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!

Let’s Be Vulnerable: Unlearning Toxic Leadership with Brené Brown

by Senanee Abeyawickram

When women run for office, they win at the same rates as men.

But women face external and internal barriers that dissuade them from wanting to run. For example, due to internal barriers, women often struggle with confidence and the fear that they lack experience — in other words, ‘imposter syndrome’. This has led me to question if there is a gap in how society defines good leadership versus what it really is. Conventional wisdom suggests that good leaders are those who have solutions and make no mistakes — a kind of ‘superhero’. Masking our own imperfections, we embrace this definition, despite knowing that such a person cannot exist. Perhaps these expectations are what create the toxic environments that foster unapproachable, inauthentic, and sometimes discriminatory leaders.

As a young woman who has always been interested in politics, I have been asked, on several occasions, if I would ever run for office. My response has ranged from a hard ‘yes’ to a meek ‘maybe’. Somewhere between the encouraging ‘you should get involved’ and vexing ‘politics is not for women’ rhetoric, I have conjured some deep apprehensions within myself. Largely, this has been fueled by a fear that being in political leadership will force me to be inauthentic or strip me of my true identity. I wonder if it is possible to be successful as a politician while being true to myself.

Society’s perceptions of political leadership are embellished in notions of bravado, perfection, and prowess. In the face of stereotypes that men are more likely to fit this bill, women have to push even further if they want to prove themselves. Amid the complexity of these issues, I have been in awe of the simplicity with which Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, characterizes strong leadership. Her paradigm is a good starting point for hopeful young women, like myself, to unlearn the societal standards that deter us from wanting to run for office.

Brown introduces us to a more realistic and honest approach to leadership. In her TED talk, which has now gained over 40 million views, Brown talks about vulnerability, its power, and its importance in leadership. At first glance, leadership and vulnerability may seem counterintuitive. We are taught that vulnerability is an inherent weakness — and Brown’s definition of vulnerability, “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure”, tends to reinforce that idea. Yet, her research posits that vulnerability is, in fact, a sign of strong leadership. In thinking about the intersection of vulnerability and leadership Brown asks us to ponder how the definition of vulnerability is similar to that of leadership: “the ability to be in uncertainty, take risks, and manage exposure.”

Key to her quest in realizing the power of vulnerability was a speech made by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910. He said:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Brown pins the genealogy of the power of vulnerability to what Roosevelt refers to as “daring greatly”. In this frame of thinking, there is greater emphasis and value placed on leaders who admit to their mistakes, ask for help, take risks, and speak the truth. These behaviors reflect ‘authenticity’ and ‘humility’ — adjectives that aren’t as intimidating as ‘perfection’ and ‘prowess’. As hopeful young women leaders, what if we were asked: “Do you have the authenticity, courage, and humility it takes to run for office?” instead of “Do you have the power and prowess to run for office?”

Brown’s broader theories on vulnerability and leadership have been extrapolated into the world of business with many CEOs and managers implementing them in their workplaces. The world of politics is indeed another realm in which the intersection of vulnerability and leadership is highly potent, especially in the discourse on women in politics. We often complain that our leaders make fake promises, turn a blind eye to wrongdoings, or lack authenticity in general. Brown’s research is a nudge in the right direction for our generation to start creating a new culture — one that normalizes vulnerability, embraces it, and uses it as a tool to foster change. Brown questions, ‘has man ever created anything without having to be vulnerable?’ ‘No, because vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity and innovation.’

Dismantling the notion that vulnerability is a sign of weakness can be a useful tool of empowerment for women. But just because we know that vulnerability is a sign of strong leadership does not mean it is easy to be vulnerable. Brown says that, “for women vulnerability is hard because it pushes against the messages and expectations that fuel shame”. These are the same forces that make women in leadership feel like they need to talk, walk, and dress a certain way to be taken seriously.

Leaders who know how to be vulnerable recognize that it is not a weakness, that it is not something you should opt out of, and that it has boundaries. Brown informs us that vulnerability without boundaries is not vulnerability. This is why it is important to know when to be vulnerable by assessing the quality of what is being disclosed and the intention behind it. And if this is true, Brown is right in saying that “vulnerability is our most accurate way to measure courage.”

Leadership development coach, Kate Turner, shares similar views on this issue. In particular, when asked how we can debunk the myths surrounding vulnerability, she says that it is important to ‘catch people doing it right. If you see other people showing up in the right version of vulnerability, then comment on it and congratulate them. This is the way to start making a measurable change.’ Lucky for us, we can look to many recent examples of female politicians who have fearlessly embraced vulnerability.

New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is lauded for how well she handled the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Christchurch. In addition to prescribing immediate policy measures, Ardern took on the role of ‘national healer’. She embraced and mourned alongside those who were affected, speaking openly about her own struggles. In that moment of collective weakness, she found strength for her country with courage, compassion, and her willingness to be vulnerable.

In the United States, sharing a personal story of sexual assault can be extremely frightening and risky for politicians. But that didn’t stop Senator Joni Ernst, Senator Martha McSally, and Governor Gretchen Whitmer from courageously participating in the #MeToo Movement and contributing towards its momentum. Their decisions empowered and set a powerful precedent for other survivors. Importantly, it reminded everyone across the political spectrum that the issue of sexual assault and harassment sees no political party — it is a nonpartisan issue that affects us all. The fact that Martha McSally offered one of the most powerful testimonies in the growing debate on Capitol Hill over how to adjudicate claims of sexual assault in the military shows that the outcome of her decision to be vulnerable was both powerful and tangible.

Similarly, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was caught in a moment of profound vulnerability with her infamous ‘misogyny speech’ in parliament. It was one of the first times the issue was addressed by a woman so passionately and unapologetically in a political forum. The response to her speech was mixed. But as Brown says, being a strong, vulnerable leader means ‘leaning in to the discomfort’. And that’s exactly what Gillard did. In the end, many women from around the world saw it as a defining moment for feminism in Australia.

The myth that vulnerability is a weakness has, in many ways, been debunked. It’s just that the negative connotation of the word has not been fully unpacked and realized by our leaders. At the same time, the stereotypes that plague perceptions of women make it even more difficult to talk about this subject without being labeled as ‘emotional’. But that does not mean we should silence ourselves. These exemplary women have shown us that it is okay to be vulnerable; we do not have to be perfect and politics does not have to change us. But, it seems, we might have to change politics.


Running Start Summer 2019 Intern Senanee Abeyawickrama is a political science and economics major at New York University Abu Dhabi, where she was awarded a full scholarship. At university, she has been an active member of the Model UN club having participated in numerous international conferences as both a delegate and chair. She has been involved in on-campus initiatives aimed at women’s leadership and empowerment including “Women in Business” and the “Girls’ Education Network”. Senanee has experience with research-based internships in her home country, Sri Lanka. One of her most rewarding experiences was when she worked with the gender team at the United Nations Population Fund on a project titled “Sexual Harassment of Women in Public Transport”. Although an introvert, Senanee enjoys meeting new people and engaging in debates over issues she cares about. After graduation, she hopes to get work experience in a policy-oriented field related to human rights. One day, Senanee hopes to run for local office and advocate for issues affecting women and children.


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.

“With only one semester and two political science classes under my belt, I was elected to office.”

When I founded Running Start eleven years ago, no one understood why talking to girls about political leadership was a good idea. Why did I want to train a 15 year-old to run for office? She wouldn’t be ready to run for any meaningful office for at least a decade. But we scraped together enough money to train a small group of high school girls that summer of 2007, and we’ve grown slowly and steadily into a national nonprofit that has now trained over 12,500 young women from every state in the nation. These young women we’ve trained know that their voices are needed in politics, and they know what it takes to run. They are ready to lead.

I think the world is finally starting to wake up to the tremendous potential of young women as future leaders. A recent New York Times editorial about the lack of women in politics said: “getting women engaged in college or even earlier is especially important”. Barbara Comstock, a Republican Congresswoman from Virginia, told Red Alert: “We need to get more young women engaged at an early age, seeing themselves as being a public figure, being able to run for office,” and “I think we just need to put that idea in their head maybe a little earlier.” Politico reports that “childhood is an ideal place to begin encouraging women to think about running for office.”

That’s why Running Start works with high school and college women to get them to envision themselves as political leaders. The earlier you talk to women about leading in politics, the more it become a possibility in their lives. Here’s one of my favorite success story of how planting a seed early can work: A few years ago I got an email from a woman named Allyson Carpenter. She told me she’d been part of a Running Start program at Howard University that trains college women to run for student government. Although the Elect Her program is designed to funnel women into student government, Allyson saw a need to run in her community instead. Allyson won and became the youngest woman ever elected to DC government at the age of 18.

As she told us:

Running Start met me where I was — literally. I walked into my college residence hall and somehow ended up in a daylong conference called Elect Her. Lured by the free breakfast, I stayed for an experience that would alter my path forever.

They didn’t just convince me that I could run for office one day — they convinced me that I could do it right then. The only thing that stood in my way were election laws that don’t allow a 17-year-old college freshman to hold elected office. But six short months after attending Running Start’s Elect Her training, I ran to represent my neighborhood, which included my college, in Washington, DC’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission. With only one semester and two political science classes under my belt, I was elected to office.

Although the Elect Her program is designed to funnel women into student government, I love that Allyson saw a greater need to run in her community instead. We always encourage our students to run for the office where they think they will be able to do the most good. Allyson gained authority and experience in this elected role which served her well when she decided to run for Howard University Student Body President. She decided to run when she saw that the slate of candidates running for the seat were all men. Building on her Elect Her training, she launched a professional-quality campaign complete with a multi-page platform detailing everything she would do for the student body while in office. Despite sexist attacks and charges of ballot rigging, she won the seat and served as one of the first women presidents in many years at Howard. She’s now out of school and serving as a Truman Scholar, no doubt on the way to even bigger and better things.

Allyson has told me that she grew up with a fire in her belly to change things for the better, so Running Start was responsible for amplifying rather than igniting her passion. But what I think programs like Running Start do so well is we give young women permission to admit to the world that they want to run, and to own the fact that they have the ambition to lead. Many of our students say the best part of our programs is being with a group of peers who share their desire to change the world. The support and encouragement they receive from each other makes their dreams seem possible.

When research shows that confidence and self-esteem peaks for women in high school or before, it may be no wonder that later in life men are 65% more likely than equally qualified women to feel ready to run for office. Reaching women at an early age is key to capturing the enthusiasm and confidence that leads a woman to consider running for office. Groups like Running Start are creating a groundswell of young women eager and ready to run because they see political leadership as a place where they truly belong.


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