When Donald Trump was declared the winner of the 2016 U.S. election, it was, for many women, a reckoning. Ahead of the vote, the president was accused of sexually assaulting dozens of women; meanwhile, on the campaign trail, he threatened to overturn a number of key protections for women, including to defund Planned Parenthood.
"Personally, I was very sad and scared the day after the results were announced," recalls Sara Innamorato, a Pennsylvania Democrat who runs a small branding company outside of Pittsburgh. "I was scared for myself as a woman, and for my friends who identify as queer and as people of color."
Still, Innamorato did not take the news of Trump's victory sitting down. She's one of thousands of women across the country who have since decided to run for public office, in order to affect change at the local, state, or federal level. In fact, an unprecedented number of women have announced their candidacies since November: more than 13,000 and counting.
All told, female candidates are expected to enter hundreds of different races in 2018--positioning women to potentially tip the balance of power in Congress as well as your local city counsel. And of the more than 13,000 candidates, dozens are entrepreneurs--representing both Democrats and Republicans.
"We're leveraging the momentum around the Women's March, and all of the dialogue that's happened since the election," says Erin Loos Cutraro, the founder and CEO of the nonpartisan organization She Should Run, which supports women candidates. She adds that while women politicians still only number in the minority among elected officials, they do have more than a fighting chance at victory. "When women run for office, they win at the same rates as men," Cutraro tells Inc.
What's more, they're not just interested in a single issue. For women entrepreneurs in particular, there's a greater incentive to create a more pro-business environment. One that isn't permissive of sexual harassment and discrimination.
Brianna Wu is one such candidate. The engineer and co-founder of the independent gaming studio Giant Spacekat recently announced that she would be running for Congress in 2018, representing Massachusetts's eighth district, which includes parts of Boston. Wu first came to prominence during the 2014 "Gamergate" scandal--where she was targeted on the basis of her gender. These days, she says she's focused on economic development and housing. She intends to pass a billion-dollar infrastructure bill to protect the state from global warming, for instance, and also wants to raise wages in her district by creating more jobs in tech.
"If I'm elected, I don't just get to serve the people that agree with me," Wu explains. "I get to represent everyone. I want to stand up for a conservative union worker, just as much as some white transgender person trying to get access to health care."
Unique challenges and benefits
Of course, running for office is not without sacrifices. For many candidates, that means giving up on their businesses entirely. Wu, for one, says she's been forced to put Giant Spacekat on hold--even as the company was developing an exciting virtual reality prototype. "It was some really advanced, awesome stuff that we put on hold," Wu says. These days, she spends most of her time cold-calling individuals for money. "It sucks," she concedes. "I'm an engineer, and nobody gets into engineering to do fundraising calls all day. The social skills are something I've had to develop, and it's not my passion."
For others, like Innamorato, the issue is not as much conflict of interest as it is time management. The entrepreneur says she'll maintain her business, at least in name, if and when she's elected. Recently, her company signed a long-term contract with a client that works in reproductive justice, which Innamorato intends to see through. "People get scared, and ask if I'm going to be able to keep my job," she says. To manage both the business and her political ambitions, she launched her campaign relatively early--in June of this year--well before the May 2018 election. She also concedes that it requires a fair amount of multitasking.
There are, of course, advantages to approaching politics with an entrepreneurial mindset. Megan Hunt, an Omaha-based entrepreneur running for the state senate, attributes much of her early momentum to her business attitude. Hunt runs a fashion boutique called Hello Holiday; prior to launching her nine-person business, she started a bridal wear startup that she grew to around $100,000 in revenue.
"I know what it's like when your dream is bigger than your bank account," Hunt explains. "That's entrepreneurship. You have to be scrappy, and you have to be creative." To her point, when Hunt--a single mother--first launched Hello Holiday, she was on Medicaid and food stamps, earning just $300 a month. Now, the business generates hundreds of thousands in annual sales.
"You have to be willing to sacrifice some things for a long-term vision," she says. "Fundamentally, that's the mindset of any effective leader." That's the same energy she's now channeling into her local campaign.
A centuries-old problem
To be sure, the greatest challenge that these candidates face is sexism. Hunt says she won't date during the election cycle, for fear of being labeled lewd. "The opposition is coming after me, saying I'm really promiscuous," Hunt says. "They would never say that about a man."
Wu, for her part, has weathered far worse. Back in 2014, the Giant Spacekat founder received a plethora of death and rape threats on social media, ultimately forcing her to flee her Massachusetts home. In a way, she reflects, the trauma prepared her for running for office, and the public scrutiny it's sure to bring. "Gamergate taught me that I'm a lot stronger than I thought I was, and I could stand up to more than I imagined," Wu says. "What are they going to do to me now? Call me ugly?"
She laughs this off, and then grows serious. "There's something different about running for office," she says. "I didn't ask to be targeted by Gamergate. I was just speaking out for women in my field. But running for public office is a choice. And for whatever reason, choosing to enter a lion's den doesn't sting as much."