As a person who believes your mindset can bring about good things in your life, Erin Vilardi has been supporting women in owning their power to run for office and make a difference through government for over a decade. As the Founder and Director of VoteRunLead (VRL), she leverages technology and training to accelerate the number of women in political leadership. She first launched VRL as Vice President of Program and Communications at The White House Project, establishing the largest national political training program readying women for public office and civic life, and training over 15,000 women.
VoteRunLead is vigorously moving the tide on the number of women elected to office and its mission to train women to run for political office and win. Most recently, VoteRunLead and WeWork partnered to start Women’s Leadership Works to empower women by holding training seminars at WeWork locations to give women the tools they need to run for office and win. These #RunAsYouAre WeWork and VoteRunLead hosted sessions tap into the conversation around the need for women to enter public service and get involved in their communities not just with words, but with action.
Additionally, Erin has appeared on CNN, BBC, and Fox News and in numerous articles on women and leadership, and is a producer on All About Ann, a documentary on the former governor of Texas, Ann Richards.
Her Agenda had the opportunity to speak with Erin regarding VoteRunLead’s upcoming events, current momentum around women in politics, and the ins and outs of running an organization.
Her Agenda: What does a typical day consist of as Founder and CEO?
Erin Vilardi: If I’m traveling, I’m communicating with partners, training women to run for office, and meeting with potential supporters. It’s all very external facing. There’s a lot of running from meeting to meeting and checking in with the team. If I’m in the office, I’m a steamroller for my team. From the minute I get in the office until the end of the day we are touching every project and moving it along. I have one on one meetings with my team members, assist them with crafting messages, and carry out press calls like this one. I also might be texting with alumni who have questions about declaring. I have a lot of contact with the alumni community, which is super cool. Running a small nonprofit, you are involved in everything.
Her Agenda: How did VoteRunLead come about?
Erin Vilardi: In 2002-2003 I was a senior at NYU and an intern at The White House Project, which at the time was one of the only women leadership organizations in the country. Additionally, it was cross-sector: women in politics, women in business, and women in media. I was hired immediately after college. Another young woman and I started VoteRunLead as a traditional field program of The White House Project. We ran around the country for about 8-9 years training 15,000 women in person to run for office. We had seven regional offices and a fantastic field team. Unfortunately, The White House Project closed its doors. Many of us had moved on prior to that but once several of the field directors found out we all decided to fly out to Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota, and restart VoteRunLead.
We decided to restart using technology as well as the in person training curriculum. We have already trained 30,000 women in four years – double the amount of women in half the amount of time – by adding the technology component to VoteRunLead as a standalone organization. We launched that in 2014 with a diverse set of co-founders, both racially and geographically diverse that I’ve known and worked with for a decade. The reason for this was that women were waiting 5 to 10 years to run. We decided no we need you now! Facebook had become ubiquitous and we had not changed our cell phone numbers so women were still texting and calling us. That drove us to do this work.
Her Agenda: What is one key challenge to the work that you do in educating diverse women to unleash their independent political power, seek public office and transform American democracy?
Erin Vilardi: Prior to the 2016 election, our biggest issue was recruitment. We would go out and convince women that public office and government was a place to get things done. The biggest barrier across a bunch of demographics was that women didn’t see politics as a place of high effectiveness. When women jump in we’re solution-oriented, we want to do something; it is all less ego-driven. Post 2016, our issue was getting to women fast enough because now women were raising their hands and saying yes to running. We were thrilled and asked, ‘What do you want to run for?’ Women would respond, ‘I don’t know, tell me what to run for.’ Prior to 2016 this never happened.
As a result, in April of 2017 we created a new update to our curriculum called “Run As You Are”, and that is because we looked at rural women, women of color, moms and young women, and the theme across all of the demographics was that women were not willing to change who they were authentically in order to become a political power. In fact, the skills that we need in government today, are exactly the skillset that women already have, which is community bridge building, being solution-oriented, nontraditional political backgrounds, a willingness to work across the aisle, and the ability to push ego aside.
The “Run As You Are” methodology is a challenge to the status quo in that women are saying they will run but they are not going to run the old way. We are constantly working with our curriculum to stay in tune with the political needs of women. This is our biggest challenge, and we work to address it by bringing in strategic partners to document and better understand experiences. It is an ongoing challenge but we get to put women first at the end of the day.
Her Agenda: What has been VoteRunLead’s biggest win as an organization this year?
Erin Vilardi: On Super Tuesday, June 5th when voters in eight states went to the polls, twenty-five out of thirty-three of women [candidates] advanced, which was a seventy-six percent win rate. In 2017 seventy percent of our first time candidates won in spite of usually having a ten percent chance of winning. Many of them attributed it to the “Run As You Are” methodology where they went around talking about how great they were without the bragging or turning into some sort of machine candidate.
Her Agenda: It is no secret that politics is still male-dominated, what advice would you give to a woman looking to run for office?
Erin Vilardi: The first thing I would say is go to our website and browse our Learn How to Run section. We are demystifying the process and making it easier for you to run. You can also check out the What To Run For section and take a look at the What Office Should I Run For questionnaire. Through this you can figure out where you’re most excited about public office, what the time commitment is, and where the thing you care about gets legislated.
The next thing I would take is the 90-day challenge consisting of 30 actions built by local elected officials with the goal of walking you through how to start building political capital on a timeline that works for you. There is also an awesome a Facebook group where women ask questions and help one another out. If you are ready to run, you should get signed up for Campaigning 101 to understand your timeline. VoteRunLead provides coaches as well as face-to-face trainings, which have the most impact including the creation of a fundraising plan.
Her Agenda: What is something you do on a day-to-day or routine basis that you believe contributes to your success?
Erin Vilardi: At VoteRunLead, we are constantly saying yes to women. We reassure women that they already have all the skills they need on a day-to-day basis. Our magic is saying yes this is going to be hard and you have never done anything like this before but you got this. I don’t know anything that is not hard. Buying a new house is hard. Starting a new job is hard. Moving to a different city is hard. I don’t want to be naïve about running for office being tough but at VoteRunLead we remind women they are equipped to do this. You have what you need and the other stuff you are capable of learning along the way. Personally, I am constantly working to move the ball forward. Time is of the essence and so I work to capitalize on all of the momentum. I’m consistently pushing myself and my team towards results.
Her Agenda: What’s the best book you’ve read in the past several months?
Erin Vilardi: I just read Bringing Up Bébé about an American woman in France who tells American moms to chill out. She affirms that you can be a sexy mom and an engaging parent. The French don’t know what a milf is. They have no idea why a mother would not be sexy. It is a great book I just finished. I’m currently reading Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter about how you encourage other people to step into their greatness. The smartest person in the room doesn’t tell everyone they are the smartest person in the room. The smartest person in the room gets others to be their smartest selves. This is a skillset I really want to grow and carry out more as a leader. I feel like we do this with our training programs and I don’t know that I’m as good at it with my own team.
Her Agenda: What initiated the idea around a partnership with WeWork?
Erin Vilardi: WeWork is a community consisting of over 200,000 members, sixty percent of whom are women. The partnership came about through my Board Chair and WeWork’s PR person, who are women of two different parties and care deeply about women running for office. We had the initial brainstorming meeting and it was all love. WeWork wants to be like the new town hall, and what better way to do this than inviting female political entrepreneurs? These are the kind of women we at VoteRunLead are attracting, recruiting and training. These women are going to take risks, do things differently and innovate in government. The women entrepreneurs at WeWork are the same kind of innovative women. Our communities are very similar and our commitment to our communities are very high. WeWork desires to be a good corporate citizen, understands that relationships mean business, and cares about women leadership. VoteRunLead can now scale, and just show up with our trainings!
[Editor’s note: This interview was published on June 25th, 2018. It has been edited for length and clarity.]