The Democrats’ fastest-rising star is a woman unafraid of her own power

Rep. Jayapal
Rep. Jayapal
Image: Pramila Jayapal
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In September 2017, US representative Don Young called congresswoman Pramila Jayapal a “young lady” on the House floor, saying she “doesn’t know a damn thing what she’s talking about.” Instead of lashing out, Jayapal responded with characteristic grace, turning the insult into a lesson: “Women, including women of color, face this kind of exchange far too often…So often, we are discredited for being brown or black, looking too young or too old, or having strong opinions.”

For Jayapal, such confidence is natural. She is a woman of many firsts: the first woman in Washington state to represent its 7th congressional district; the first Asian-American to represent the state in Congress; and the first Indian-American woman to serve in the US House of Representatives. ”I want to remind women of color out there to stand your ground, and don’t ever be afraid to speak up,” she added, after her take-down of Young went viral.

Born in India, Jayapal came to the US at 16 to attend Georgetown before getting her MBA at Northwestern and going on to work on Wall Street. But her ambitions lay outside of business and finance: Informed by her own experience as an immigrant, Jayapal was drawn to activism, particularly around issues affecting immigrants, women, and people of color.

In 2001, Jayapal founded the advocacy group OneAmerica, an organization dedicated to challenging xenophobia and embracing migration. She outlined the need to fight for immigrant rights in a 2010 TED talk, a rallying cry she reiterated in an acceptance speech the night she was elected to Congress—and Donald Trump was elected president: “We need to fight to protect our very basic freedoms, and while that is not the fight I would have chosen, I will fight it, the way that we have always fought anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant hate in America.”

And Jayapal has continued fighting. Despite being a fresh face on the Hill, she has established herself as a bastion of bold change and moral clarity in Congress. Through her first year in Washington, she has relentlessly petitioned on behalf of the DREAM Act, condemned a tax bill that hurts the middle class, and called for a hearing on the sexual-misconduct allegations against Trump.

Jayapal has become one of the Democrats’ most powerful progressives and a champion for women of color in a field that has too few. Most recently, instead of attending the State of the Union, she spoke to the state of women in America, declaring to huge applause, “I’m proud to be an immigrant, someone who was born in another country. I’m proud to be an organizer. The future is female!”

In an interview with Quartz, Jayapal describes the importance of being open to happenstance, redefining your twists and turns, and how a lack of diverse voices in politics landed America with its current president.

1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?

My big idea is that democracy can only work properly if you have truly representative people at the table. It’s so important because I think that for so long it has not been the case, and it has led to all kinds of results where you don’t have people voting because they don’t see themselves represented, and they don’t have their voice heard. In the end, you have a lot of people who are alienated from democracy and from voting—and then you end up with Donald Trump.

2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?

Someone once told me that I don’t have a single give-up bone in my body. If someone tells me that something can’t be done, that makes me more determined to do it. I think that when you’re doing hard work, especially surrounding civil and immigrant rights, these are things that if they were easy, they would be already done. This is a long game, and you have to believe in your core that you can make progress.

3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?

We have so much to do on this front, but a great place to start would be equal pay, period. Women earn between 54 and 80 cents for every dollar earned by men. The gap is widest for black and brown women. I am co-sponsoring a bill called the Paycheck Fairness Act—which Republicans have shamefully rejected nine times—that creates stronger prohibitions against gender-based pay discrimination. It’s simply outrageous that gender and racial bias are taking precedent over skill, experience, and knowledge.

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 wish I had believed something I saw on a t-shirt recently: “Not all those who wander are lost.” There was a sense at the beginning that every decision had to be linear, and so for me to be an English major, then go get a master’s degree in business, and then to work on Wall Street, and then to work on global health… my career has taken so many twists and turns. But everything ended up being useful for what I’m doing now. In retrospect, they don’t even feel like twists or turns—it just feels like they were all a part of building the set of expertise and skills I have now. It doesn’t feel non-linear at all; it was a lot of wandering, but I’m not lost.

5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?

After 9/11, I had just become an American citizen, and I remember sitting in front of my TV set watching the news of the attacks, in tears. I remember thinking to myself, “Nothing is ever going to be the same in this country for people who look like me.” But I realized that I just had to dry my eyes and figure out what to do that was going to make a difference at that moment. I ended up starting—but not knowing that I was starting anything at the time—an organization. It was then called Washington Hate Free Zone, and I led it and it eventually grew to be the largest immigrant-rights organization in our state. And that put me on the trajectory that I’m on now.

6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?

I’ve noticed that you don’t always know when you’ll have an opportunity to build a relationship. If you just stay open, there come these moments when there’s a connection between yourself and someone you didn’t expect, and if you follow up on that right away, it can turn into something. That’s how I came to know one of my freshman colleagues from across the aisle; we probably don’t share a whole lot in common, but we were at the Holocaust museum and there ended up being a long discussion on immigration. Now we are working together as co-chairs in a bipartisan group of new members on immigration.

7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I was going through a really difficult time in my life, and I had a therapist who said something to me that I’ll never forget, and I continue to tell other people: “You don’t have to be small in order for somebody else to be big.” I think this is particularly important, especially for a lot of women and young women, who sometimes fear their own power. We should realize that we can actually exhibit all of that power. And if somebody is intimidated by it, then let them be intimidated by it.

8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…

Treat us equally.

Bonus Questions:

The mountain I’m willing to die on… is that the Oxford comma should be abolished.

I wish people would stop telling me… I speak really good English.

Everyone (who has a dog) should own… a dog-paw washer.

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.