From the archives: this interview originally appeared on the site on June 4th, 2010.
What is your name, age, and location?
Susannah Wellford Shakow, 42, Washington, DC.
What is your profession?
I am the founder and director of a nonprofit called Running Start that inspires young women to run for political office.
What did you study in school and what degrees do you have?
I was an English major at Davidson College, and then I got my law degree at the University of Virginia School of Law.
What was your first job?
My first job was teaching English in Tokyo. My first job in the States was working on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant for Senator Wyche Fowler from Georgia.
Who or what inspired you to break into your current line of work?
I was working as a lobbyist at a law firm, and I was struck by how few women were running the show on Capitol Hill. This inspired me to co-found the Women Under Forty PAC (WUFPAC) to support young women running for office. Five years after founding WUFPAC, I formed Running Start to inspire more young women to run.
Name/describe what has been your most rewarding project so far?
Definitely founding my nonprofit, Running Start. We began with an idea – start talking to women about how they are needed in politics early in their lives, so more women will grow up thinking of themselves as political leaders. Four years later we can see our idea working as our high school participants run for student government and talk about how they are going to come back and run Washington when they graduate school!
Name/describe one incident when being a woman has helped your career?
Last summer I went to Sri Lanka and the Maldives with the State Department to speak to college and high school students about leadership. I could see the girls in the audience light up when I walked in. They were so excited to hear a woman talking about leadership. Many came up to me afterwards and said that while the boys are pushed to be leaders, there are few role models for them to follow. They appreciated hearing from me about powerful women in America, and about how women make such strong leaders. I hope that as a woman I helped empower their leadership.
Name/describe one incident when being a woman has hindered your career?
After working in my law firm for a few years, I got pregnant with twins. When I came back to work part-time, I realized how hard it was to balance family and a busy career. It was the first time in my life that I realized that because I was a woman, things were going to be a little different for me. When I got laid off from my law firm job, my male partners told me: “I bet you are happy you can go home now and take care of your babies!”
Say a few words on your experience with the work-motherhood balance.
I have two 10 year old boys and they are the very best part of my life. While I was at my law firm, work balance was hard because I knew the job expected me to always put it first. I left my firm to found WUFPAC, and later Running Start. Having my own organizations gives me great flexibility – there is nothing like being your own boss! I leave work at 3pm every day so that I can pick my boys up from school, and I work from home in the afternoon. I love the flexibility that my work gives me to spend time with my boys, and I see so many other women starting their own businesses for the same reason.
Who is your role model or mentor (alive or dead)?
When I was working at my law firm, former Texas Governor Ann Richards was a partner there. I got to work with her on several amazing projects, and when my colleague Stacy Beckerman and I founded WUFPAC, she went to lunch with us and helped us develop a business plan to make the PAC succeed. I admire her so much for using her life to raise up women.
If you could give one piece of advice to a woman starting out in your field, what would it be?
Be nice. Kindness is so underrated. If you are always good to the people you work with and meet, from secretaries and interns to CEOs, you will be remembered. I have tried in life to treat everyone fairly and do favors as often as I can. I try to never burn bridges. Little kindnesses (helping young people find jobs, connecting people, supporting other people’s causes) mean the world to people, and help you establish a reputation as someone people want to help.
– Interview by Elena Rossini