Susannah Wellford Shakow
President of Running Start and BettyConfidential.com columnist
In a recent interview Susannah Shakow shared three difficult moments in her life, and what they taught her.
After college Susannah decided she wanted to move back to Washington D.C. and get involved in politics. After working in the Senate, she landed her dream job in the Clinton White House. From the first day, however, she had doubts about whether she was really cut out for the job. The day she was hired she worked until 11:30 p.m., and she was due back in the office the next morning for a 7:30 a.m. staff meeting. This was just the beginning of the demands this job would place on her. “Every waking moment of my life was consumed by this job… I hated it because I felt like I was missing out on everything else in life.”
The consistent long hours, the steep learning curve and the stress took their toll on Susannah. She thought seriously about quitting. But a month later she said she was the happiest she’d ever been. “Sometimes you have to have that baptism of fire before you really come into your own in a job. For the two years that I was in the White House I had no other life, but I loved my job so much I didn’t care.” She says suffering through those hard first months was one of the best things she has ever done. “I got it. I found my niche and I started to do my job really well. I learned how the hardest things in life are so often the most rewarding.”
Benefits of Persistence A few years later Susannah applied to law school at the University of Virginia. She was absolutely determined to go there, in large part because her new husband was just finishing his first year at UVA law. She was waitlisted, and as the school year approached, she had still not been accepted. Not wanting to live apart from her husband, and not wanting to spend a year working at Starbucks until she could apply again, Susannah was desperate. “I basically swallowed my pride and did everything to get off that waiting list, including asking everyone I knew for recommendation letters, bombarding the Admissions office with phone calls, and eventually appealing in person to the Dean. I had to become a fierce advocate for myself, which is something I had never done before.” Fortunately, her persistence paid off and she was admitted to UVA law school on the first day of classes.
Susannah looks back on this experience as the point when she knew she had the strength and the persistence within her to reach for whatever she wanted.
When handed lemons…
Susannah was hired out of law school by what she felt was “…the greatest law firm on earth. I was so happy.” Two years later she had twins and stayed home with them for six months. The firm told her they would love to have her back in whatever capacity she was able. She worked half-time at half her salary and was able to be a very active lawyer and mother. Then 9/11 hit and the firm, like many businesses, downsized. A few months later, Susannah was one of the lawyers laid off.
“Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. It was a horrible blow.” Susannah did not stay devastated for long. “I realized pretty quickly that when negative things happen to you, they can define you. I was determined to make leaving the firm a good thing for me.”
Susannah decided to go out on her own to pursue her passion for women and politics. She co-founded WUFPAC (the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee), and ran it for six years, turning an idea into a thriving organization. She now heads a successor organization she founded, Running Start, which is dedicated to inspiring young women and girls to run for political office. “I love making the decisions on how this company is run, and being responsible for its success. It is so empowering. I really feel like I am in charge of how I want my life to be.” Susannah says that although being laid off was a painful experience, it was necessary for her growth. “I might still be at the law firm, instead of working on something that I really love. Sometimes you just need to be kicked in the pants to jumpstart your career.”
Susannah further reflected that these three events were examples of “shaping me as a person who realized I can get through hard times.” Susannah draws strength and some of her identity from knowing how hard she worked for whatever she wanted. “However, having children was my true defining moment. My boys come first in my life and I can’t imagine reprioritizing.” Considering everything that led up to motherhood in Susannah’s life, it is easy to believe that she knows her priorities.
This is how Susannah answered our rapid fire questions
When you were 10-years-old, what did you want to be when you grew up?
–> “A writer or a pundit.”
What type of kids did you hang out with in high school?
–> “Hum, I think the best description is the semi cool kids – not nerds, not cool but in between.”
What women from the past do you most identify with?
–> “My grandmother Mittie, who was a fiery independent, outspoken woman.”
What’s your workout?
–> “I work out at a great boot camp most mornings at 5:30 a.m. It is run by a woman named Sarah who works us very hard, but makes it fun, and there is great bonding with the other women. I am going on my fourth year.”
Cat or dog?
What do you do when you want to completely tune-out?
–> “Read, run or watch Grey’s Anatomy.”
What book is sitting on your shelf waiting to be read?
–> “Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali”
If you could have dinner with any two people who would they be?
–> “Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.”
What is the one thing you don’t want the next generation of girls to encounter?
–> “I want the next generation of girls to grow up with plenty of examples of how they can be what they want to be in life.”
If there were one thing you could change in your life, what would it be?
–> “I would have run for student government in college and law school.”