Career Advice and Embarrassing Stories from a DC Power Player
This week we spoke with Susannah Shakow, founder of Running Start and Women Under Forty Political Action Committe (WUFPAC). She gave us tips on how to start your own non-profit and still look classy when you fall out of your chair at a conference. Recently featured as one of D.C.’s top power couples, Susannah spends her days designing new programs to inspire young women to lead and fundraising for Running Start to ensure that all young women can afford to participate in programs.
Curious to know more? Ask questions in the comments section and Susannah will post a follow-up with answers mid-week.
1) Starting your own non-profit must be daunting, how did you do it?
Going out on your own can be terrifying. You have no guarantee of success, and if you fail, you have no one to blame but yourself. But it is also tremendously rewarding to have a vision and to see it become a reality. I was working for a law firm when I started my first organization with my colleague Stacy Beckerman. Her vision was to create an organization that gave a push to young women running for Congress. It was a simple idea that hadn’t been done before – giving money and support to under 40 women of both parties running for Congress. It caught on because it was unique. And I started Running Start when I realized that WUFPAC wasn’t enough to solve the problem of getting more women in office – we needed an organization that started talking to women early in their lives about politics so they could get into the pipeline to run. I have seen Running Start grow from a one woman organization in my attic serving 20 girls to six years later having a paid staff of four serving 1,500 girls a year.
The key to starting something new is you have to believe in it 1000%. You have to be able to defend its purpose in your sleep, and you have to have the enthusiasm and excitement to sell it to other people (volunteers, board members, sponsors, the press). When you have a bad day – and you will have many bad days where no one believes in what you are doing – you still have to be able to justify your purpose to yourself.
I truly believe that inspiring young women to political leadership is a powerful way to create long term change in our political system and in the lives of women in our country. On my bad days, I still believe emphatically in Running Start’s mission. And I think that my passion for the issue is what drives our success. If one day it stops making sense to me, that is the day I need to get out and do something else.
2) What are the main challenges you faced in creating your organization and how did you overcome them?
Well, there are lots of challenges in creating and running an organization, but the biggest one is money. Without money, you can’t run your programs, you can’t attract good people and you can’t spread your message. But raising money is really hard, and for most people it takes time to accumulate investors in your idea.
Running Start was lucky to have a big sponsor come on in the very beginning, but even today we struggle for every dollar. It has taken me a lot of practice to feel comfortable asking for money, and I am still not as confident at it as I would like to be. The key to raising money is to both sell your organization, and in many ways to sell yourself. Donors give to people, not causes, and relationships are vital to fundraising. And never, ever make a relationship just about the money. People can tell when you don’t care about them, just your bottom line, so prepare to invest in them as people regardless of whether your fundraising pitch is successful.
3) What advice do you have for women who want to create their own organizations?
Here is my laundry list:
1) Find a cause you really believe in and that you can stand behind 24/7.
2) Sell that cause to everyone far and wide. You should be talking about your cause everywhere from the supermarket checkout lane to the doctor’s office to the carpool line– everyone around you should know what your cause is and how they can help.
3) Don’t be afraid to ask everyone you know for help, whether it is money, connections, advice or free labor, be bold about asking for help with your cause. You will find that most people want to be helpful.
4) Stay focused. People, and donors in particular, will constantly try to make you stray from the course of your mission. Don’t let them. If you chase the money by tailoring your cause to donors’ needs, you will lose control of your mission. People were constantly trying to make WUFPAC work with under 50 women, or to only support democratic candidates. The same is true with Running Start. I’ve been strongly advised to make our mission just about leadership, not political leadership. I think we have succeeded in part because we have a narrow mission, and we don’t stray from it.
4) What’s your favorite part about your job?
I love my job, and there are two main reasons why. First, the mission of Running Start is to inspire young women to leadership in politics. So I spend my time with idealistic young women talking to them about how they can become stronger, more confident, more effective versions of themselves. And in the process of talking to them about leadership, I am constantly inspired myself. Watching a shy girl find her voice and take a stand is so invigorating! I think most of us don’t get enough inspiration in our lives, and we forget what a powerful motivator it can be. I love seeing the light come on in girls’ faces when they hear something that moves them and makes them want to take action. I get notes from our alums all the time, and their gratitude towards Running Start and the effect that it has had on their lives makes me want to work 100 times harder to grow Running Start.
Second, I love the people I work with, and I smile every time I walk into our bright, cheerful Running Start office. The Running Start team is all there because we love what we do and we believe that we are making a difference – we certainly aren’t there for the money! I think too many people settle for work environments that don’t make them happy. I always tell young people getting out of college that they need to strive to find a job where they feel fulfilled and that makes them want to get up in the morning. So many people settle for jobs they don’t love, or stick with jobs where they are no longer challenged. Work is such a big part of all of our lives – we shouldn’t settle for mediocrity. Strive to find a job you are passionate about, and you will be much more effective and creative than if you are in a job that you dread.
5) What is your favorite reality TV show?
I hate to admit this, but I don’t watch reality TV. I may be the only person in America who doesn’t. When people at parties start talking about the Kardashians or Top Chef I pretend that I know what they are talking about, but I really have no clue. I like my TV to be fantasy – attractive people in beautiful places leading crazy and amazing lives. Reality TV is a little too reality for me. I want to be entertained and taken to a new world when watching TV, not be reminded of the pettiness and sordidness of ours.
6) Tell us one embarrassing story about you.
It is hard to choose just one. Well, the other day I was on the Hill and I told the Chief of Staff for a New York Member of Congress that we were so excited to work with him in Florida (he was very confused.) And I walked into a conference recently with my dress half unzipped in the back (I figured it out before I took the stage, but just barely.) Oh, and then there was the time that I fell off my chair on stage when I was giving a joint presentation with Marjorie Clifton. She made it into a talking point about how to react when embarrassing things happen – I was happy to give her such good raw material. I am so frequently in these situations, that I have learned to take them in stride…
7) Chocolate or vanilla?
Over the past nine years, Susannah Shakow has founded two organizations designed to raise the political voice of young women in America.
In spring 2007, Ms. Shakow founded Running Start to inspire young women and girls to political leadership. Running Start furthers the work begun by the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee (WUFPAC), which Susannah cofounded in 1999 and led for the first five years. WUFPAC is a national women’s group dedicated to electing young women to political office. A nonpartisan organization, WUFPAC is the only political action committee in the United States devoted to helping young women of all parties run for elected office.
Ms. Shakow speaks frequently to colleges, law schools, political groups, trade associations and nonprofits about the importance of involving more young women in politics. She has also lectured about politics to many international groups, including women from Kuwait, Southeast Asia, Korea, Bahrain and Russia. She was invited to Kuwait by the Kuwaiti government in spring 2006 to meet Kuwait’s first women candidates and to advise them on their campaigns, and in the summer of 2009 the State Department sent her to the Maldives and Sri Lanka to meet with women and youth leaders in those countries.
After receiving her J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1998, she worked for several years at Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand, lobbying for state and local governments, foreign governments, corporate entities and trade associations before Congress and the Executive Branch.
Prior to law school, Ms. Shakow worked for Hillary Clinton’s Health Care Task Force in the Clinton White House. As a member of the Health Care War Room staff, she planned and executed grass-roots health care events for the President and First Lady and coordinated speaking events for Congressional Members and White House staff on health care reform issues. She is also a former Legislative Assistant for Senator Wyche Fowler from Georgia.
Ms. Shakow is a 1990 graduate of Davidson College. She and her husband John (an attorney at King & Spalding LLP) live in Washington, DC and have twin nine year old sons, Ben and James.