman, Representative Elissa Slotkin (whose campaign I had strongly supported) cheer me on and campaign for me as I competed to serve as Running Start’s Ambassador. Being surrounded by multitudes of politically-inclined women to celebrate the most diverse Congress in American history was unbelievably special. More than anything else, it helped me realize that we have the ability to shape what the future of our politics looks like. And that’s because organizations like Running Start are working hard to change the face of power.

So many of us have not seen ourselves represented in our nation’s politics. As Running Start’s #ILookLikeAPolitician Ambassador, I hope to use my platform to reach out to young women across the country and help them see that we need their voices in the political realm. Even a few months ago, Congress didn’t look the way it does now. We all have the responsibility to ensure that we don’t go back to how things were before. We must continue to tell young women from all backgrounds that they are strong, smart, capable, and tough, and encourage them to share their ideas. We must follow the example of people like my own Congresswoman, mentoring those who aspire to be in their positions. We must lift others as we rise.

I like to think my fifth-grade self would be proud of me today; it is for her that I will continue working. The status quo, slowly but surely, is beginning to change, and I’m proud to be a part of changing it.

Ewurama Appiagyei-Dankah is a graduate of James Madison College at Michigan State University. As a student, she served as the Vice President for Academic Affairs in ASMSU, where she focused on college and textbook affordability issues. She is an alumna of the Running Start / Walmart Congressional Fellowship, where she interned for a Senator. She was recently elected to serve as Running Start’s 2019 #ILookLikeAPolitician Ambassador, a position which will give her the opportunity to encourage young women across the country to embrace their political ambitions.

130 Reasons to be Thankful for the 116th Congress

By Sammie Espada

As 2018 comes to a close, it is time to reflect on the impact this year had on all of our lives. This year challenged women to see themselves in new leadership roles. More women than ever ran for political office — and they won. The 116th Congress will set a new record for the number of women representing our country with 130 women (126 voting members, 4 nonvoting). These women defy the mold of what a traditional political leader is supposed to look like: they are young and they are ethnically, religiously, and politically diverse. I am thankful for all of these women for providing new role models for young girls and women to run for office.

As I spent time with loved ones over the holiday week, I noted all of the young women in my life. My younger cousins and my niece (ranging from 5 to 21 years old) were all eager to hear about my experience in Washington, DC as a Running Start Congressional Fellow. They were all looking up to me to guide their future steps. In the three months I have been gone, so much about their lives has changed as they embark on new adventures and discover more of their capabilities. Still, they dream of being chefs, artists, and lawyers — none of them dream of being a political leader.

My 8 year old cousin, Angel, spent Thanksgiving leading the charge with all the young girls following her. She cunningly convinced all of us to play Jenga, then Twister, and even a unicorn toss. I watched her talk to the other girls in our family and every conversation left with Angel getting what she asked. Her presence is commanding, her spirit infectious — she’s a natural born leader. But we have never talked about her running for office, even though she can be a chef, a sister, a daughter, a mother, and a politician. In fact,she can do anything she wants — if she knows it’s possible. Young women, however, experience a gender gap in political ambition from a young age. We are not encouraged to run for office by our families or by the media. Women are less likely than men to have considered running for office or to express interest in a candidacy at some point in the future. Women do not see themselves in office because it is not a norm for women to be political leaders.

As a young Latina, I also strongly feel the lack of enough women of color in political office to help guide us. But 2018 changed that. Ayanna Pressley, in her victory speech, noted that women of color candidates hit a concrete ceiling. Breaking it means, she said:

“Seismic shifts, drastic change. When those tectonic plates of revolution shift below our feet…Stronger than any one person or any one institution, it builds up from the ground beneath our feet. This groundswell, this shift can break through concrete.”

My young cousins and my niece will see women that look like them in all forms of leadership in 2019. They will see women in their state legislature, governorships, and the US Congress. Most powerfully for my family and me, they will see women of color leading the charge and making their voices heard. Because of the women of the 116th Congress I can see myself running for office more than ever before. I see women with similar values and backgrounds who are willing to challenge the norms and fight for their communities. I see women changing the face of politics, changing its priorities, and re-engaging communities who have long been underrepresented in politics. I am thankful these women have etched a path for me and women like me to lead.

Most importantly, I am thankful that these women are just the beginning. They will grow as politicians in front of us and they will change the future of politics. The young women of our country are looking at these women to continue to break barriers for us all. They make a woman President seem that much closer and they make it seem more plausible that we will reach gender parity in politics. (Although to get there, we need more women of all political ideologies to run — especially when we’ll see women’s representation among Republicans in Congress decrease next year.)

My time with Running Start has also made me hopeful about getting more women to the table. As a Congressional Fellow, I am surrounded by women of different political, ethnic, and religious backgrounds who are all eager to run for office one day. I am certain these women are the future of politics. Women who are ready to learn, compromise, and put in work to better their communities and our country. The 116th Congress created a critical seismic shift. Now it’s time for the next generation of women leaders to step through those cracks and make our own mark.

Sammie Espada is a current Running Start Congressional Fellow interning in the US Senate. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2018 with a degree in Women and Gender Studies and Political Science with a minor in Latinx Studies. She is a native New Yorker passionate about her Latinx heritage and empowering young girls and women of color to reach their full potential.