You’ve probably heard of POTUS, SCOTUS and FLOTUS…but have you heard of ROTUS, or “Receptionist of the United States”? On this episode, you’ll meet ex-ROTUS, Katie Herbek, who worked at The White House in her early 20’s, overseeing the guest book and greeting top world leaders and celebrities in The West Wing. On this episode, Katie takes us through working in the campaign world during the 2008 Obama campaign, teaching in Italy for 8 months, working at the White House, and making the jump into education policy at the U.S. Department of Education. Katie encourages us to choose a word that represents our “north star” to guide us through the tough decisions in our careers – and her word is “equity.”
A theme throughout all of my career is be nice, work hard, and don’t talk shit about people, and I think when you can really make sure that you’re checking those boxes, you have people that want to help you out or keep you around, and if I had been a crappy intern, I don’t know if Debbie would’ve said, “Yeah, we’ll figure out a way to have money for you so you can have a job.”
Welcome to The Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color, killing it on their career journeys. I am your host Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger, proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Hey, everyone, welcome to our second ally guest episode of the season. I’m so excited to introduce Katie Herbek to you. Katie was my classmate during business school and she was just one of the warmest and most intelligent people that I crossed paths with. On this episode, you’ll hear about how she worked in politics on the Obama campaign back in ’08, she taught in Italy for a bit, she worked at the White House as ROTUS, and now she works at Ford leading mobility, technology and infrastructure. Katie talks about how her career mantra “Work hard, be kind, and don’t talk shit about people” has actually helped her get pretty far. I think one of the biggest lessons Katie offers us is that as long as you build genuine relationships with people and work hard, it does pay off in the end.
Priscilla: Hi, Katie. Welcome to the show.
Katie Herbek: Thanks so much for having me
Priscilla: Definitely, really excited to have you on the show and have you talk about your early career years in politics, working at the White House, working in federal government and how it’s led you to a career that intersects business and public service. So, yeah, let’s get started, so tell us a little bit about where you’re from and, yeah, what was it like growing up where you were from?
Katie: Yeah, so I am a native Texan. I grew up in a small town called Friendswood. I think that some people don’t necessarily consider it a small town anymore. It really is a suburb of Houston, but it felt like a small town to me growing up there. My parents are actually from New Jersey, so my dad and my mom met up there. They’re divorced now, but my dad got a job with NASA, and so they moved to be near Clearlake and they chose Friendswood. I’ve always been quite progressive. When I was four at daycare and they did a funny poll, who would you vote for? I stood up and said Michael Dukakis, like, so, like, I’ve always been a Democrat, right? And that’s not necessarily Friendswood. Friendswood is a very white town. I think according to the census, at least the last time I checked it, it continues to get whiter actually and it’s a lot of affluent people. I don’t necessarily consider myself affluent and my parents got divorced and that actually put some real economic strain on our family, and my mom would work, like, two, if not three jobs. So, yeah, so I felt it as even though I’m a white lady, heterosexual, cis-gendered all of those things, I felt very different in Friendswood because I didn’t think like everyone else and my parents were divorced and we didn’t necessarily have a ton of money, and so in that environment, I was like, I’m ready to get out of small town America.
Priscilla: Totally, yeah, I’m also from Houston and I just remember also having that feeling of, I need to get out, I need to experience something different, so feel you there. So, I know you landed at UT Austin and you majored in PoliSci Government and Political Communications. How did you figure out your next steps for getting a job after graduation?
Katie: That is a very good question because I didn’t do a great job of that. So, I have a fun story which is that my first semester my senior year, I went to an academic advisor and I was very clear, okay, I’m getting two degrees, so I want to make sure I’m fully covered and I have all of the things checked, and we went over the degree credits that I had and how many more I would need over the next two semesters, and we were good to go, so I signed up for classes in the fall and had an idea of what I would do in the spring, and at the beginning of the spring semester, that academic advisor told me that she had done the math wrong and I was 20 credits short of graduating.
Katie: Yes, and again, I was like, staying for an extra semester is not an option for me, like, I have to go start my life in the real world. I think at the end of the day, if I had gone to my parents and been like, “Hey, this happened, I’m probably going to have to stay a semester, they wouldn’t have minded.” I was a full financial aid student, so they would support me in small ways, help me out with the groceries and stuff. I was just on my own at that point, I was an adult, so it could have done that, but in my head, I was just like, I can’t. So, my last semester I took 18 hours in the classroom and then I took an online algebra class or something to get the last two hours. So, I was so focused on getting through the semester and getting the courses done so I could actually graduate, and I didn’t tell my parents this. I just was like, I just have to do this, this is the world that they’re operating in. So, because of that, like, April came and my friends had started to apply to jobs and May comes and I’m like, man, I don’t know what I’m going to do, and that job that’s really important, I don’t have. Two things were really helpful, one, I had a family that I had nannied for and I reached out to them and said, “Do you need a part-time summer nanny?” and they said, “Yes, we would love for you to still nanny for us,” and then the Annette Strauss Institute where I’d had an unpaid internship, they found money for me to be a part-time employee. So, for June, July, and August, it was like, okay, you’re covered for three months and it allows you to stay in Austin, and I also bring that up because a theme throughout all of my career is be nice, work hard, and don’t talk shit about people, and I think when you can really make sure that you’re checking those boxes, you have people that want to help you out or keep you around, and if I had been a crappy intern, I don’t know if Debbie would have said, “Yeah, we’ll figure out a way to have money for you so you can have a job,” and also they created in the environment in which I could go to them and say, “Hey, I’m in a pickle. I don’t have a job yet. What do you think?” And I wasn’t even saying, can you give me a job necessarily, it was more just, do you have any thoughts or advice? And they were willing to help me out with that. So, that took me through the summer, and then my dad lived in DC at that point and I had never given DC a shot as a government and political communication majors, which sounds strange, this was 2006, and he was like, “By the end of the year, you have to have found a job, be on your way to finding a job, I’m not going to kick you out on December 31st, but we need to see a plan, but you can have a little bit of runway,” which is really, I’m so thankful for because interning in DC is this very strange thing because a ton of internships, you’re interning for free, as I talked about before, depending on the industry and it’s just free, and they just assume that you will figure out a way to live and eat, and function and not be paid, and if you have an entry level job, you’re paid like $25,000 or $30,000 in DC which is not as expensive as New York, but it’s getting there, right? Even back in 2006. So, yeah, so little so I’m really lucky because being able to intern and take a free internship because I had a free place to live just made a huge difference in my life, and so that’s what I did right after – well, not right after school, I stayed in Austin, but then the first step was moving to DC, lived with my dad and I started interning and Senator Barbara Boxer’s office on the Hill, which was just, I met some really wonderful people, another woman named Caroline Sacone. Another theme you might pick up on is that I’ve been really lucky and my bosses have been tremendous and they’ve made such a big difference and really continue to be supportive throughout my life, and so Caroline was my boss, my de facto boss, and she was in the comms office, she thought I was competent, so I ended up being in the comms shop a lot and got to be responsible for clips in the morning and the afternoon, and Caroline took me under her wing and introduced me to people and helped me think about what I could do next.
Priscilla: That is amazing. I also interned on the Hill in DC during college, and I just remember thinking that it was so hierarchical, right? Like, you had to start as a staff assistant and then move up to a legislative correspondent, like there was a very clear path and the pay was not so great. Did you sort of consider taking that path?
Katie: I did and I didn’t, so I thought it might be hard to get a start in an office that I wasn’t a native of the state. I mean, it’s not completely unheard of, but I was a Texan that was getting to work for a California senator, and I’d like to think that if I’d continue to work hard and there was an opening, I could have done it, but yeah, if you can end up with the right senator, right, any one that got to intern and work in Senator Barack Obama’s office, I’m sure, feels this way, but like as Senator that is on a committee that has an issue you really care about, I think that is really wonderful and great, and can result in a really fulfilling career. But as you mentioned, there’s this strange hierarchy, and so some ways, it’s like you just land where you land and you get a job wherever you can and that might end up with being a legislative assistant in an office that, yes, it’s a job, but maybe it’s a senator or a member that you don’t have a ton of connection to and they work on issues you don’t have a real connection to, and I think that can be hard.
Priscilla: Yeah, that totally makes sense. There’s always that geographic tie that’s really important in those offices. So, what did you end up doing next?
Katie: So, I took another bit of a detour. I had studied abroad when I was in school and I loved it. I was in Italy, in a small town and I had the chance to go back and help at the school and essentially help in the kitchen and helping the office in exchange for room and board, and so I did that for about eight to nine months.
Priscilla: Oh, my God, that’s amazing.
Katie: In 2007. Yeah, it was really wonderful, and again, I acknowledge like the place of privilege that comes from to have parents that say, “Sure, go for it.” I mean, they both were like, “We’re not paying for this, like, we’re not paying for your airplane ticket there. We’re not giving you walking around money,” but they were supportive of my desire to have that experience, which I think in some ways is maybe the best scenario because I did have to work for things and I had to learn that work ethic really hard and know that things were not going to come free, but I was coming from a supportive place and they were never against anything I did, I was loving it, but then I was okay, what’s next? Like, you could do this forever, but that would likely result in becoming an English teacher or a nanny, a full-time nanny, and that could have allowed me to stay longer, but I didn’t really know if I wanted to do those things, but the presidential election had already kicked off and was really pumping, and around August or September, I guess around that time, I was like, man, I really, I want to go back and I want to figure out if I can work on a presidential campaign, and so came back to US and Caroline Sacone who I had mentioned before in Senator Boxer’s office was still involved, and so met up with her and was like, “Okay, I want to join a presidential campaign. I have never done that before, so I don’t really know how this works, but if you could help me out,” and she was awesome and she was like, “Yeah, put your resume together and we can send it to folks,” and she sent it to her roommate, either it was her roommate at the time or a previous roommate, Britt’s boyfriend, Peter, and Peter was in Iowa for Barack Obama doing advance and Peter got my resume and hopped on the phone and it was really like, “I deeply believe in Barack Obama. I want him to be the next president. I will work hard. Tell me how to do that,” and then I got connected to the campaign and I did my first advanced trip.
Priscilla: So, just really quickly for those who don’t know, the white house has a team called the advanced team and they do advance trips. So, Katie, tell us what is advance.
Katie: So, advance is you literally go and advance as a candidate and you set up events and that can be anything from a town hall to really big rally. So, I went out to Iowa around this time 13 years ago and I did a trial trip, a test trip for advance, and I did press advance with, and I learned from Peter and that’s where you’re like, where are the press going to stand? Where can they cover the event? Do they have power? Do they have internet? Which again was just starting to become, like, we need to have internet at all times. Before 2007, people aren’t really thinking about like wireless or that you could just have internet wherever, and I did well and I loved it and I didn’t really go home again. So, I started on the campaign in October of 2007.
Priscilla: That’s incredible that you were there when Obama was elected and that you were part of that in ’08, but eventually, the campaign is over and you have to find a job, right? So, what did that look like for you? What was your next step? Did a bunch of jobs open up? What was that like for you?
Katie: Yeah, so doing advance is one of the ways that you, you can end up becoming invaluable, and there’s not a ton of advance people. So, immediately, there’s something called the Presidential Inaugural Committee or the PIC in DC parlance and because of myself and all of my colleagues knowing how to do with just and events, we very quickly all got at least temporary jobs on the inaugural committee. Some people get jobs at the transition and the hope is that either working on the transition or working at the inaugural committee also means that there will be a job after that. So I worked on the parade route, the logistics for the parade route on inauguration day and was at the inaugural committee, and so that’s another, working on a campaign is awesome and I think really important, and then if your candidate wins, it sets up this opportunity to keep working just depending on what your skillset is and what you’ve done, and so yeah, like I said, being able to do logistics, it’s okay, we need those humans for the inaugural events, for the balls, for the speech, for the parade, for everything, and so that was my job for, I guess, about two months.
Priscilla: Got it. So, I know that next, you went to the Department of Veteran Affairs for your first job. Were you doing similar work that was logistical in nature or was it something totally different?
Katie: It was similar. I didn’t want to travel as much. I had lived on the road for 13 months and I wanted to travel a little, but not a ton, and so the Department of Veterans Affairs is a really nice place. I worked for Secretary Shinseki and he definitely traveled and visited veterans and hospitals, but he wasn’t traveling every single day, and I had this really wonderful boss named Dan Logan and Dan leaned into what I had learned from the campaign about traveling and travel logistics but also how you can create a meaningful event or interaction, and I was doing a little bit of just like the scheduling of a trip and working with travel agents to book a flight, but then I was also working with Dan on, okay, if he’s going to this city, what are the things that he could or should do? Who should he talk to at a hospital? How can we make sure that the secretary’s engaging with veterans in a really meaningful way and learning from them? And so, I got to start to pivot and do a little bit more of the strategy behind events and just using someone’s time really wisely, which is if you’re not just thinking about the logistics of it, that’s what scheduling in advance can really do, is there’s a finite amount of time, so how do you use that time smartly and wisely for everybody?
Priscilla: And so you were probably like 23, 24. How old were you when you joined the VA?
Katie: I was 23 and yeah, I turned to 24 while I was at, is that right? No, I was 24. I turned 25 when I was at the VA.
Priscilla: Yeah, and was that on the younger end or was that pretty average?
Katie: I was like a child, essentially, and some people treated me that way. They were just like, “Who is this 24-year-old, 25-year-old who has never worked in government?
Priscilla: Yeah, because I mean, it just seems like such a high level or very professional environment and you were so young.
Katie: Yeah, I’m really lucky because Dan never treated me that way, my boss who hired me and then Secretary Shinseki never cheated me that way, and Deputy Secretary Scott Gould, they never treated me that way. They had confidence in me and they felt, well, if you worked on a campaign for 13 months and if Barack Obama can trust you and if you’re hired out of the campaign, then we’re going to trust you. So, that was really helpful in my confidence, but there were a lot of people that, so another dynamic in government is political appointees versus career appointees, and I even hate to say that word ‘versus,’ but career staff, they’re there day in, day out, year end no matter who the president is, and they are working really hard, and then either every four or eight years, they have this wave of new political staff that come in and I can understand why they would be like, “Okay, it’s another young political appointee,” but honestly, the career staff were wonderful to me. They were like, “Great, you’re ready to dive in. You want to be,” and I did want to be at the Department of Veterans Affairs; you want to be at an agency that maybe isn’t the most glamorous but I think does some of the most important work, and so overall it was great, but there definitely were some times where I think people were like, “This girl is 24.” Cool, and you just have to push through it and just be like, “Yup, I don’t know what to tell you, but I promise you I can work really hard and I have had a ton of responsibility before, and that can happen again here too, and I’ll just let my work speak for itself.”
Priscilla: I love that attitude. It’s just like, yeah, let my work speak for itself. That’s such a great attitude to have and I really think that that’s how you build trust with people, is just showing up, doing the best that you can. But yeah, so I know that after the VA, you jumped to the White House, which is amazing, how did that happen?
Katie: That was another case of be nice work hard, don’t talk shit about people. So, I was recommended for the job. The woman who had been receptionist of the United States or ROTUS had done it for about a year. She had the opportunity to move to a different position. They needed to replace her. My understanding is that they weren’t having a ton of luck, and so someone said, “Hey, we really still got to find someone to be ROTUS. They need to be organized and firm but friendly,” and someone said, “Oh, I think Katie Herbek would be good at that and she’s over at the Department of Veterans Affairs but we should ask if she’s open to moving over,” and I interviewed with Jim Messina who was one of the deputy chiefs of staff, and he hired me, and then I moved over to the White House and, yeah, it really was like, if you can work hard and be kind, I think that goes a really long way when people need to fill jobs.
Priscilla: Totally agree. So, I find it so epic that your title was ROTUS. That’s pretty cool.
Katie: It’s pretty fun. There is POTUS, FLOTUS, VPOTUS, SCOTUS, and then ROTUS. I do always clarify people, so I was not the personal secretary, the person that sits outside the oval office, those were other humans who are, they were all awesome, so I sat in the West Wing lobby. If you walked in the West Wing, you see the person who is ROTUS, you see their face first.
Priscilla: So, I know that then you moved over to the Department of Education and you were a specialist assistant in the office of Innovation and Improvement. That seems like such a huge jump and very different. How were you able to make that transition?
Katie: So, I had been doing more logistical, operational type of roles, and I really liked them and it exposed me to a lot of things, but I wasn’t getting to dive into policy, and I wanted to make that change, so I really tried to just sit with what’s interesting to me, what do I like? I think you might hear that as a theme, and I tried to be reflective about that, and I found that I was really drawn to education issues and specifically, K-12 education and wanting to create an equitable experience in schools for as many kids, for every kid, because I loved school not just because I’m like a nerd, but Friendswood did have good schools, and even if things were like a little nutty at home through my parents’ divorce, I had good teachers, I had a good school, I liked being there. It was calm and it was a respite, and I really thought, like, every kid should have that. If they want to love school, they should get to love school. It’s fine if you don’t love school but if you want to, it should be a great place for you, and so I did a little bit of research and reached out to, also in administrations, there’s something called a White House liaison, and there’s one or two people that fill that role at every department and they are also political appointee and they’re engaging with the White House and they also help and fill out and staff the political appointee roles at agencies. So, I reached out to the White House liaison who was at the Department of Education and said, “I’m really interested in trying to dive into a policy role. I don’t have any experience in K-12, but I would really like to work on it. Are there any openings?” and it just so happened that in OII, they had what’s called a schedule C that they hadn’t filled, and I went over and spoke with Jim Shelton who was the assistant deputy secretary of OII and then he became the deputy secretary of the department and he is probably the smartest human I’ve met maybe second to Barack Obama. I mean, they’re just brilliant, but Jim was so smart and so experienced, and I talked to him and was like, “I don’t know anything about K-12 education, but I’d really like to learn, but I do know how to get things done, so if you need that in the office, I can come do that,” and Jim took a chance and had faith that I could figure out the policy piece, but that I could help him get things done, and so that’s how I moved over to OHI.
Priscilla: Okay, so let’s fast forward a little bit. I know you had five amazing years in the Ed policy space in DC, but eventually you decided that you wanted to pivot into something different and I know that you did found your startup which is Civic I/O and it’s still around, but you also decided to apply to business school, which is where you and I crossed paths. It seems like such an unexpected step to go to business school after being in government and policy for so long, you could have gone to Harvard Kennedy School and gone down this different route, but you decided to go to business school, so what was driving you in that direction?
Katie: So, it was probably two different things, one, unfortunately, certain roles at a nonprofit, it’s really hard to bust through that to get a different type of role, and quite frankly, to be paid more, and another thing that I think that women are not taught to talk about is salary and really wanting to get paid their value, and somehow that’s not okay, and if you’ve been in public service, worked in nonprofits, you’re supposed to just be like, “I will get paid less than everyone else ever, and that’s okay,” and I think to an extent, if you’re not running a for-profit and you’re not rolling in cash, but I just sorta took a step back and was like, I think I’m really smart and I think that I work hard, and I should get a salary that reflects that, and it seemed like that wasn’t going to happen without some letters behind my name, to be very honest, and it was not going to happen at the job that I was at. It just felt like I’m in a bit of a rut, and so I could try to pivot on my own; I could try to go to the private sector or I could go back to school and learn some new skills and really get clear and tight on what I want to do next, even though that’s going to be the potentially more expensive route. And then, the startup really came from, my good friend works for a mayor and he had seen this gap in how people were not engaging with mayors on really innovative and entrepreneurial, interesting things, and then another friend who has also worked in government space, event space, fundraising, and the three of us said, I wonder if we could create a platform for specifically mayors, like local level staff and leaders to engage with in this technology, the forward-looking newness of it all, and we can partner with on it and get their approval, and so that’s how that started, and that coincided with me moving back to Texas and being like I can do the job at the non-profit remotely. I would like to go back to Texas and in my spare time, we’re going to work on this startup.
Priscilla: Okay, last question. What do you think is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your early career years given that you’ve worked in so many different industries, have moved around a lot, and have had really cool experiences?
Katie: I think I’ve come to a place where what I would say right now as a 36-year-old in the middle of a pandemic, but who has an undergrad degree and a graduate degree and has worked for well over a decade, it is to find your true North for what motivates you and for what you want your job to be about, and then that is something that you can compare opportunities to and also how you’re going to approach that opportunity. Mine is equity. I am highly motivated by trying to create a more equitable world. I am not perfect at it because I’m a human being and I’m flawed, but when I think about my jobs, when I was, even on the campaign, I was deeply motivated by, we want everyone to have as much information as they can have and access to voting so that they can make a decision about who to vote for, and everyone has that. When I was at the Department of Veterans Affairs, I was learning a ton from Secretary Shinseki and I was also thinking about how do we create an equitable post to DOD world for veterans and for veterans’ families? How do we make sure that their educational services and their healthcare services are equitable? And then, when I was at the Department of Education, I leaned into that even more. But the through line for me is equity, and what that allows me to do is in my personal life but also my professional life, really think about, like, how am I spending my time? How am I going to approach this job? We didn’t even get to touch on my fellowship at True Wealth here in Austin when I was at school with Sarah and Carrie, but they are a VC, women-led VC, they invest in women-led companies in the healthcare and sustainability space, and even that work was really thinking about how can there be products that create more equitable health outcomes and positive health outcomes for people? How can those be available? And those are the kinds of things that Sarah and Carrie are investing in, and I don’t think you have to figure that thing out immediately, you don’t have to know when you’re 18, but when you can understand what’s important to you, it becomes really easy to say, “Should I take that job? Should I interview for that job? Will I be happy and motivated each day?” Because if the answer is yes, then you can really put your energy in going after those things, and if it’s no, then you can step away and make sure that the person that is for, they get to access that thing and you can keep working towards the things that are for you.
Priscilla: I love that. Thank you so much for sharing and for being with us today, Katie.
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning into The Early Career Moves podcast. Be sure to visit ECMpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community, and if you love this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have an international career in diplomacy?
On this episode, we hear from Sharlina Hussain-Morgan, a foreign service officer, who is also a child of immigrants from Bangladesh. Sharlina has a B.A. in Political Science from MIT, and a MA in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown. After working abroad in Egypt, she met a girlfriend who was a Foreign Service Officer and encouraged her to apply to become a Diplomat herself. Sharlina had never really imagined taking this path, but she took the steps and has now been in the field for nearly 10 years. Sharlina details what the process looks like to apply for the Foreign Service, what they’re looking for in applicants, and what are the glamorous and not-so-glamorous parts of the job. Sharlina’s story is a great reminder to pursue your passions despite parental pressure to take a more traditional path.
Links Mentioned In Episode:
Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast
Critical Language Scholarship Program – A summer study abroad opportunity for American college and university students to learn languages essential to America’s engagement with the world, sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
Sharlina: I was 25 and they looked at me and they’re like, “Wait, you’re here representing the United States Government?” They were just floored because they didn’t expect a 25-year-old Brown woman who actually spoke literally the same language as their own parents.
Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey, have you ever wondered what it would be like to have an international career that takes you all over the world? Well, on this episode, you get to hear from US Diplomat Sharlina Hussein Morgan, who breaks down what it means to be a diplomat, what it takes to succeed and what it’s been like to be a child of immigrants from Bangladesh, traveling abroad, and representing the US Government. Sharlina is an MIT and Georgetown grad, and she keeps it real on the glamorous and not so glamorous moments of working abroad.
Priscilla: Sharlina, welcome to the show. I’m so excited to have you here today.
Sharlina: Thank you so much for having me.
Priscilla: So today we’re going to be discussing the topic of what it’s like to be a US diplomat. So why don’t we just get started with you sharing a little bit about your personal background.
Sharlina: Thanks again for having me. My name is Sharlina Hussein Morgan. I was born and raised in New York. I grew up in Queens, New York City for the first 12 years of my life before we moved upstate to Upstate, New York. My parents are originally immigrants from a small country called Bangladesh, which is a little bit east to India. And they’ve been in the United States the longer they’ve been in Bangladesh. And I grew up with an older brother. And I guess, I don’t know if you could say a typical Asian or South Asian-American family, my parents are first-generation, my brother and I were the first in our family to go to college in the United States.
And it was very much of a working class immigrant story. My parents first started out when they first came to the United States, they were working in Burger King. And my parents scraped together money because my dad had a dream of having a small business in the US. So they finally were able to buy a small hotel in Upstate New York, which is where we settled when I was in my middle school years. And they put together enough money to put my brother and I through school. And my brother followed the immigrant parent expectations and became an engineer, but I was the black sheep and I was very interested in foreign affairs.
We’re a Muslim South Asian-American family. And I was in high school when 9/11 happened, which really was a formative experience for me. And so it really encouraged me to look more outside of the United States and think about what our relationship is with other countries around the world. So that’s where I landed to study for undergrad, political science, but at an atypical place, at MIT.
Priscilla: How did you end up at MIT?
Sharlina: Yeah, it’s really funny. A lot of people were like, “I didn’t even know that political science is a major offered at MIT.” And actually it’s one of the top 10 in the country. But I came from a very interesting perspective. My brother was an engineer. He really encouraged me to pursue my interest in math and science. I was really good in math and science when I was younger, but I didn’t like it as something that I wanted to pursue as a career. But so when it came time to apply to colleges, I kind of applied to MIT as a fluke, but I wanted to go somewhere that was diverse and wanted diverse experiences. And when I visited MIT, I was very impressed with how much the students got along with each other. And I didn’t want this super competitive environment. And so when I got accepted, I was just amazed and couldn’t believe it. And I think the entire four years at MIT, I was like, “Were they sure about accepting me?” But, you know, I think that comes with a lot of the experience as a first-generation, especially you doubt yourself and you’re not quite sure if they really meant to include you in the space, but it really was a great place. I was looking at other colleges that are typical for liberal arts, but honestly it was really a great place for me to go, even though not many diplomats really start out at MIT. It’s not a place where you learn about the foreign service. You spend a lot more time thinking quantitatively versus qualitatively about different topics and career ideas.
Priscilla: Cool. So when you were in college, did you start to think about becoming a US diplomat? When did that come onto your radar?
Sharlina: Yeah, it didn’t really come onto my radar that much. A lot of my colleagues telling me about their experiences about how long they applied and were tenacious in pursuing diplomacy as a career. And I applaud them for it. Just I didn’t really know that was a field for me to consider. And honestly still just fighting my parents’ expectations. My dad and my mom were like, “Okay. If you’re not going to become a doctor or an engineer, I think the one last option is lawyer.” And they were just still pushing me to do that. And it didn’t really come to fruition. And so I was fighting a lot of different things and I was interested in a lot of different things. And so when I left college, I was working in DC because I knew that’s where I wanted to be for policy, but I still was lost. There are so many people who learn early on that they want to become a diplomat. But for me, I was still very lost and I just knew I wanted to work in policy. I wanted to work in international affairs or domestic policy and how things work on the Hill. It took me a while to land to where I am now.
Priscilla: What was that first job for you in DC? And how did that take you to realizing, “Oh, diplomacy is something I might want to pursue”?
Sharlina: Yeah. I mean, I actually was working in consulting in Washington on education issues and it was paying the bills to be honest, but it wasn’t really speaking to my soul. And the good thing about landing in a place like Washington is that you are more aware of what other opportunities there are out there, especially in the policy realm. So I actually left my consulting gig for unpaid internships, which sadly until this day are really still very common in Washington, but they have become almost the expectation to pave your resume into something more settled. And I did two different unpaid internships to see what I was interested in. And one was on the Hill, to see how much I would be interested in working on international affairs on the Hill. And while it was interesting, it wasn’t the kind of stuff that was really keeping me excited.
And so I actually went to grad school at Georgetown and that’s when I started learning more about foreign service. I mean, Georgetown has a school of foreign service. I wasn’t at their school but I was at the school of government, and I was learning more and more about these options. But I still, to be very honest, I knew it was there but I didn’t really take it seriously as something that I could do, because I think I still had a lot of imposter syndrome and not thinking that I could be a diplomat.
And so when I graduated from Georgetown, once again, I was successful in getting a different scholarship, which anyone who’s interested in learning languages, it’s the critical language scholarship by the State Department. And I moved to Egypt to learn and participate in that program. And when it finished, I was at a crossroads where I had to decide what I wanted to do. And so I decided to stay. And I was working there as a consultant on gender issues and working on human rights issues, and a girlfriend of mine who was actually a foreign service officer, she told me, “Hey, why don’t you apply?” And I was like, “Why me?” She’s like, “Why not you?” And the great thing about the foreign service process is that it’s a very transparent and easy process. Easy not in the sense of getting in, but it’s not like a closed interview situation. It’s you have to take a test and then you keep progressing through that process. And then if you’re lucky, you make it all the way at the end.
Priscilla: So how long were you in Egypt?
Sharlina: I was in Egypt for almost a year. I was there right up until approximately six months before the Arab Springs. I was there from 2009 to 2010. And that was a really good experience for me. I mean, COVID times are a little different right now, but in a normal circumstance, I do recommend for folks who are interested in working in international affairs to dive in and get out there.
Priscilla: Do you feel like when you apply to become a US diplomat, your international experience factored into getting accepted or was that not really as much of a factor?
Sharlina: I think it was definitely a factor, but I say it with a disclaimer, to say that just because you don’t have international experience doesn’t mean you could not be selected. I think it was important for me because it was a formative experience for me. When you go through the foreign service officer process, they’re looking for a specific type of person. And to be able to demonstrate the skills that you need to not only succeed but thrive in a career like this, the kind of skills I got while I was in Egypt, I think, were really instrumental to show that I was ready for that.
Priscilla: For those who are listening and are wondering, well, what does a US diplomat actually do? What were you sort of imagining when you were applying? So before you became one.
Sharlina: Yeah. Honestly, I didn’t really know. My girlfriend who was there was already on her first assignment in Egypt as a diplomat. And she’s what we call a public diplomacy, ConEd officer. And I am also a public diplomacy ConEd officer. And in plain terms, you can come in to being a diplomat with different specialties, so you can work in public diplomacy, which is what I do, which is basically the public affairs arm of the US Government overseas. And you could be working on politics. You’ll be a political officer, which is looking at what are the political issues in the country you’re in economically. And then there are other types of specialties that you could work. And also, of course, last but very much not least, one of our most important types of officers are what we called consular officers, which is making sure that we can provide every service that an American citizen would need overseas. And as you can imagine, during COVID times, has been instrumental to make sure we can provide consular services to our American citizens when they’re in a moment of crisis outside of the United States. So those are the different types of officers, but at the end of the day, we could all be doing any type of that work, because we like to say that it’s what we — the term, the phrase is very well-known in our line of work is called the needs of the service. You sign up to be a diplomat because you’re signing up to help and represent not only United States but also to be there in a time of crisis for anything an American would need.
And so even if I’m a public diplomacy officer, if I’m overseas and my colleague asked me, “Hey, can you help with making sure that this American citizen is safe?” That is my job. And I make sure that I can assist with that. But in general on a day-to-day, it really looks very different every day. And I think that’s what intrigued so many of us to still stay in, even though it can be a hard lifestyle because it’s not the same every day, as you can imagine, not just COVID but there are crises and things that happen anytime and anywhere.
Once I joined the foreign service, I actually moved back to Egypt. That was my second assignment. But when I was there, it was during a time of protracted crisis after the Arab Spring. And any time you move somewhere, you may think that it will be the same every day, but it actually can be very different because of whatever is happening at that time. And so I think that for someone who’s interested in this line of work, you have to be willing to throw caution to the wind a little bit and be willing to fly by the seat of your pants sometimes, which to be very honest, I didn’t come in with that type of perspective. It’s really funny because so many of us are so type A and we like to have things controlled. And so I think that the funny thing is we hold on to and control the little things we can because everything else is so unpredictable, if that makes sense.
Priscilla: Yeah. And so you talked a little bit about how there’s this test and this process, what are they testing? Is it logic, aptitude? And then how long was that process for you?
Sharlina: So for me, apparently, it was not that long. It took me a little bit under a year, but I understand that the process has actually been truncated a little bit. So to answer your first part of the question, basic level of what issues may be occurring throughout the world. So whether it’s COVID or a health crisis, economic crisis, or nuclear weapons in the Korean peninsula, et cetera. So a little bit of aptitude, of course. But whenever I talk to mentees or others who are just interested in this type of work and they’re like, “What do I need to do to prepare for something like this?” All I say are a couple of things, you need to just be a regular reader of something like The Economist or the New York Times, and just brush up on your middle school slash high school civics or AP Government, because there is definitely a test of what was this amendment and basic elements of American civic background. So those are the two basic aspects of the things that you need.
And then, of course, something that is very crucial to this type of career, which is writing, and not writing long papers. So it’s not about writing long papers. And if anyone who’s interested in not just foreign affairs but just policy in general, I encourage them to think through how to write something short and succinct. So when we say, when you want to prepare for any type of interview, they ask you to prepare your elevator pitch, right? So elevator pitch, but the written style. If you had to be in the elevator, so to speak, but in a written form, how could you write in maybe even three sentences what are the most important aspects of X issue? And that is what they’re looking for also, your ability to in the very quick situation, how quickly can you synthesize information and then convey it to someone during a moment of crisis, which happens as you can imagine all the time.
Priscilla: And now a quick message from our sponsor.
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Priscilla: So once you became a diplomat and it was official, what did you realize that you enjoyed the most about maybe your first assignment or maybe even your second assignment and what interested you about it?
Sharlina: Yeah. I was incredibly lucky. My first assignment was in London in the United Kingdom. And as many people maybe already know, London is a really fantastic city, and I’m a New Yorker. So that’s really hard for me to admit. But it was incredible. I was there during the 2012 Olympics. One part of my portfolio in what we call our public diplomacy shop was cultural affairs. And cultural affairs, what does that mean? It’s like, how can we bridge the cultural divide between the US and whatever country you’re in? And so, of course, whoever’s listening will be like, “Okay. Who cares?” What kind of cultural divide is there between the US and the UK besides beer preferences, right? And that’s why it was actually interesting, when you get your first assignment, it’s this very momentous thing that we call flag day. And you get a flag for where you’re going and your family is there to support you and cheer you on because you don’t know where you’re going until that moment. And I got this flag for the United Kingdom. And I was like, ‘What? I thought I was going somewhere else. I don’t know, Cape Verde or something very different and new.” And so I was like, “Oh, this is going to be not so great.” But then I got there and I was like, “Wow, London is such an incredible city. And the UK is actually so diverse.” As you can imagine, London could be as diverse, if not more diverse than New York City. I actually don’t know the numbers. And so for me, actually, what was really interesting was that as a child of Bangladeshi immigrants, there are actually a lot of Bangladeshi and South Asian immigrants to the United Kingdom as well. And at that time, so this was 2011, I was also working on the 10th anniversary slash memorial for 9/11. And at that time, I don’t know if readers or listeners can remember, but we were still very much mired in foreign policy blunders in the Middle East. And so a lot of the immigrants to the United Kingdom took that very seriously and they actually harbored very serious anti-American sentiment. And so for me, my boss was great. He was just like, “You’re just going to go out and learn on the job.” And so he put me out, there was an opportunity to engage with the local university, with a lot of Bangladeshi- British students.
My first tour, I was 25 and they looked at me and they’re like, “Wait, you’re here representing the United States Government?” They were just floored because they didn’t expect a 25-year-old Brown woman who actually spoke literally the same language as their own parents. I grew up speaking Bangla in my house because my mother was like, “I refuse to let this language not get passed down to the next generation.” And so she made sure that we only spoke Bangla in our house growing up. And lo and behold, here I am on my first tour, and all of a sudden I had to flip from English to Bangla and speak about the war to these students as if their face had already not been amazed. And they were like, “Wait, she’s speaking Bangla to us and explaining the Iraq war to me.” And I was just like that to me was just incredible because I realized that I think it really hit home all of a sudden that I was this representative of the US Government, and I had this immense power to shape narratives and change how we talk about things. And I don’t want to say we change minds because I think public affairs means you’re trying to change the narrative or trying to change the opinions. And we can’t change the opinions of other citizens overnight, especially on some topics that are so, so complicated, the US involvement in the Middle East. But me speaking in Bangla as a 25-year-old Brown American diplomat, I think, was just a moment for them to realize that it’s really easy to vilify the US as this kind of amorphous thing that they read about in the paper. But when they see someone who looks just like them, who is able to become a diplomat in the United States, it just floored them that that could even be. And so I think that was a moment where I was like, “Not only do I have power, but look at what is possible in the United States that honestly is not possible in most parts of the world.” And so that time, it was kind of that amazing experience that I always look back at.
Priscilla: That’s so powerful. And it seems like it was like a full circle moment for you.
Sharlina: Yeah, absolutely. And there I was, I had no idea as a 25-year-old I could even have this power.
Priscilla: Very cool. So what were the most glamorous and then the not so glamorous parts of your job? If you had to keep it real with people, what are the parts that maybe are not so exciting or just more challenging? What would those be for you?
Sharlina: So there are definitely so many glamorous moments in the story I just told you. It doesn’t sound glamorous probably to the average person, but for me it was because I was like, “Wow, look at me being able to change opinions.” But there were definitely the ones I think a lot of people were like, “This is definitely glamorous.” So part of my cultural affairs job was, at that time, Sundance actually had not broken outside the United States yet. And we worked with Robert Redford’s team to get Sundance into the United Kingdom. That was really glamorous for me to meet him and to work with some of the stars and the film folks out of the US, who are coming to the United Kingdom.
And also, I’m a huge sports fan. I was a kid in New York City in the ’90s with my brother, so I love basketball. And so I was able to work with the NBA folks in the United Kingdom and help them during, of course, at that time 2012 during the Olympic year to work with all the amazing basketball players who came to London. I met Grant Hill for the first time as part of a sports diplomacy reception. And I was like, “Man, you really are tall in real life.” That was amazing as a kid who grew up in the ’90s. And so that was really fantastic.
But yes, there are definitely a lot more not glamorous moments. What the really not glamorous part is you’re moving every few years. You’re leaving and uprooting friends and/or family members, depending on where you are. And you’re living far away from the United States. You miss the holidays. You miss things like Trader Joe’s, which sounds super silly. But when you’re far away, all of a sudden you start to realize the random things that you miss. I’ve been working in Washington the last few years, so it’s been really great. The ability to just have a need and then just go out to Target five seconds later is amazing. You cannot do that in other countries. So I think it is important to remind others that whether you’re working in foreign affairs as a US Government person or just in general like you’re working overseas, there are many not glamorous moments.
And I think the other thing to say as a representative of the US Government, I think we are also people, right? So we all have our own perspectives. We all come in very informed and educated about a lot of different things and we have strong opinions. And at the end of the day, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the policy matches with your opinion everywhere you go. And so that is definitely the not glamorous part. And that has happened throughout my almost 10 years in this career anywhere I’ve been. You’re there to represent what the folks back in Washington deem as the essential part of our bilateral relationship between that country and the United States. So as long as we’re advancing our most important US interests, that’s what your job is. So I think that’s important to have that get checked as well.
Priscilla: Well, my last question for you, what’s the most fun story that you can tell about your time working abroad?
Sharlina: Well, a fun story is that when I was working in London on the Olympics, I was working with my colleagues. And keep in mind, this is my first tour. So I’m still very junior and I was working on a reception/an event, actually for, at that time, First Lady Michelle Obama. And we were working around the clock to make sure everything was set up right. All the athletes were coming in and the folks who were invited were coming in. And I was working with the First Lady’s team from the White House would come in to also work what we call their advance team.
So I was working with them and we’re all so exhausted. And I was just like, “Oh my God. I can’t believe this is happening. All these people are coming.” And I got chewed out by one of the folks from the White House team because they were like, “Does this podium look exactly right?” So in public affairs, right, we set up the events, we have to do all these things. We have to think through every possible scenario. And so we’re right off the podium, setting up all these things. And I was like, “Yeah, everything looks right. The flag is in the right place. Everything, the backdrop, et cetera.” And they’re like, “I don’t think this podium looks right for the First Lady.” And I was like, “What?” And they were like, “Do you know how tall she is?” And I was like, “No. I know she’s tall but I don’t know how tall.” And they’re like, “Oh, she’s this” — I don’t even remember anymore, but she’s this tall, and she likes to wear a kitten heels. So I had to lie down on the floor by the podium to make sure we had just the right level of what is it called? The risers so that someone can — so that the First Lady — and I was so nervous.
And so right when that event happened, and the First Lady who is by the way, one of the most kindest down to earth people I have ever met, she stood on that riser. And I don’t know if anyone around me noticed that I had a huge sigh of relief, but it was like just right. It was the first event that was launched to kick off the entire weekend of events for the First Lady for the Olympics. And so I was so worried and mortified, but then it all was fine. And in the end she was so thankful and gracious and so sweet that I was like, “Thank God that worked out,” but let’s hope that doesn’t happen again.
Priscilla: Oh, my God. Wow. That probably felt so high stakes too, even though it’s like a minor detail. Oh, my God.
Sharlina: Yeah. So minor, right? Especially for a junior officer, we were like, “Okay. This is a lot.” So it just goes to show that every little thing that you see has so many intricate details in the back that someone is doing. So now it’s funny whenever I look at any kind of event. I’m like, “Oh, who did that? Oh, who did the Twitter?” Who was actually running that Twitter because that was probably the staff member, and I think they did a really good job.
Priscilla: Very cool. Well, Sharlina, this has been such a great conversation. I’m excited for people that are interested in this career path to listen to your story and to feel encouraged because I loved what you said about not letting imposter syndrome get in the way of your dreams. And you went after it, and you’ve been living your dream. So really cool. Thank you.
Sharlina: Great. Thank you so much, Priscilla.
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning in to the Early Career Moves Podcast! Be sure to visit ECMPodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community. And if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
On this episode, you’ll hear from Isabel Longoria, a French-Mexican-American policy and public affairs professional from Houston, Texas. Isabel, a queer Latina, ran against an incumbent on the Houston City Council in 2019 and narrowly lost by only 16 votes. Isabel shares what the experience was like, what she learned, and how she’s pivoted into a new exciting role leading voter innovation in Harris County.
Check out the Highlights:
2:09 – Isabel’s personal background and influences
3:26 – How Isabel got involved in Texas politics back in 2011
6:10 – How Isabel began to consider running for office herself
8:10 – What to keep in mind when deciding where and how to run for office
10:58 – How being gay impacted Isabel’s experience running for City Council
14:07- Isabel takes us back to the 2019 City Council race and loss aftermath
17:56 – How Isabel got help launching her campaign as a new-comer with no name recognition
19:37 – The hardest parts about running a campaign
22:43- Isabel’s advice to anyone interested in running for office
25:24- Isabel’s take on career strategy using design think principles
Links Mentioned In Episode:
Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast
Latino Texas PAC
Isabel’s LinkedIn – Reach out to her if you’re a young BIPOC interested in running for office!
Isabel: It’s tough to take on an incumbent and every single incumbent in Houston won, but I am proud to say that all of the incumbents who ran in the Houston City Council elections last time won by 55, 60 or greater percent. And so, I’m the only one that got close, 0.02% close, to taking out an incumbent. And I’m pretty dang proud of that.
Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killin it on their career journeys. I’m your host Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey everyone! Today you get to hear from the amazing Isabel Longoria, a Mexican-French-American and proud Houstonian who is also a policy and public affairs professional. Isabel has been heavily involved in politics & policy in Texas for over 10 years, and in 2019, she ran against an incumbent for a Houston City Council position and lost narrowly by only 16 votes. In 2020, she led voting innovation for Harris County during the election, and shortly after was sworn in as their first-ever Elections Administrator. This interview did take place before we found out the results from the 2020 election, so just keep that in mind as you listen…She is such a wonderful example of resilience, true public service, and paying it forward to queer communities and communities of color who are interested in running for office. If that is you, make sure you hit her up on LinkedIn as she is very open to helping people fo’ free.
Priscilla: Hey, everyone. I’m really excited to have Isabel Longoria on today’s episode to talk about her career in public service. Thank you so much, Isabel, for being with us.
Isabel: I’m excited.
Priscilla: Yeah. So why don’t you kick us off by telling us a little bit about yourself?
Isabel: So I am Houston born and raised. I’ve loved Houston ever since I was born. My dad’s a Mexican immigrant and my mom is a French immigrant. So I’m a first generation Houstonian along with my brother, and, yeah, we’ve got an interesting dynamic of being the epitome of that melting pot here in Houston, different cultures, different regions of the world, but always, always feeling like I’ve had a place in Houston. Yeah. I’m a big nerd for pretty much anything public service, talking about urban policy, and I think that comes from growing up in Houston and my dad being an architect….it really helped frame for me growing up how we design communities and what it means to build up that environment and how communities interact in spaces big and large. And one thing I like to point out too, is that both of them, that French and Mexican side, my grandparents, my uncles, were all part of city council in their cities, ran for state legislature and were heavily involved in politics. But no one knows that for me here in Houston, and it doesn’t apply, (laughs), once you actually get to the city you love and end up growing up in and living in.
Priscilla: Yeah. So before we get into that, I want to hear a little bit about what your experience was like at UT Austin LBJ School of Public Affairs. How did you use those two years? What did you get involved in?
Isabel: I ended up working at the legislature. So I first started checking mail for a state representative and she said, “Hey, the legislature’s coming up in Texas. Do you want to work to get extra credits while you’re at policy school?” I said, cool, why not? I’ll make a couple extra bucks. And it was the 2011 legislative session. I was working for the head of the democratic caucus, Jessica Farrar, and I fell in love with it. I was Head of Redistricting for her, I worked on the Democratic Women’s Caucus and every day was an exciting adventure in new policy and new things to do. You could do education and transportation and women’s health and all of these things. And I actually started specializing in a way that maybe some of the folks at LBJ had more of that consultant or non-profit kind of real-world business experience, I now had that political experience.
Priscilla: Where did life lead you after graduation from LBJ? What did you do next, and how did you figure that out?
Isabel: It was just a natural progression. So after having worked at the legislature, I developed those contacts of people who were in the Democratic Party. And when I graduated LBJ that summer, I got a job working on Democratic campaigns, right? Those were my contacts. Seemed like an easy enough thing. And I always thought campaigns would be for me, just something I did until I found my real job. (Laughs.) So I started working on Democratic politics in South Texas and Houston, because that’s where my family’s from. And then, you get to know more people, and through that, I always told two of my contacts that I wanted to get back to Houston. And so there was a special election for Senator Sylvia Garcia in Houston. Jumped back on that race. It was a quick two month race. She won and I ended up working for her. And so then became my cycle of working at the state legislature doing policy work, and then in the interim, working in Houston on the community organizing and district office side, and through that always kind of political campaigns in the background, because I just started getting that specialty. I mean, that’s, that’s what I know. That’s where I have my contacts and I’ve really developed a strategic mind for it.
Priscilla: How many campaigns did you work on for, for Sylvia Garcia?
Isabel: So I worked on Jessica Farrar, Sylvia Garcia, twice. But in South Texas, I worked on two House races. In Houston, I worked on the Ann Johnson race, the first time against Sarah Davis. And now she’s back running against Sarah Davis. So that’s five. I’ve also advised on the Wendy Davis campaign for governor and various races here in Houston. And I’ve actually, I don’t charge to work on these races in Houston, especially if it’s for young progressives or young people of color. I love, love, love, breaking that barrier, and getting away from paid consultants and saying, “Hey, here’s my advice. Here’s what I would do. Let me connect you to the people who can help you”, because I want to break down that barrier of entry for anyone interested in running for office, and for too long, quite frankly, it’s been a good old boys club, even on the Democratic side in Texas. And it’s great, I know some of those people, I know they do great work, but I still want to break down that barrier. I still want to give radical access rights to the kind of information that can help people run for office.
Priscilla: During this time, while you were running all these campaigns, did you ever imagine that you yourself would be running for office? How did that idea come into play?
Isabel: Yeah, I started seeing people doing it more and more, and I realized that elected officials are just human beings, just like the rest of us and that they had the same passion for public service. And I think for me it helped demystify it that it wasn’t, it wasn’t something where you had to be born a Kennedy and you get to be part of a special family that does this, especially when you’ve listened to Senator or, now Congresswoman, Sylvia Garcia’s story, where she grew up on a farming family just outside of Corpus. That she worked her way up by going through law school and then becoming a municipal judge through networking here in Houston, that she’s now a Congresswoman. And I think for me, it really put it into perspective that what is more important for an elected official is to have that passion and then to have the skills of being able to talk to people, policy analysis, strategic negotiation…which are all things that I’ve developed in my time at LBJ and in my other jobs. And then, being able to watch it in action so many times at different legislative sessions started putting in my head that, yeah, hey, I think I have the skills to do it. And now the question and the question always for me was, where can I be an authentic community leader? So it’s not about moving into a neighborhood and six months later running to say that I’m running…Where’s my place, where’s my city, right? Where’s my group that I really want to defend and take care of? And then how can I work to really earn the respect of that community to serve them and to represent all of us in office?
Priscilla: Yeah, I respect that so much about you because you’re right, I think that people can be strategic sometimes about, “Oh, there’s a seat, an opportunity that can be flipped. I’m going to move there.” That kind of thing. But I think you’ve been intentional about slowly building the community, like from the ground up.
Isabel: I can’t reiterate it enough. Even coming back to Houston and running for office later in city council, I’ve always gotten the message of, “Hey, you’re great, but we don’t know your family, right? You’re not one of the Garcia’s or Ninfa Laurenzo’s, right?” Or one of those families that have been in Houston, Mexican-American, for decades and decades that has the family that everyone knows. And so it’s interesting because I try to share my story of, “Hey, if you go to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, people know my family, we ran for mayor. My great grandfather was head of the, essentially the state’s legislature in Tamaulipas. You go to Northern France, people know my grandparents as running on city councils. So I have that legacy, but it doesn’t translate here. And so then it was even more important…and there is some strategy, right, of who I was working for, of being with Sylvia Garcia and taking on the jobs in her office that weren’t necessarily glamorous, but they put me in front of a lot of people, like being her driver. You get to meet everyone that she’s meeting when you’re the driver. And then later on really thinking about the civic clubs and wanting to be involved in and making sure I led with service. So it wasn’t just, “Go and run to be treasurer of whatever civic club”, it was, “How can I be going to the community garden day? How can I be going to the house building day? How can I be going to every single civic club meeting?” So I learn what’s going on and I integrate myself into the community because I don’t have that name to fall back on.
Priscilla: Wow. That’s so interesting. I’m from Houston and I really hadn’t even thought about how there are these families that you really need to get to know to be able to play in that space.
Isabel: Oh yeah…Like, here in Houston, there’s the Treviños, the Morenos, there’s even people who’ve become activists lately who I deeply respect and who would become my mentors, but there’s families that you have to fight against and there’s families whose rings you have to kiss. And so I don’t want to…pretend like there isn’t any strategy. I think that you have to be thoughtful about what you’re doing and who you’re connecting with…But for me, it’s always been, I’m going to be thoughtful. I’m going to connect with people, but I’m going to make sure to check my bias. And this is big for me…I’m going to try and read the signs when people are telling me that I’m not the person to run for office, because I think that’s a mistake other people make. And if they’re saying don’t run for office, why? Is it because truly they’re saying you don’t have the experience? We don’t trust you? You’re not getting invited to things? You don’t get invited to speak at things or be part of things? That’s a big sign that people don’t want you around. But if the pushback you’re getting is, “Oh, well, you’re young”…Age is a number, right? “Oh, well, there’s been other families here.” Good and great. Are they running? I don’t know. I think that’s the hardest part quite frankly, of running for office is listening to that community feedback and deciding what’s accurate feedback, what’s an accurate assessment and what’s just people projecting their own fear of the unknown.
Priscilla: When you were thinking about running, did you think a lot about being a woman and do you feel like that held you back in any way?
Isabel: I thought a lot more about being gay. I’m gay. I present very masculine for being a woman. And I don’t look Hispanic enough. So I used to love to say on the campaign trail “Soy Guera, pero no Gringa.” (English Translation: I may look light-skinned, but I’m not Caucasian). I don’t know, getting in that I can speak Spanish, that I have this Mexican background. It’s not necessarily Mexican-American, which, I think actually, was an interesting challenge as well. No, I thought a lot more about being gay. And I know for a fact that later running for city council, it came down to 0.02% difference, 0.02% difference between me and the incumbent city council member who won. And I know without a shadow of a doubt, it was a 16 vote difference, that being gay played into it. And I just adopted very early on, this is who I am. I would hate myself more for trying to put myself in a closet or play it down. And quite honestly, I think it would be disingenuous. I think people have the right to know who they are electing into office and they expect and should expect a certain integrity of authenticity of who you are. I dressed in my jeans and my blazer, and I never hid that I was gay. I put it on all of my literature and material. I had some abuelitas, and abuelitos, more than anything, who weren’t excited about that. And I left it up to them. If that’s something that was going to prevent them from voting for me, they have every right to do that. And that speaks more about what we need to work on in a society, right, than about me and my ability to represent.
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Isabel: But I got to 50/50. I mean, I got to…I think it was 49.98 to 50.02 or something like that.
Priscilla: Yeah, so that’s the perfect segway, Isabel, tell us about your city council race in 2019.
Isabel: So, I took on a city council incumbent, who was a Houston transplant who had run already in the scene in the head for four years. She was running again. She’s a very nice woman. She actually used to babysit me when I was younger and she was friends with my father. Her husband is an architect, so she knew my family and she just wasn’t as proactive and is not as proactive as I would like to see, and that’s why I took her on. It was tough. It’s tough to take on an incumbent and every single incumbent in Houston won, but I am proud to say that all of the incumbents who ran in the Houston City Council elections last time won by 55, 60 or greater percent. And so I’m the only one that got close, 0.02% close, to taking out an incumbent. And I’m pretty dang proud of that.
Priscilla: I guess, the aftermath. What was that day like when you realized how close you were and how did you process it in the days and weeks to come?
Isabel: (Deep sigh and long pause)…At the time that it was happening, it was happening very quickly. And there were things I needed to do as far as the provisional votes that come in and the final canvas, because at first, the night, the election night, we were only a 12 vote difference. And so my campaign manager and I had decided that after the provisional ballots came in, if we brought it down to 10 votes or less, that we would ask for a recount, because that was statistically so close and 10 is important. In every other recount that’s happened in Harris County, the most votes that have ever been overturned is 10. And so for us, that, that was our marker. And so there was a lot of strategy there and still a lot of attention to, what do we do? How do we get people out? Is there anything we can do? And then, once it was 16 votes ahead, a lot of people wanted me to push to do a recount, regardless, because…right now in City Council, of the 17 members, and that includes the mayor, there’s only one Hispanic person, Robert Gallegos. He is now the only LGBT representative as well, I believe. And so there was a lot of people asking me to do a recount regardless because they wanted another Hispanic person and another LGBT representative on council. And, quite honestly Priscilla, that was the toughest decision of the entire campaign is do I do a recount or not? And we had the money, we had the backing and all I could think is, do I want to put the city through that? What does it mean then to just, like, inflate this drama knowing statistically, we probably won’t close that 16 vote difference? And so it was more important for me at the time to be gracious in that loss and to hopefully use my race then as motivation for why we needed to do more in the future to work beforehand, to help people of color and LGBT representatives run for office than to try fighting over the breadcrumbs at the end. And I say that because several LGBT elected officials decided to stay out of the race or remain neutral or had picked the incumbent side, or mine came back and said, “you know what? I made a mistake. Had I known it would be that close. I would have backed you. I just didn’t think anyone could take on an incumbent.” And that is that’s the one I struggle with the most. Shouldn’t you back who you believe in shouldn’t you back the change that you want to see in the world? And I do hope, and I do think quite frankly, that for at least a couple of years, people will point to my race as a reason why there needs to be more, more access and more resources for people of color, especially Hispanic and LGBT members early on, because there is a possibility if you have good candidates and progressive candidates who run great races to take on incumbents.
Priscilla: When you were running your campaign, were there any PACs or any organizations that really helped you launch this campaign?
Isabel: Yeah. I, I think again, having been in the Democratic politics for a while, right? Most of the biggest strategists in the city, county and state, were my friends, my best friends. So I was really lucky in that they all came to help free of charge. I would say organization-wise Latino Texas PAC, based here out of Houston, came on early and hard and they gave me, I think, towards the end, nearly $10,000 over the run and the runoff, ‘cause there was a runoff, to beat this incumbent. And it was that seed money that helped me make the pitch to unions, that helped me make the pitch to the LGBT caucus that I was viable, that I could raise money and that I had people behind me. So that was fantastic and I give them a lot of credit and honestly, Sylvia Garcia, who I worked with, she came out for me early and said, I know it’s tough taking on an incumbent, we’re cordial, she mentioned that she didn’t think that particular incumbent was doing a good job either, and she wanted to see more Hispanic representation. So she backed me early and that did send a signal to the other elected officials that this is something you should jump in on and they made their decisions as they needed to strategically. So I’m very grateful for those two entities, Sylvia Garcia and Latino Texas PAC.
Priscilla: So I assume that speaking in front of crowds and building relationships comes very naturally to you. What were the parts from the campaign that were a little more challenging or just harder for you?
Isabel: Yeah, so you’re right, speaking publicly – I loved it. I get a big energy kick out of that, and debates were fun. Being on the quote-unquote campaign trail didn’t feel like a campaign trail ‘cause it was all my friends, right? Like I said, it was all the people I’d been shoulder to shoulder with working at civic clubs and doing all this great work. So there were no real new introductions I needed to make. The hardest part was every day I was pretty much alone. You do so much alone on a campaign. I wasn’t a big fancy campaign that had a dozen staff members. I had me and my campaign manager, Rob, who’s my dear friend, almost brother now, who was volunteering, but he had his own family. I had a communications consultant, Ben Hernandez and then I had a field consultant and strategist, Delilah, but basically every day was me alone in my house. I would pick my block walking packet. I would go block, walk alone. And I would come back to the house and do my thank you notes or do some social media, but it’s a lonely thing. A campaign can be a lonely thing. It’s a lot of you on the trail, especially when you’re starting off the first time, a lot of friends coming over late in the night, if they need to help you after work. But the days can be very long. I had to quit my job at AARP to run. So I quit. I saved up a bunch of money knowing I wanted to do that for at least two years. And then it was that for six months, me living off my savings and I had plenty of savings, but I didn’t have health insurance either, and that got very scary. At one point from block-walking so much, half of my right foot went numb and I could not feel it and I couldn’t go access health care. And quite frankly, I didn’t want to, because I didn’t want someone telling me that I had to stop because that wasn’t going to be an option when it’s me just block walking every day. There’s no option to stop. So there were some very scary moments physically of being able to push myself to finish the campaign.
Priscilla: Have you thought about whether you would re-run for City Council or have you thought about maybe even pulling an AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and running for Congresswoman right away?
Isabel: Yeah, I’d love to. I would love….I do. I want to be an elected official and be part of that public service. City Council? I don’t know. The reason I ran last time was because there was an incumbent, I didn’t think she would do a great job and everyone else was too scared to run against her because incumbents always have so much money in momentum against them. So there was a clear person who needed to be challenged, even if I didn’t win. And there was always that possibility. I wanted her to go challenged so that we could bring up as a community the other things we wanted to see done. So now I’m looking at, okay, let’s see how the City Council does the next four years, who is doing their job well and who isn’t and what openings are there? I thought about running for County Clerk, that came open in May. It didn’t work out because of where I was financially and COVID-19, but my, my great friend, Chris Hollins won, and he actually brought me on to the office. So now I’m working for him in the County Clerk’s office on elections doing special projects, that’s been fantastic. Had I not run for office I don’t actually know if he would have pulled me in. And then looking ahead….heck yeah. My passion is always getting back to the state level somehow, whether it be state house representative, senator, secretary of state, Lieutenant Governor, I’d love to do the state stuff, but for me, like I said, and what I’ve always started with is, where can I be helpful? and what is the job I’m passionate about doing? Not, what is the job that happens to be open, and so I’m going to do it just to say, I am an elected official. I, I will never be that person.
Priscilla: What would you tell someone like a younger person who was interested in running for office? What are like some lessons or some tips that you would give that person?
Isabel: Absolutely. I tell them to get involved and not just, “Oh, go register to vote or volunteer with the League of Women Voters one night”, truly, get a job working for an elected official at any level, because you learn so much about what the different levels of government do. And one thing I actually challenge young people who say they want to be in a certain level of government, they usually say, every one, I kid you not, if you took a poll, everyone would say they’re passionate about education or transportation. And you say great, why? And they may or may not be able to tell you. And then I say, great, what level of government do you think affects that most? And they will always say Congressperson, and that is always wrong. If you want to do anything with education funding specifically, or education policy, it’s usually at the state level or the school district level. And I know, Priscilla, you know way more about education than I do. If it’s transportation, it’s absolutely at the state or County level. So that’s why I encourage younger folks to actually get a job, an internship, whatever it may be, no matter how quote-unquote menial it may sound, get your foot in the door right now, while you can, while you’re okay living off that $30 or $40,000 a year salary to start off with. So that you see what’s happening, you network, and you get it on your resume right now. Unfortunately, I think people want to wait until later to get those glamorous jobs of chief of staff or head of policy and all those people who are chief of staff or head of policy are people who started off first as a district assistant, talking to constituents, or campaign field block walker. It is an industry that is very hierarchical in that way, so getting in early helps.
Priscilla: Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing now at the County, especially as we get ready for the 2020 election
Isabel: I’m pumped. I am working on special projects for Harris County. So you might’ve heard, we now have 24 hour voting. We have drive-through voting. We’ve changed how we do mail ballots so that they are more easily read by voters, for example, and easier to use. We’ve done some innovation work on the inside and how we perform our analytics and how we actually track our progress. And I think we’ve done an even better job of changing things on the exterior, like the hours and the locations and how we communicate to people. We’re excited! Now I’m at like the heart of democracy running an election, and I’m really excited to be doing that at Harris County and fixing things from the inside out.
Priscilla: I’m really curious. What would you say is your approach to figuring out your career moves?
Isabel: I was listening to a podcast, incidentally, once about design think. So you design something, you put it out in the world, the world tears it all up, right? So, you say this works, this doesn’t work, great. You keep going through the prototyping phase until you find something. Instead of saying, “where am I now, what is my ultimate dream job, how do I get there, and everything that deviates from that path is a failure”….How can I then apply design think and say, “What if everything I do in life is just prototyping and trying new things?” And that completely changed how I thought about my life, is not, “Am I getting to my dream destination fast enough?”, is, “Oh, here’s a fun and interesting job…here’s a place where I can learn new skills, right? How can I go along with this prototype, learn what I need to do, and then essentially either when it’s been fixed or not fixed or when it’s broken or when I’m bored or whatever, how can I say “Good, this has been a wonderful path. And now it’s time for me to prototype something different, right? Or bring something new into my life, or look for that new adventure.” That is something I’d love to share, is like releasing you from this idea that your life is one path and any deviation from it is a failure.
Priscilla: That’s such a cool way to think about our careers. So thank you, Isabelle, for sharing that. Isabel, I have enjoyed this conversation so much…thank you so much for being here with us today. I’m so excited to see what you do next.
Isabel: Yeah. And I always offer, if you find me online anywhere, I always always offer any information or advice for anyone interested in running for office or getting into public policy like us, absolutely for free. Like I started off this podcast, my goal is to break down the barriers for people of color like ourselves and queer people to find their passion and get engaged in politics. So please hit me up and I would be happy to share my connections with you and get you on your next adventure.
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning into the Early Career Moves podcast! Be sure to visit ECMPodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community! And if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Have a great week!