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Failing Up: Reflections on Running Start's Resilience Summit

Katherine Baird speaking at the Resilience Summit

Katherine Baird looks put together. She’s the minister of congressional, public and governmental affairs at the Canadian Embassy. She stands tall, shoulders back and eyes ahead. Last Thursday, she addressed a room of over fifty high-achieving young women: “I am failing right now,” she said.

Baird took to the stage to air out her failures as part of the Resilience Summit, an event hosted by Running Start and the Canadian Embassy that I attended last week. Young women are significantly more likely than young men to believe that they will be “unqualified” to run for office in the future, an idea that seems to stem from a fear of failing. The purpose of the summit was to help young women dispel those fears and embrace failure as a necessary complement to success. The summit was a transformative and moving experience that challenged the ways I think about women who fail in the public eye.

Many of the politicians at the conference talked about how they dealt with losing elections. Congressman Will Hurd (R-TX), the sole male speaker, talked about how he lost the first time he ran for office, at age 32. He admitted that he seriously considered applying for a job at a fast food restaurant outside of his district, where no one would recognize him. Instead, he joined a cybersecurity firm doing work he found meaningful then ran again successfully four years later. “You have to refine that process [for failing],” Hurd said. Though losing felt catastrophic at the time, it was ultimately another opportunity for Hurd to contribute to his community.

Other speakers discussed the day-to-day failures they’ve experienced as politicians. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) talked about the votes she regretted making in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and against the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). She faced backlash when she later changed her position on these issues but she advised the audience not to hold back from admitting a wrong because of what people may think. “I don’t care what they say,” she said. “There’s no substitute for self-satisfaction.”

A panel of businesswomen also discussed the failures they’ve faced at work, from missed promotions to unexpected problems at home that bled into the workplace. “You have to stop thinking of it as a failure that stopped you,” Chief Innovation Officer for Consulting at Deloitte Nishita Henry said. Instead, she urged the audience to think of failure as an opportunity to explore new directions.

Among the many women who opened up about their failures, I was particularly moved by Rebecca Thompson, vice president of Deliver Strategies. In 2014, she lost a Michigan state representative race by six votes. She was devastated by her loss, both emotionally and financially. Instead of returning to her district to run for office again, like she had dreamed of since her childhood, she went down a different path and went to work for a communications firm with the purpose of helping women of color running for office. Though at the time she was heartbroken for giving up on her dreams, Thompson now feels that she made the right decision. “It’s okay to dream new dreams,” she said. As women, we’re taught to work twice as hard as our male counterparts to get the promotion or win the election. Stepping down, even when the position is a bad fit, can feel like a betrayal of all the effort that went into getting to that position. It was comforting to hear Thompson candidly discuss how she dealt with that guilt.

I’ve mulled over the conference quite a bit in the days since. I feel like I’m bombarded with stories of female success. Every election cycle, we get hyped up for all the women running for office, and later for the women who win. But what about the women who fall short of the podium? Are they doomed to wander the woods of upstate New York (to be clear, I have no issue with Hillary for choosing to do this)? These are the stories we need to tell more often: of the women who pick themselves up and try again, or change their path altogether.

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