Erin Vilardi on preparing the wave of women leaders to transform American democracy

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

Listen to the podcast:


So first, the elephant in the room.  It may seem odd that I’m the one writing about VoteRunLead, the largest nonpartisan organization in the country dedicated to the training and development of women leaders and political candidates.  Clearly, this is territory ripe for Shannon.  But that’s exactly why I asked her if she minded if I wrote about our conversation with VoteRunLead Founder and CEO Erin Vilardi.

To be honest, this cultural moment we’ve living in has caused more than a few of us white, straight, middle-aged, middle-class men to try our best to keep our heads down and stay under the radar (raises hand sheepishly). But sometimes you have to call yourself out.

Although I’ve been rooting from the sidelines, from the election fallout, through the Women’s March on Washington, to the unfolding of the Time’s Up and #metoo movements, my take has been—and Shannon and I have had some pretty interesting conversations about it over the last year—that now is really not my time to talk.

I figured I’d better just sit and listen.  Which, to be honest, isn’t probably all bad.  The world could stand a couple of months of silence from the lot of us.

That doesn’t mean many of us men haven’t been doing a lot of reflecting on power structure and how it manifests in our professional and personal relationships with women.

And look, as Erin Vilardi told us in our conversation, there’s only so woke a white woman can be no matter how hard she tries—add another level of inherent sleepiness for being a white man.

But here’s what I do know:  I’ve worked my entire career for women leaders and would follow almost all of them through a brick wall.  They’ve listened to me, developed me, and made me better—often, with little or no incentive for themselves.  I’ve worked with female leaders who routinely work harder, work smarter, and achieve more lasting impact than I ever could.  And I’ve noticed slowly, over time, the wave of recognition from many men I’ve worked with that when something needs to get done, and done right, usually it’s a woman leader who does it.

Which is just one reason why it’s absolutely bonkers that the US ranks behind over a hundred countries in the world in terms of women leaders in government.

Sometimes just running down a list of facts isn’t anything more than running down a list of facts.  But let’s at least start there:

  • Women make up only 22% of the United States Senate, and only 19% in the House.
  • Six women serve as state governors. (Yeah, there are still 50 states!)
  • So is it better locally? A little. But women still make up only 25% of state legislators in the United States.
  • Here perhaps is the most depressing thing: in the 25 years since the “year of the woman” in 1992, the number of female elected leaders has continued to hover between 20 and 25%.

And I think most people know this, but it warrants repetition: almost 51% of our population is female. So there’s that. But I guess the more interesting facts for me are a little more anecdotal:

  • The fact that I have to explain to my daughter why there’s still even a thing called “International Women’s Day” is crazy to me.
  • The fact that I have to explain to her why there’s still a thing called a “pay gap” is crazy to me.
  • The fact that I have to explain why, when she looks at a school picture of our 45 presidents, there’s not a single female face, even though parents have been telling their daughters they could be president for 50 years now . . .

As we discussed with Erin, one last fact stood out like a sore thumb. Fifty years of “first and only” women’s candidates have moved the needle only incrementally in terms of women in office.  This “first and only stuff” has to be put in our rear-view mirror; now it’s really about building a pipeline of talent behind those historic candidates.

Building that pipeline has been VoteRunLead’s monumental accomplishment. In 2017 VoteRunLead trained almost 10,000 women to run for office—three times the number of any year prior. With their innovative, nonpartisan “Run As You Are” curriculum, they educate diverse women to unleash their independent political power, seek public office, and transform American democracy.

At the end of this clip, you can see Erin glow as she talks about the magic of VoteRunLead conferences, where women come together for a beautiful vision of American democracy all of us could get on board with in 2018: dialogue instead of debate.

The wave is coming.  You’ll see it in these midterms, but more importantly, you’ll see it next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.  It’s coming.  This next generation, which Erin and I agree, is 10 times smarter than we’ve ever been, is just starting to show us what they’re made of.  I can’t wait to see how they’re going to build an America that’s closer to what this “American Experiment” was meant to be.
So I’m sure there’s plenty here to troll away on, and have at it. I welcome the rationalization and the mansplaining.  But after sitting and shutting up and thinking and listening for a while now, it’s time to talk.
Learn about, support, and share VoteRunLead’s mission at
Subscribe to Our Newsletter: For the Love of Conversation