Cecile Richards on Starting Before You’re Ready

Cecile Richards at FFF’s 2018 CEO Summit

Cecile Richards is on a quest to combat self-doubt.

As the former president of Planned Parenthood, she spent years fighting for women’s rights to access healthcare and control their bodies, which often meant going out on a limb to advocate for her cause. When she was first getting started, the best advice came from her family.

“Don’t wait for instructions, don’t ask for permission, start before you’re ready,” Richards said at our F3 CEO Summit. She was lucky to grow up with fearless role models — she likes to tell the story of how her grandmother successfully slaughtered a chicken while giving birth to her mother, Ann Richards, who would grow up to be the second female governor of Texas. “A lot of us are here because we had women in our lives who pushed us to believe we could do more than we ever thought.” In a room of F3 CEOs, she shared some wisdom from the women in her life.

Consider the Worst-Case Scenario

“Open a Lemonade Factory”

A more surprising example of this was Richards’ testimony before Congress’s House government oversight committee in September 2015 regarding the organization’s use of federal funds. While Cecile “would never recommend being called before Congress or a jury; it’s just not fun,” she was able to see the silver lining. Because of the coverage of her testimony, “more people knew who was running Congress and they were dismayed, and more people knew what Planned Parenthood did, because we got a chance to talk about the care we provide.” It ended up being a PR boost.

Don’t Shortchange Your Ideas

During Richards’ tenure at Planned Parenthood, Texas tried to pass the most restrictive abortion laws in history, which would have essentially shut down almost all of the abortion providers in the state. “There was no way to win because we didn’t control the legislature, the governor was against us,” Richards said. But when the legislature moved to pass the bill, Texans turned out at the Capitol to protest. Wendy Davis did her historic thirteen-hour filibuster. As a result of the public outcry, the United States Supreme Court overturned Texas bill three years later.

Back Up Your Words with Action

“It’s not just wearing a button, it’s actually fighting for Equality,” Richards said. Identifying as a feminist brand isn’t just about calling yourself a feminist brand. Instead, it’s about putting your money where your mouth is. “Millennials increasingly are looking for brands that stand for their values. To be a brand that stands for women means that you have to go all the way. You have to stand for women’s rights to access affordable healthcare and make decisions about their bodies, which includes the decision about whether to have children and when.”

Regarding self-doubt: this is all to say that by taking action, you inspire others to take action. It’s something akin to a domino effect.

“If you are waiting as a leader, or as a company, for the right time to stand up for women, this is a really good time to do it,” Richards said. Since the 2016 presidential election, 40,000 women have reached out to the political organization EMILY’s List asking to be trained to run for public office. In years past, EMILY’s List received about 1,000 requests annually, which means that nearly forty times as many women have expressed interest in becoming lawmakers.

On January 3rd, when more women than ever were sworn into Congress, the shift was crystal clear. “The reason women are doing more is because they see other women doing more,” Richards said. “You can’t underestimate your power as an individual to inspire others.”

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