'Society Is Still Not Totally Comfortable With Women In Leadership'

We talk to Susannah Wellford, founder of Running Start


In spring 2007, Susannah founded Running Start to inspire young women and girls to political leadership. Running Start has trained over 10,000 young women and girls to lead in politics from all around the country. Running Start furthers the work begun by the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee (WUFPAC), which Susannah cofounded in 1999 and led for 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.

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. Prior to law school, Susannah worked for Hillary Clinton’s Health Care Task Force in the Clinton White House. She is also a former Legislative Assistant for Senator Wyche Fowler from Georgia.

We sat down with her ahead of her presentation at the Women In Enterprise Summit, taking place in Boston this October 25-26.

What drove you to help encourage women into politics?

As a young woman working in DC, I was dismayed at how few role models there were for me, especially in politics. I wanted to encourage more women to run because I believe so strongly that the best leadership is diverse leadership - and what we have right now is not very diverse in any way.

What challenges did you face in setting up Running Start and Women Under Forty Political Action Committee (WUFPAC)? Do you think these challenges would still be there if you started from fresh today?

My biggest challenge with both organizations was that I had no experience in entrepreneurship and I had to learn everything on the fly. It was also very difficult to convince funders that investing in young women made sense. Most political organizations work with much older women, so the pay off on their investment is more immediate. With Running Start, we train young women who may not run for 15 years, but the advantage is that we are building a real pipeline to power that will have tremendous pay off in the future. In the ten years Running Start has been around, the world has started to catch up to the idea that investing in young women and girls is smart. So, founding the organization would be much easier today!

What do you think are the main factors preventing women becoming political leaders? How do you think these can be resolved?

I think the biggest external factor preventing women from rising to power is that society is still not totally comfortable with women in leadership. It will take a while to make that cultural shift, but I think we are on our way. Women also face internal barriers to leadership in all areas, the most confounding of which is a lack of confidence. The more women we have in power, the more comfortable society will be with women at the top. And the more women in power, the more confident women will be that their skills are necessary and needed.

Do you think Hillary Clinton’s nomination will change the way both women are perceived within politics, and how young women perceive the chances of success?

Yes! Role models are so important to encouraging women to run. I think she has already served as a big inspiration for women around the world.

What advice would you give to young women looking to enter politics?

I tell young women that if they want to get to the top, they will face barriers that men don’t face. My job is to get them to recognize these obstacles so they can better overcome them. Everything can be learned, and the strongest people are those who have had to fight to get where they want to go. So, keep fighting and don’t let anything stand in your way! 

You can hear more from Susannah, along with other leading women in enterprise, at the Women In Enterprise Summit. To register, click here.

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