Q&A with Vote Run Lead CEO, Erin Vilardi
Ever found yourself day dreaming about running for office but succumbed to the fallacy that it's impossible? Vote Run Lead wants YOU to run, and CEO Erin Vilardi tells us just how easy it is to accomplish in just 90 days.
November 15, 2020
by Victoria Oldridge
Vote Run Lead is on a mission to train the most diverse group of women to unleash their political power, run for office, and transform American democracy.
About CEO, Erin Vilardi: I first launched the program as Vice President of Program and Communications at The White House Project, more than 15 years ago. After that, I served as a Leadership Development Consultant for clients including Fortune 100 companies, global girls’ initiatives, and the U.S. Department of State, reaching women leaders in a dozen international cities. I co-authored the Athena CORE10©, an innovative set of leadership competencies for 21st century women leaders based on the latest research and gender analysis for the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College, served as an Executive Producer of Ann Richards’ Texas, a documentary about the late pioneering governor. Ultimately, in 2014, I came back to focus on my passion to get more women into power, launching Vote Run Lead as a standalone organization.
Truffld: For a woman who isn’t a ‘career politician,’ running for office at any level can feel daunting. Are these perceived barriers primarily internal (self-talk), external (lack of support), or both?
Erin: Luckily, this is changing. The career politician is on their way out and the authentic leader ready to serve her community is riding a wave in. Therefore, here at Vote Run Lead, we teach women to navigate strategies to run from both an insider’s tried-and-true strategy but also from a fresh outsider’s perspective. It’s that insider/outsider combination that will propel new folks forward. But we do have to recognize that sometimes we diminish our own experiences or wrongly believe some of our past experiences are weaknesses. At Vote Run Lead, we believe those vulnerabilities are strengths and that they deeply connect you to your constituents, especially how you rise to the challenge of a situation and how you persevere. Vote Run Lead creates a supportive environment to allow you to map some of those self-doubts and reverse your thinking. It’s ok to be aware of your shortcomings, but there is no need to let it stop you! For tackling the lack of support and some of those systemic barriers (yes, sexism is alive and well in politics!) we have a few strategies but first, you need to know that they exist and plan ahead to tackle them!
Truffld: How are the aforementioned obstacles overcome, and what is the common inflection point that urges a potential candidate to take the first step toward running?
Erin: Vote Run Lead trainings have been designed to overcome these obstacles! Not only does research show that women supporting women has a net effect on their success, but also I’ve seen firsthand the magic that happens during our trainings. 'Transformational' is the word that alums often use. Part of that power is seeing other women like you, and part of it is the nuts-and-bolts information that demystifies the process of running for office, and winning. I think that inflection point is when all that comes together, and then a trainee has a moment to reflect -- that’s when I see faces light up with possibility. One of our alums in Brooklyn was just quoted in an article about how with various trainings, she went from thinking 'why me?' to 'why not me?' That’s exactly it -- and exactly the way most men think. Lastly, to simplify the first steps to running for office even more, Vote Run Lead has created a 90-Day Challenge. It’s a straightforward path, done in 30 steps over 90 days, that if you follow it, you’ll likely be ahead of most of your opponents in a race -- or at least you’ll be well on your way.
Truffld: What sorts of professional backgrounds do your candidates come from?
Erin: All of them! Our mantra is 'Run As You Are.' We believe that women must run by leading with their personal experiences, professional expertise and the full picture of their lives. How women have navigated work, parenthood (or singlehood!), and their own leadership and struggles are perspectives that are deeply needed. Vote Run Lead can teach you how to campaign, how to speak publicly, how to raise funds, but we can also teach you to express the 'fire in your belly' that only comes from tapping into your lived experiences and by leveraging those experiences as strengths. One of my favorite workshops that we run is how to create your stump speech because we throw out the old notions of a political speech and we dig deep into what makes each individual woman a unique leader. It works, too! Because when we tap into our past, our stories, our ups and downs, we realize that we are ready and that we have been leading in so many ways that go unrecognized. And that is the most powerful tool we have!
Truffld: The 2018 midterm elections were unprecedented with respect to a staggering 127 Congressional seats secured by women. Many thought the upward trajectory could be an anomaly. It wasn’t. Despite less gains for women-elected seats in 2020, the overall momentum is sustaining. How is this wave of not only a more gender-balanced but also racially diversified political arena influencing policy?
Erin: I agree, the overall momentum of women in leadership is sustaining and excitedly, we are seeing it happen across the aisle. While Vote Run Lead focuses on state and local office, we are proud to now have four alumnae in Congress, all Black women, who are a part of this growing wave. The number of women who are running and winning are emboldened to do things differently and to speak for their home districts. For example, Cori Bush, a Vote Run Lead alum and the first Black woman elected to Congress in Missouri, representing greater St. Louis,
will bring a unique perspective as a Registered Nurse, as a Black Lives Matter activist, and as a Pastor, to reflect the needs of her community. The newly elected Republican, another record, women will also represent their community and what got them elected. Don’t underestimate the power of the Squad either. What this shows is that women are diverse and our lived experiences matter and must be part of the policy solutions of America! Lastly, I believe that women are more likely to work together at the Congressional level and look forward to how these women bridge the partisan divide and do better to create a more effective federal government making real policy.
Truffld: Women are increasingly galvanized to run for office in an effort to serve as a reflection of the communities in which they live. Where are you seeing the most impact of their leadership in this arena?
Erin: Everywhere that women run, we see impact, but I am most excited about how women are increasing their numbers in state legislatures across the country. We saw a record number of women nominees for state legislative races in the 2020 election, in a rate of increase that proved significantly smaller than the gains made in 2018 (which was a banner year!), according to data compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics. At Vote Run Lead, the number one office that our alumnae are running for is the state legislatures, mirroring this trend, with 59% of our candidates on the general election ballot running for the state house and
senate. With gridlock at the federal level, this is where we, as women and as an organization, can create real change, can build the farm team of women for higher office, as well as inspire girls and women in their hometowns!
Truffld: Women supporting women is powerful, but without men supporting women, the hill is a steeper, slower climb. How do we involve and motivate the fathers, brothers, husbands in our lives to step up to the plate with us?
Erin: Talk to them!
Truffld: What’s next for Vote Run Lead?
Erin: We are taking it to the states! Vote Run Lead will be launching RUN 51, a multi-year initiative to make state legislatures across American to be reflective democracies. Specifically, this means that we will work in key states to make State Houses and State Senates 51% women and reflective of the population of the state. Our goal is to prove the impact -- once and for all -- that women in government make significant changes for the better! We have already seen how an increase of women in the legislatures is making change from budgets being passed on time to significant policy change from the economy to climate!