A woman will win the 2020 US presidential race—if Stephanie Schriock has anything to do with it.
Schriock is the president of EMILY’s List, America’s largest resource for women in politics. She’s on a mission to get women elected to public office, and her strategy is informed by over 20 years of political activism on behalf of the Democratic party. She’s served as a Capitol Hill chief of staff, managed US Senate campaigns, and led fundraising for a presidential bid. Since taking charge in 2010, Schriock has helped EMILY’s List raise over $250 million, elected a record numbers of women to the US House and Senate, and trained hundreds of democratic women interested in government, including senator Elizabeth Warren, who Stephanie personally recruited to run for Senate.
“We have a big mountain to climb, there’s a lot of work to do. But we have to win,” Schriock recently told Refinery29 in relation to the 2018 congressional primaries and 2020 presidential election. ”It’s going to take everything we all have to get it done.” This grit informs every venture she takes on, and, in her eyes, it’s the key to her success.
In an interview with Quartz, Schriock explains why she says “yes” to even the riskiest opportunities and shares her realization that professional agony always has good company.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
Even with all the progress women have made in the United States, we are still so often seen as a niche constituency instead of being seen as what we actually are, which is more than half the population. The result of this mindset is a lack of commitment to parity at our governing tables and on our corporate boards. It’s been proven over and over again that when there are more women at the table, decisions are more family-focused and companies are more profitable. This is just common sense—and it’s getting undercut by the niche constituency argument to the point where it’s actually hurting women and families.
Right now, women are less than 20% of Congress and the US is ranked 99th in the world for women in government. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that our policies for economic advancement are so far behind most of the rest of the world. Fortunately, we’re changing that with more than 18,000 women since election day reaching out to EMILY’s List for help running for office.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
I moved up quickly in my career and broke records along the way, raising millions of dollars for Democratic candidates and winning some really tough, longshot campaigns in the process. My success has really all come down to one thing: When I’m presented with an opportunity, I say “yes.” When the opportunity came to pack up my car and move across the country to manage a campaign for the first time, I said “yes.” When I was asked to move to Vermont in the middle of winter to start up a finance operation for Howard Dean’s then-unknown presidential campaign, I said “yes.” My willingness to take a risk—even when I knew it was a long shot—helped me learn fast what worked and what didn’t, and also helped me move up the ladder faster. Just be willing to pack up your car and go when opportunity comes knocking, if you can.
3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
I don’t think there is one magic bullet here, but there are some changes that could be made that would go a long way toward helping. Paid parental leave and paid sick leave would go a long way to easing challenges for, well, everyone. A working childcare system would be a game changer for people working in all industries, and women in particular. And I think reframing the discussion from “work/life balance” to “happiness and fulfillment” would make a big difference. Life isn’t about balance. It’s about fulfillment—finding the right mix of things that make you happy, whether that’s work, the gym, spending time with your kids, or kicking back with a good book. It’s not a perfect science, and these aren’t changes that everyone can make instantaneously without the financial means, but finding the power to change the things in your life that make you unhappy is the key. Whoever you are and wherever you’re at in your life, it’s important to remember that there’s more than one path, and figuring out what ignites your passion is the key. Don’t let society tell you what that should be.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
I figured out pretty quickly that you always have to be prepared to make the case for yourself and for what you know you’re capable of achieving. At the end of the day, the person you’re working for now is really only going to be able to see what you’ve accomplished in your current role. More often than not, you’re the only person who’s going to have the full picture of the value you bring. If you’re giving everything you’ve got at the job you have, that is going to get you noticed, but sometimes you also have to make an argument for yourself that shows the bigger picture of what you’ve done in the past, what skills you have and still need to acquire, what you know you can do in the future, and how you plan to go about getting there.
5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
I work in electoral politics, so after any election that goes badly, things get pretty heavy! I have had some big failures in my career, but, at the risk of sounding like a cliché, they all made me better. I definitely felt more despondent after the 2016 election than after any other loss that came before—and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still figuring that out. You might have to follow up around this time next year, but I can tell you right now—great staff are key.
Early in my career, I had a big blow that really hurt, and I’m so grateful for it now. I was serving as a first-time finance director for a congressional race and doing pretty well. Then there was a change in leadership, and I was made campaign manager. I was so excited—I said “yes”—and took it on. I did not do well. I lasted about a month and then was demoted back to finance director and replaced. I was devastated at the time, but I stayed and worked like hell to be the best finance director I could be. That job ended up opening the doors to my next two jobs, including one where I was hired to be a campaign manager. The lesson was that you don’t always succeed your first time around.
6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
The important thing here is recognizing that you’re not alone in whatever you’re going through in your professional life. If there’s a challenge you’re facing or a question you’re trying to figure out the answer to, chances are someone else has either already been there themselves or they’re going through the exact same thing. Life gets busy and schedules get complicated, but one of the most important things any woman can do for her career is to get in the habit (preferably early on) of reaching out to other women for answers, offering support where you can, and letting authentic relationships and community flow from that.
In my own life, I’ve learned to build in time for everything from scheduling weekend walks with Amy Dacey during the 2016 election cycle, to getting together for dinner with newly elected women senators to welcome them to Washington, to sitting down over a meal with Ilyse Hogue and Cecile Richards on the campaign. (And don’t forget, there are great men out there who are willing to help too, if you ask them.) One of the great benefits that our EMILY’s List community offers is our unique ability to connect women who are running for office with other women who have knowledge from shared personal experiences, whether that means connecting a woman who’s deciding whether or not to run for Congress with a current member of Congress who can offer advice about where her kids should go to school after she’s elected, or connecting women running for state and local office through our new Facebook group.
7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
There were two pieces of advice that were key, and thank goodness they came early. The first came from my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Grey, who made sure that I never gave up, even if I didn’t make it the first time. I had failed to get into an accelerated learning program that year, but she believed in me and fought for me to get another chance. Because she did that, she changed the trajectory of my life. I wouldn’t be here today.
The second bit of advice—and I hate to say I can’t remember who gave it to me—was from a professor in college who suggested I take a minor in business. Thank goodness I did, because I use the skills I learned through those classes (marketing, management, finance, accounting) more every day than any others. It’s never too late to take a few business courses!
8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…
Basic self-awareness goes a long way. As a candidate, a politician, or even just as a manager, no matter how deeply committed you are to equality for women on a personal or policy level, you still need to keep checking in with yourself and giving some thought to the numbers: Are you hiring and promoting as many women as men? Are you paying them the same salaries? Are you regularly retweeting and amplifying the voices of women on your social media platforms? Are there women’s voices in the room when decisions are getting made? If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” you might have some work to do figuring out why that’s the case.
The mountain I’m willing to die on… is that the best pork-chop sandwiches in the world are in Butte, Montana, my hometown.
I wish people would stop telling me… how TV shows end. I work in politics. I’m always a little bit behind on my shows!
Everyone should own… a good set of headphones. And get addicted to a podcast. What else are you going to listen to on airplanes?
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.