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Awards to Recognize Women in Leadership

Founders of Running Start hope that following tonight’s Women to Watch Awards, young girls will have a new slate of women to admire and emulate.

The awards, given out annually since 2007, recognize women who have risen to leadership in their professions. Women in politics, journalism and philanthropy will all be honored at a banquet at the National Press Club.

They’re an eclectic group: Muriel Bowser, D.C. Ward 4 councilmember; Anne Kornblut, author and Washington Post reporter; Malika Saada Saar, founder of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, and Kellyanne Conway, president of the Polling Company Inc./WomanTrend. Running Start will also give its first Trailblazer Award — for a woman who has spent a lifetime mentoring other women — to Sheila Johnson, president of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, tonight’s keynote speaker, is exactly the kind of woman the sponsoring organization, Running Start, wants young women to model themselves after. The Tennessee Republican wasn’t looking to go into politics when she was young. She became an accomplished retail marketing consultant, but the skills she developed there led others to encourage her to pursue a career in politics.

Blackburn was elected to the state Senate in 1998 and then to the House in 2002. In late 2008, she published a book about her experiences, “Life Equity: Realize Your True Value and Pursue Your Passions at Any Stage in Life,” and she’ll speak about themes from the book tonight.

“It’s amazing to me the number of women tuned into the community,” she told Roll Call in 2009. “More and more women are developing a career path. It may not be the traditional career path.”

Susannah Wellford Shakow founded the nonprofit Running Start in 2007. Shakow was one of the organizers behind the nonpartisan Women Under Forty Political Action Committee, which was struggling to find young women to support in federal campaigns. WUFPAC leaders realized that women needed to have sufficient political experience earlier in life in order to build up seniority and rise to higher offices. They founded Running Start to encourage high school and college women to get involved in the political process.

To that end, Running Start coordinates five programs, including one that places college upperclassmen and recent graduates in Capitol Hill offices. The Star Fellowship began in the fall of 2009 and has since placed 14 interns in the offices of Congresswomen. It includes free housing on Capitol Hill, a $2,000 stipend and a schedule of Friday seminars that bring in professional women to teach interns how to advance in their field. Another college program encourages young women to run for student government, reasoning that many who are elected to federal office were first elected to student body positions.

In any of their programs, though, Running Start organizers encourage young women to follow role models, many of whom are Members of Congress. Past Women to Watch honorees have included Reps. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

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