Running Start Founder Susannah Wellford

For a decade, Running Start has been working to break down gender inequality in American politics by encouraging and preparing school-age young women to run for office. But now it’s facing new challenges after a 2016 election that got nasty for many women politicians.

Founded by Susannah Wellford in 2007, Running Start offers nonpartisan political leadership programs for high school girls and college women. Many graduates go on to work behind the scenes in political campaigns or to step out front as local and state candidates. One day, Wellford hopes, an alumna will run for the White House.

Since President Donald Trump was elected in November 2016, older women, especially progressives, have mobilized, in part, by expressing an unprecedented desire to run for office. More than 10,000 women have signed up for candidate training from the nonpartisan VoteRunLead in the past year, compared to 10,000 in the prior 3 years combined. Applications for trainings held by Emerge America, which serves Democratic women, soared 87 percent in the 2 months after the election. Emily’s List, a Democratic fundraising group that also recruits and trains women candidates, has also been inundated, reporting that some 20,000 women interested in running have registered on its website.

But that fever has not reached younger women, Wellford says. In fact, many recoiled after witnessing female candidates, including Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, get torn apart by the media and citizens alike. “Younger women are warrier because they saw the ugliness that occurred” and thought: “Maybe I don’t want to run for office. Maybe I’ll be behind the scenes instead. Could I handle that?”

An exciting but hard job may have begun to look even harder. The Girl Scouts of America surveyed troop members ages 11 to 17 in 2014 and reported an encouraging 67 percent were interested in pursuing careers in politics. But 74 percent thought, if they chose that career, they would have to work harder than men to be taken seriously. That was before women’s very public ordeal in 2016.

If a negative mindset takes root in girls, Wellford believes, they will be less likely to get involved in politics or run for office as women. Running Start is designed to change attitudes through encouragement and mentorship, she says. It’s also working to alleviate young women’s concerns by arming them with both the skills and confidence needed to run for office — and win.  

The 2016 Effect

After Trump’s election sparked massive women’s marches around the country and a surge of interest among women in running for office, Running Start prepared itself for an onslaught of applications for the 60 spots in its national program for high school girls. After all, following President Barack Obama’s 2008 win, it received 30,000 applications, up from 300 the previous year.

But while interest in the program did not wane, a spike did not materialize. Wellford believes that the main reasons girls have not followed in older women’s footsteps are a lack of encouragement from the people around them as well as worries about potentially harsh treatment by the media. The onslaught of unfavorable coverage of female candidates, especially of Hillary Clinton — who made history as the first woman to be named the presidential nominee of a major political party — caused young women who dreamed of the White House to retreat, she says.

Running Start has always sought to teach the art of dealing with media scrutiny, which is not at all new for women in politics. But Wellford says that social media’s increased influence requires candidates to have a thicker skin than ever before. On Facebook and Twitter, where people increasingly get their news, negative stories can spread quickly around the world for all to see through trending social media hashtags. Harassment, often including violent and sexualized trolling, can follow.

“These are high school girls,” she says. “They haven’t really done anything. They don’t have enormous skeletons in their closets that they need to worry about. But they have seen and heard stories of female candidates getting death threats.”

To ease girls’ concerns, Wellford has brought in female candidates and elected officials to discuss their personal trials and effective ways of overcoming them. The idea is to show these young women that it’s possible to fight past the negative comments and persevere.  

Fostering Political and Cultural Diversity

When Wellford launched Running Start, she hoped to host participants from a mix of socioeconomic backgrounds, cultures, religions, races and political views. Happily, she and her team found themselves naturally engaging with a diverse group of young women. “We really pride ourselves on having a great mix of different ideologies, different political backgrounds,” Wellford says. “We are really producing candidates for both sides.”

Running Start youth leadership program

A non-partisan identity allows Running Start to foster understanding between girls with different beliefs, who all attend seminars together. But since the 2016 election, Wellford says there has been a resistance and reluctance among participants to talk with people from the opposite side of the aisle, a reflection of the deepening divide in the country between the right and the left. That has required the organization to work harder to bridge differences.

Despite the effort to achieve political diversity within the program, only 10 percent of Running Start’s participants are Republican. With a reported 18 percent of millennial women identifying as Republicans, according to a poll from Pew Research Center, the split is not as drastic as it may appear. Nevertheless, Running Start is engaging almost daily in conversations about how to draw in more members of the GOP, Wellford says.

“Running Start participants disproportionately come from groups who tend to skew Democratic: college students, women of color, unmarried people and low-income people,” she says. “With all these factors at play, Running Start serves a significant number of Republican young women. However, we still have room to improve our recruitment.”

For now, Wellford is fighting to ensure that all Running Start participants appreciate their value and understand why their perspectives are needed in American politics. She encourages all girls — from the Muslim student who felt she could not run because of her headscarf to the girl who said she did not belong in the program because she was undocumented — to continue pushing toward their dreams of working in politics.

Getting a ‘Running Start’

Wellford, herself, got an early start. She was introduced to the world of politics in 1991 when she worked as a legislative assistant for a year for Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler of Georgia. She went on to serve under Hillary Clinton, then the first lady, on her Health Care Task Force. After finishing law school at University of Virginia in 1998, Wellford worked for 3 years lobbying Congress and executive agencies on behalf of state and local governments, corporations and trade associations.   

Running Start is Wellford’s second entrepreneurial effort. She earlier cofounded the Women Under Forty PAC (WUF PAC) in 1999 with a lobbyist colleague, Stacie F. Beckerman. Their idea came during a conversation when Beckerman remarked that very few young women their age were in power. The pair decided they would make a change themselves by starting a PAC to raise money for female candidates under the age of 40. Though Beckerman took the lead at first, Wellford quickly became passionate about getting women elected. Two years after WUF PAC’s founding, she quit her law-firm job to become president of the organization.

But Wellford says the nonpartisan WUF PAC struggled. It frequently supported challengers rather than incumbents, uphill battles that political and corporate donors weren’t often keen to support. Moreover, the pool of candidates was shrinking, she says.

So she decided to take a step back from her role as president to address why women were not choosing to run. She believed the key reasons were that women were not getting enough encouragement and that those who did express interest did not have the tools to run successfully. With Running Start, Wellford hoped to intervene early by introducing teenage girls to the world of politics, so they would be ready and able to run for elected office when they were older. She would offer encouragement and inspire confidence by introducing teens to women politicians through seminars and other programs that would show them they can serve as well.

Wellford says young women have long expressed a variety of fears about seeking elected office — that they don’t have the knowledge to do the job, that their strengths are better used behind the scenes, or that they want to have a family and don’t think they can do both. She adds that, often, no one else in these young girls’ lives is telling them that they can run for office. Even if participants opt not go into politics, Wellford wants them to know they have the skills and confidence to do so.

Nadya Okamoto attended Running Start’s Young Women’s Political Summit this past June after launching her campaign for a city council seat in Cambridge, Mass., at only 19 years of age. Okamoto was inspired to run by a passion for local issues and desire to increase housing affordability, education equity and make progress towards more sustainable living, according to her website.

But she felt isolated and wanted to meet other young politicians. Thanks to Running Start, she saw young women her age with the desire to become president of the United States — an aspiration she had never seen among her peers. While Okamoto lost her race, she gained strength from learning that she is part of a larger movement — just as Wellford hoped.

After recently celebrating its tenth birthday, Running Start has begun to see its first class of young female mentees run for office — and win. One feather in its cap is graduate Avery Bourne, a Republican elected in 2014 at age 22 to represent the 95th district in the Illinois House of Representatives. Bourne won re-election in November.

Wellford is encouraged by the determination and success of the program’s graduates, which keeps her motivated as she works to raise the next generation of politicians. As her mentees climb higher and higher up the political ladder, she hopes that her dream of hearing Running Start thanked in an inaugural address will be realized one day very soon.