Erin Vilardi is the founder, CEO and executive director of VoteRunLead, a national non-profit organization leveraging technology and training to accelerate the number of women in civic and political leadership. Erin first launched VoteRunLead when she was 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, training 15,000+ women. Erin has also appeared on CNN, BBC, and Fox News and her work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, O, The Oprah Magazine as well as numerous international and domestic articles on women and leadership.
What motivated and inspired you to start your own business/organization?
Women in the MENA region. I was doing consulting work for the business and human rights division of Yahoo! and was traveling with them to Cairo for a women’s leadership conference for women from the Middle East and North Africa. It was about one year after the revolution, and women were using technology to organize, lead and share their stories. I knew that I had to bring this learning home – that technology needed to be better leveraged for women leaders in the U.S.
I had first started VoteRunLead as a program of another women’s organization in 2004. I ran it for almost nine years. When I got home from that trip, I was re-energized to jumpstart VoteRunLead.org once again with a smarter tech approach. We launched in 2014 as a stand-alone organization and now we are celebrating three years!
Tell us about your business/organization.
VoteRunLead is a training powerhouse for women looking to run for local and state office. We are a national, nonprofit organization whose mission is to educate diverse women to unleash their political power, seek public office and transform American democracy. We work to equip women with the right know-how, trainings and how-to’s to help them enter politics with a purpose.
VoteRunLead is independent of the political parties and believes that women already have the talents, networks and expertise to run. And, by empowering women to run as they are, they will build a successful campaign based on their own passion, their own ideas and their own values. And, that’s exactly what we need right now.
Are you currently running any events/promos/contests/giveaways that you would like our readers to know about?
VoteRunLead is preparing for our best training yet. We are going to teach 200 women to run as they are in a weekend at our upcoming VoteRunLead National Training in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Taking place from November 17-19, this campaign training will help them see their own power, to harness it into a successful run for office, and to have a foundation of people and skills that will propel their ideas into action once in office.
A great resource to check out is the VoteRunLead 90-Day Challenge. VoteRunLead has more than 60 different resources and webinars to help women run for office.
We’ve been recognized by the National Council for Research on Women (now re:gender), local clubs and organizations across the country, and even featured in Marie Claire’s “Genius” column in 2014. VoteRunLead won a coveted spot in the nonprofit incubator, Beespace, in 2015 and honored by Civic Hall in 2015.
Where is your business/organization based?
We have team members in Colorado, Minnesota and Michigan, working out of their homes, but most of us are in New York housed at WeWork, a space that suits our needs and allows us to focus on what we do best, not the nitty gritty of office stuff!
What were the first few steps you took to get your business/organization up and running?
- The first step was to call my colleagues who had helped to build the first programs of VoteRunLead. Several of us, now all co-founders, gathered in Duluth, MN, with a view of the great lake Superior, to brainstorm and map a vision for the future.
- Over the next few days, a fire pit and lots of big white paper later, we attached VoteRunLead 2.0.
- Next, I had to network, network, network and quickly draft proposals and white papers about what our vision was and how we were going to get there. We each decided on our roles, with me at the helm and others as board, staff and trainers.
- Finally, it was a race to get it up and running, too, and just see what could happen. We failed a few times, with setbacks and course corrections, but now, three years later, I actually finally feel like we are humming along strong! I don’t believe there is quick fix when you’re a social entrepreneur, you’ve got to keep yourself focused on the long game!
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness of your business and getting new customers?
Thankfully, our alumnae base from our previous organization was ready for our return. Because we had built our network of VoteRunLead alums by partnering with local and like-minded organizations, we could tap back into those networks and to individual women who trusted our team and our brand.
Additionally, we promote heavily on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to get in front of new audiences and to ask our networks to share. There’s nothing like word-of-mouth though, and our alums have been actively telling their friends and family about our trainings and how to get involved, whether that’s tagging someone on Facebook, endorsing our training approach or providing the resources for another woman to attend.
What have been your biggest challenges so far?
One our biggest challenges has been to fulfill the hundreds of requests we receive to hold campaign trainings in various communities. We’re glad to see there’s such a high volume of interest, so we’re working hard to capture that energy. The second challenge is tracking their success as it could be years in between women taking the training and deciding to run.
How did you overcome these challenges?
We have an incredible amount of support from corporations like Target and Coca Cola that have provided big investments so that we can be a nimble and effective nonprofit. Locally, women’s funds in New York, Minneapolis, Rhode Island and others provide resources that support local event preparation, outreach and training.
We’ve also had a few leading feminist philanthropists like Abby Disney, Barbara Dobkin and Ruth Ann Harnisch help launch the organization and new initiatives we want to try. Our trainers are the best; for years, they have given us their time and resources – often below their market rate – in order to fulfill the demand. We couldn’t do this without them!
How do you keep motivated through difficult times?
I look through the VoteRunLead Facebook feed. Honestly, the women who are running, who are now different more empowered people and aren’t afraid to say it in their posts and in their support of other women is remarkable. To get through challenging times, I get a dose of the awesome women I’ve met and trained across the country. I also reflect on the incredible success stories of our VoteRunLead alum who were trained by us and won. One notable alum is Ilhan Omar who, earlier this year, won her election bid and became the first Somali-American to hold legislative office in the country. She’s such an inspiration!
How do you distinguish yourself from your competitors?
Our diversity – from women of color to women from rural communities; our independence from partisan influence, and our approach. VoteRunLead’s unique campaign trainings are practical, actionable, nonpartisan and individualized. We trust women and don’t tell them what to think or believe but instead give them the space and resources to build their power and to run as they are. We are also looking at the short term. The next three years in politics are critical and while inspiring and recruiting women to run is also critical, our job as a training powerhouse is to get these women to run right now!
What is the best advice you have received recently?
Tell your story. Tell it over and over and over again. It’s something I teach other women and forget to do myself. I, too, can fall into the trap of believing that because our work is so high impact that someone is just going to come along and want to promote us. But, as we all know, that’s not the way the world works! I am working to get better at telling our story in a way that results in reaching more women and more supporters.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
Say it loud and proud! Good work isn’t enough; we need to promote, promote, promote. No, it’s not bragging. It’s the truth. Speak your truth to as many people as will listen!
What are your favorite business tools/resources and why?
- Love it. It allows me to communicate with my team and keeps my personal tools (like texting) to my friends and family. It also is easily searchable for sharing files and going back to read what others said. With private channels and the ability to communicate with consultants all in the same place, I couldn’t live without it.
- I am constantly on the road and there are drivers in all the cities I travel to, even in rural areas! I love the drivers and recently had one take my card to connect to his sister in east Africa who runs a similar program. Now, I never lose a receipt (it is the bane of my existence).
- A big white board
- Everyone needs one!
What is a good article or book you have read recently?
I love podcasts. I am a big fan of “Beyond the To-Do list” that is full of tips, tricks and books to help you stay productive. I don’t use all them, I wish I did! But it helps me reset what I am doing and get back on track.
What are you currently learning about for your business or looking for help with?
Scale. We’ve got to get bigger, fast. We have over 300 requests to bring our training to town and cities across America and close to 9,000 who are interested in learning how to run. We’ve got to grow smart and quickly.
What are your goals for the next few months and how are you striving to achieve them?
Our goals in the next three years are to create the strategic plan to train 30,000 women by 2020. In the short term, we are very focused on preparing for our upcoming VoteRunLead National Training in Minnesota and testing new training modules, codifying our curriculum and growing our training base as a foundation for growth.
What social media outlets do you use? List them below.
Usman Valanches says
Thanks for sharing all of your experiences!