Getting a running start

When Susannah Wellford Shakow started a political action committee (PAC) to help women under 40 run for public office, she realized they were missing one thing: a running start.

So she decided to give them one, launching an organization to instill a sense of public service in the younger generation and giving it the appropriate moniker: Running Start.

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“At first nobody understood. They said, ‘It’s going to be years before these women can run. You’re going to talk to 14-year-olds about running for office. That’s ridiculous,’” she recalled in an interview with The Hill. “The adults didn’t get it. The kids totally got it.”

That was in early 2007, when she launched a series of seminars for 20 high school girls in the D.C. area as a test to gauge interest. The next year — merely through word of mouth — the program had more than 300 applications from all over the country.

And it grew.

“In 2009, we had 30,000 girls apply for this 50-spot program,” Shakow said. “It shocked me.”

“Our address was my house, so the postman would come to my house with these boxes full of letters. We had to recruit teams of people to come read them.”

The 2008 election was seen as the reason behind the flood: The young women wrote that Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and Barack Obama inspired them to learn more about politics.

“We knew the high school was an important age to start talking about leadership,” said Jessica Nicole Grounds, executive director of Running Start.

And they offered this message to young women: “Run for the highest office you want. And run for the office you want to make policy for,” Grounds said, saying they encourage women to run for everything from school board to city council to Congress.

Their seminars, known as the Young Women’s Political Leadership Program, bring in a range of people — from lawmakers to diplomats — to talk to the girls about public speaking, message development, fundraising and networking.

And Running Start’s next step in the process of educating young women is the group’s first ever Young Women’s Political Summit on July 12-14 at Georgetown University. It will bring together 300 women, ages 14-35, for leadership sessions and social events. 

Registration is $150 ($100 for Running Start Members) and covers program materials and most meals. The programs will cover a range of topics from how to run a political campaign to how to use social media for personal branding. (More details are available at runningstartonline.org).

The summit will also include the premiere of the documentary “Raising Ms. President.”

The summit and other programs are at the heart of what Running Start tries to give young women: confidence and connections.

And to reach as many women as possible, the organization is nonpartisan.

“Our biggest challenge is diversity, and not racial diversity or geographic diversity,” Grounds said of the struggle to find Republican women.

“It’s a difficult thing that requires constant vigilance because our message and mission appeals more to the Democratic side than Republicans, and we’re constantly working hard to find Republican speakers, to find Republican mentors, occasionally to find Republican girls, but that’s getting easier,” Shakow said.

One of their biggest victories is the number of girls who come back to the program. The high school girls who participate in the seminars often apply for one of the Star Fellowships, which places college girls in internships on Capitol Hill.

Shakow and Grounds first started working together with Women Under Forty PAC (WUFPAC) a bipartisan group to elect young women to Congress. The PAC endorses younger women, regardless of party.

“It was a pretty risky idea because we had no issues: You could be pro-life, pro-choice, pro-environment, anti-environment, whatever, and totally bipartisan,” Shakow said.

But it has paid off in the bipartisan support they receive. At their annual Women to Watch dinner earlier this year, the speakers were Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz  (Fla.) and Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), two women who are leaders in their respective parties.

“Debbie Wasserman Schultz comes to our events all the time, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers does, too, and part of the reason is that they feel we were their first PAC check,” Shakow said.

In the 2012 election, WUFPAC candidates included Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who was honored at the dinner, and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who attended the event.

But Running Start also offers opportunities for young women already working in Washington with their “Off the Record” events, which include mentoring dinners and networking receptions. Their April dinner was at the home of Republican lobbyist Juleanna Glover and their February dinner featured Ambassador Capricia Marshall, who is Chief of Protocol of the United States.

The organization’s goal is to expand. “We’ve had more girls apply than we can fit, so we want to increase our funding, increase our staff,” Shakow said.