The Bay Area nonprofit How Women Lead organizes virtual networking events and workshops to support women's political aspirations, and continues to work towards creating a more equitable political system. (Photo courtesy of How Women Lead)

Julie Castro Abrams is the founder and CEO of How Women Lead, a nonprofit organization of women thought leaders that provides a platform to empower, promote and propel women to seek leadership positions and elected office. With the mission to break glass ceilings, the Bay Area nonprofit brings together influential women and women-led organizations to provide a platform to collaborate, as well as provide opportunities to share resources and stories. In addition, the network offers conversations and connections with women who are wrestling with the challenges of leadership, purpose and making an impact.

We sat down with Castro Abrams to discuss the organization’s latest efforts and women’s leadership roles in the upcoming election.

Let’s talk about the mission behind How Women Lead and how the organization is ensuring that women make their mark during the upcoming election.

We want more women leading in politics and everything else. We have a network of 13,000 very senior women leaders; a lot of them are corporate leaders who care about what’s happening. We will bring speakers (for them) and say, “Ok, this is where the highest impact of your money would go and these are the closest races and if they just had some more money to do ads or whatever, it would push them over the edge.” We try to make it super easy for people (to get involved).

How do you help women who want to run for political office?

Emerge or She the People are organizations that inspire and train women to run for political office and organize women to be strategists. She the People, in particular, is working to change the narrative, which I think we have successfully done. (The new narrative) is that women of color are the ones who are going to decide this next election and they are the most important voting bloc there is in the country, and the most reliable as well. 

How Women Lead launched eight years ago, which means you have already experienced one election. How much of an impact do you feel you had then versus now?

The impact is nowhere near what it is this time. We (recently) did a training where at the start of it we said, “Who here would like to run for political office?” and 10 percent of the audience raised their hands. By the end of the training we do, 90 percent of the people raise their hands. I think a lot of rational people would think, “I would never run for political office, it looks so nasty”. We are helping people to understand — here are the systems of support and here’s how you would do it. 

When it comes to politics, are the systems of support different for women versus men?

Everything is different for men versus women because our systems are designed for men, let’s be clear. Women have to work ten times harder, they have so many barriers. Generally speaking, women seek self efficacy, we don’t move on stuff until we know all the pros and cons and have evaluated it fully; men are more likely to jump into something even if they don’t have a clue what they are doing. Women are more cautious. 

Both those behaviors have pros and cons, but if you are too cautious you will never get in the game. If you aren’t cautious enough you will do things that are not well thought through. As a result a lot of the indicators are that women do better because they are more disciplined and more prepared, but that also makes them move slower. The systems are designed by men for men. What I’m hoping is that we will have an evolution where we change the way we behave. 

“Women of color are the ones who are going to decide this next election and they are the most important voting bloc there is in the country,” said How Women Lead Founder and CEO Julie Castro Abrams. (Photo courtesy of How Women Lead, via Marin Magazine)

The other thing is that women have a likeability penalty, There is some great research out of Stanford about it. It is in such bold display when you are talking about politics. 

When you look at Kamala Harris, the things people say about her, “Well, she’s just not very likeable.” They said the same thing about Hillary Clinton, they say the same thing about every woman ever. It’s just part of how we think. If you’re a woman and you are too strong, you are not likeable. There is no perfect line, you will always be at risk of that kind of criticism. Men can be likeable in politics but it is very hard for women to be likeable, so you just have to be ready with a whole team of support behind you to be able to weather through those challenging times. 

How has the pandemic affected the way the organization advocates, helps and connects women?

Everything we were doing was in person. I’m 53 years old and our network is around my age so a lot of us really valued the in-person (meeting) and weren’t the earliest adopters of technology. Almost everything we did was in person but once everyone was forced to get on Zoom and figure out how to use this technology, more people than ever have participated in our programs in the Bay Area and across the country. So the demand is stunning. I’ve been wanting to put a venture fund together for a long time because I’ve been concerned about these bad numbers in investing in women founders and I also knew that that was a great way to make money. In May, we started doing fundraising and raised a $10 million fund during this pandemic from women of color primarily. So we have more people coming to our programs, more people stepping up and helping each other and more people saying, “Enough!” I’m going to use my power, my wealth and my privilege to make the world a better place for other women. 

What is your advice to women who are between the age of 40-50 years old?

Well, one of the things that we know is that in your early forties is when women actually look up and realize, “Oh, life doesn’t have to be vertical, my career doesn’t have to be vertical.” What happens is that all these windows of opportunity open and it becomes extremely liberating, where people start their own companies and do all kinds of creative stuff. We also know that it’s time that there is a shifting of your energy. In your early thirties you are running up the ladder and maybe raising a family and in your mid-forties you start to realize you are happier if you are doing things with other women and happier if you are having an impact. So because of that there is this beautiful awakening that happens for women in their mid-forties that I love.