While there is a statistically low number of female politicians, the political landscape is shifting thanks to Susannah Wellford of Running Start, who for the past 10 years, has worked to educate young girls throughout the nation on being leaders in the political world. The organization works to “train[ing] young women in the skills they need to feel ready to lead in politics,” Wellford said.
As the founder of Women Under Forty Political Action Committee (WUFPAC), Wellford worked to support young women running for federal office. However, she shared that they “couldn’t find enough candidates to contribute to because young women weren’t running in the first place.” Through this experience, she realized that there is a pipeline problem.
Running Start gives girls platforms to learn political leadership through programs led right in the heart of politics – Washington D.C.
“Over the course of just a semester, week, or even a day, we can see how the young women we train transform,” she said. “In a remarkably short time, these young women become more confident and more excited about taking on leadership roles or tackling something in the world they want to change.”
Programs include a one-week program for high school girls, a weekend-long political summit for women ages 14 to 35, and fellowships and initiatives for college students.
“After Running Start, they know they can lead, which impacts so many parts of their lives. They know how to network, how to make a pitch, how to fundraise, how to craft a message and more, and this serves them well as they look for jobs, and of course as they consider running for office,” Wellford said.
Like any business, Wellford and the Running Start team faced challenges along the way. She noted that one of the toughest challenges early on was that “even people who understood the importance of getting more women into politics questioned Running Start’s focus on young women. If they can’t run now, they’d say, ‘What’s the point?’”
“We face that skepticism much less now – more and more people seem to get why early intervention matters.”
With a small staff composed of just four people, Running Start has grown over the past 10 years. This summer, Running Start will have completed 10,000 trainings.
As they expand, Wellford hopes to “be able to train every single young woman who is interested and not have to turn away amazing applicants for lack of seats at a program,” she said.
Because Running Start’s team is small, each person takes on different roles. However, for Wellford, most of her time is spent in meetings, fundraising, and working on program design and implementation.
“In a day, I might meet with a potential donor, meet with a peer organization to discuss a partnership, create a draft agenda for a program, speak to an international delegation of women leaders, invite speakers to our events and programs, and help interview top applicants for one of our programs,” she said.
Looking back on the process of founding Running Start, Wellford would ask for more help along the way. “Many women, including myself, get stuck thinking that they have to know everything and do everything and are afraid that if they ask for help, people will be annoyed or think less of them. But, that’s not true,” she exclaimed.
“I wish I [had] realized that there were people I could have asked for advice [from] while founding Running Start who would have been just as excited to help me as we are to help our students now.”
Inspired by the STEM campaign #ILookLikeAnEngineer, Running Start Vice President Melissa Richmond and Director of Operations Sara Blanco sought to combat the sexism for women in politics. From there, the two launched #ILookLikeAPolitician.
“[The campaign] has since picked up speed as a part of our alum contest for an award at our annual gala. Our alums have done a fantastic job of spreading the message to a bigger and bigger audience,” Wellford said.
“Don’t wait. You’re never too young to lead or practice leadership skills. Run for student government, run for a club leadership position, start a charity drive – just get involved. Get experience that will help you later on and remember that if you want to rise through the ranks, it helps to start early,” she said.
Contributor: Carina Oriel