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.

Building Confident Women, Starting with Myself

It was supposed to be a relaxing weekend, no big plans. But that totally changed when my boss asked me to speak at an event she could no longer attend. I had less than 24 hours to prepare for a panel about taking political action. My co-panelists included a candidate for governor and a candidate for lieutenant governor. I spent the entire day before the panel at the office questioning myself: “Can I do this? Am I capable enough to represent my organization?” I even asked my colleagues several times, “Are you sure I can do this?” “Absolutely!” was always their reaction.

It certainly felt like a contradiction that I was representing an organization that works so hard to fight the confidence gap that makes women believe that they lack the skills to lead in politics, yet I found myself doubting my own skills. I was unsure of my ability to speak about the importance of overcoming insecurities, taking political action, and ultimately running for office. It wasn’t until the very last minute before I sat down at the panel that I said to myself what I told the audience seconds later as an opening line: “You are capable.”

I wish more young women could hear those exact same words while growing up and as teenagers, as their confidence starts to decline: “You are capable.” I hope women will look at the mirror and say, “I look like a politician,” at the same rate as men. I’m fighting for a future where women don’t have to be told seven times that they should run for office before they even consider it as a possibility.

But until that happens, we must remind women that if we don’t fight to attain powerful positions ourselves, other people will. We need to reassure women that they are qualified, in order to stop the unfairness of women having to work twice as hard to get half as far. Because we know that when women run they win at the same rates as men. We know that better decisions are made when women have the space they deserve at the table. We know that more young women will make great leaders when they see more female role models to follow.

And I will not stop fighting until I see that happening.

As I sat on the panel beside three successful women, I reminded myself that I am also a successful woman. The speaking engagement went so well! I could certainly tell from the audience members that hearing from confident and empowered women, empowered many more women to own their confidence.

That’s why I’m so excited for Running Start’s upcoming Resilience Summit on July 12th. The Summit will focus on overcoming impostor syndrome and bouncing back from failure. Seeing and hearing successful women admit to struggling to feel qualified and think of themselves as capable after setbacks is powerful. Fear of failure shouldn’t stop women from exciting opportunities — just like I didn’t let it when I rose to the challenge and took the stage.

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Natalie Caraballo earned a double major in Public Relations and Political Science at the University of Puerto Rico. In 2016 she moved to DC to intern for Senator Harry Reid. She then joined the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, serving as an organizer in Alexandria, Virginia. Natalie strongly believes that women need and deserve stronger political empowerment at earlier stages in their lives, which is why she joined the Running Start team as the Operations Assistant.

Currently, Natalie volunteers for two Puerto Rican diaspora organizations, aiming to empower civil society in Puerto Rico. In her free time, she likes to learn German and discover new cities around the United States and the world.