Cecile Richards on Starting Before You’re Ready

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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

For many years, Richards said, “I lived in self-doubt, and still do.” She explained that when she was first invited to interview for her role at Planned Parenthood, she nearly declined to meet with the board. “I’d never done anything that big, I’d never run anything like that, and my kids were in elementary school.” During the eleventh hour, she called her mother, who told her she would regret skipping the interview because the worst-case scenario was rejection. “I thought i didn’t want to go to the interview because I was afraid I would fail, but maybe I was actually afraid I might succeed,” Richards pointed out.

“Open a Lemonade Factory”

Everybody’s heard it: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Because Planned Parenthood is one of the most polarizing organizations in the world, it was important for Richards and her team to anticipate attacks days or weeks in advance, in order to redirect them or lessen the blow. One year, a prominent breast-cancer awareness nonprofit decided to pull their support for Planned Parenthood, so Planned Parenthood ran its own breast-cancer awareness campaign that garnered enough public support to reverse the nonprofit’s decision. Richards’ friend and former colleague Dawn Laguens calls this “opening 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

Richards spent years lobbying for the Affordable Care Act, during a time when “birth control was super controversial.” It’s ironic, she joked, because the average woman in America who wants to have kids “spends five years having kids, and 30 years trying not to get pregnant.” Since birth control became part of the Affordable Care Act’s coverage, teenage pregnancy has reached an all-time low in the United States. “It took decades, but if we hadn’t fought for that, it wouldn’t have happened.” Sixty-two million women now receive birth control without a copay.

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

“Folks want to look at a brand or a company or an organization or a movement and and know what you stand for,” Richards said. “They want to stand with people who believe in something, even when it’s impractical.” But even more than advocating for a cause, people want to support brands that take action to support those causes. One of the chapters in Richards’ book, Make Trouble, is titled “Feminist Is Not a Passive Label.”

“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.

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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