Why She Leads: Molly Sheehan

Through our Incubator Spotlight series, She Should Run is highlighting the voices of women in the Incubator program who have made the decision to step forward and run for elected office. These women running for office all across the country and at every level of government draw their inspiration from different places. Today, you’ll learn about how Molly Sheehan, a postdoctoral fellow in bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania.

What is your most memorable career and personal accomplishment?

In my professional scientific career, my most memorable moment was winning the Young Investigator Award at the 2016 World Molecular Imaging Conference for my work in building completely non-natural proteins for medical and research imaging applications. The World Molecular Imaging Society is an international scientific organization that works to improve the field of medical imaging research and diagnostics. It was an honor to address them with my work and to be recognized for our lab’s developments.

In my campaign, my greatest achievement was moving the needle on our region’s conversation about single payer healthcare. When I entered in spring of 2017, I was the only candidate clearly advocating for universal governmentally-paid healthcare, but by the end of our campaign, it had become critical to every campaign to take a firm stance for it. Our advocacy for it as both the fiscally responsible and humane way to achieve universal healthcare in the United States achieved the goal of ensuring whoever won the primary would fight to bring the policy to fruition. I believe our stance on immigration also prompted all of the other campaigns to say they would also abolish ICE during the primary.

Personally, of course it is the birth and care of my daughter, who I am immensely proud of as a strong, articulate, curious young girl.

We'd love to hear more about your leadership path. How did you get to where you are today?

I have taken a pretty non-traditional path to politics. I have been on the path to be a professor in the sciences since about 7th grade. What I’ve wanted to study has changed, but I’ve always wanted to be on the frontiers of knowledge. As I got older, I started becoming more quantitative, because I realized broad change comes from the details, from a fundamental shift in how we understand the world. I worked my way through college and eventually got my Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biophysics from the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve been involved in my community as I’ve worked in the sciences, acting as a Quaker youth coordinator, serving on boards that advocate for student worker needs, and a task force that built a multilingual immersion program in a public school.

Throughout the 2016 election, I was shaken out of my comfort zone. It was clear we all had been fairly complacent leading to a country that felt emboldened to say things to my family about my husband being an immigrant or our having a biracial child that I truly thought we had progressed past. When Trump won, I went and cried next to my daughter’s crib, seared in my head the image of her new President bragging about sexually assaulting women. I asked myself, “how did we get here?” I think the answer is that we haven’t been doing a good enough job speaking to the vital needs of the poor and working class and that we haven’t been amplifying their voices or including them in the process properly. After initially searching for other candidates to support and help run people-focused campaigns, and finding those who have risen to power in the current system having little desire to change it, I decided to run myself.

I decided to run to bring meaningful policy proposals to the table, with the details that affect people’s lives. I decided to run to listen to constituents, and creatively work on their vital needs with them as partners. I decided to run to prove we can run efficient campaigns that do not feed the Campaign Industrial Complex which is eating away at the soul of our democracy. I decided to run as an example of how we can run truly people-focused campaigns, with integrity and on the issues.

What is your personal mission related to running for office and why?

My mission in running for office, and now helping others run for office, is to give voice to the most marginalized groups in our communities, and to level the playing field so anybody can raise to higher levels of power. This involves having concrete policy proposals, not simply spouting talking points, that come from listening intently to constituents. This involves supporting candidates from early on who bring the most to the table, not just the bigger fundraisers. I have a fundamental problem with how much of our campaign infrastructure operates where support lines up behind the biggest fundraisers. This disenfranchises people from poorer communities as you cannot amplify one voice without it being over others. I hope to serve as a amplifying force for those who traditionally get passed on by the two parties but represent their communities well.

How has the Incubator helped you clarify your leadership vision?

There was a conversation in the Incubator discussion group about why women need to run for office, and why we need to support them and vote for them, that helped me articulate much better why representation is important. One woman squarely hit the nail on the head: equality isn’t enough; we are working for equity. Treating everybody equally cements the status quo, and preserves institutional power dynamics, typically towards men, and white people. What we are striving for is equity, where all voices are heard equally. This requires a leveling of the playing field, and a preference for underrepresented groups in positions of power. Anything less does a disservice to the history of oppression and the tremendous obstacles women and minorities must overcome to achieve the same status in American government. This philosophy allowed me to much better articulate why electing women is so important, and going forward, why I am so committed to helping level the playing field for other women, minorities, and people from poorer communities. Everybody deserves the equity of direct representation.

What are steps you have taken on your path to a future run?

My current path has come to a close. I ran for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 5th District and came in 4th in a 10-way primary. It was a long race filled with twists and turns, from Supreme Court-mandated redistricting giving us a new map a week before ballot petitions started to two sexual harassment scandals of fundraising leaders from both parties. Every week was a new assessment of “What are the district lines? Who are we running against?” It was a challenge, but completely worth it. I feel our campaign made real progress on issues and held other candidates accountable for having well thought out policy proposals and being mindful of the needs of the most marginalized constituents. While we did not win, it was not a failure. I am not sure if I’ll run again in the future, but I will definitely continue working to improve equity in our government. I am building a free website to help source volunteers to campaigns (ThePeople.Online), that will launch in the upcoming months for 2019 municipal races. Through that platform, and in conjunction with other organizations, I’ll keep working to elect strong women to all levels of government.

Tell us about your favorite She Should Run "aha" moment or success story. Why are you an Incubator member?

I tell all my friends considering running for office to join She Should Run. It’s an invaluable experience and curriculum that truly is like a college course in running for office, specifically for women. Some of the materials I have found most useful are those that help us consider how others perceive us, and how we can alter others perceptions of us to better fit the image we hope to project. As my election progressed, many of these lessons crystallized for me. As my imposter syndrome faded and my own confidence grew, I was much more successful in projecting the image of “qualified” and “compassionate” simultaneously. The Incubator lessons helped me harness this growth, and accept the normalcy of my own need to grow into a voice of authority on subjects.

I also find the online forum incredibly helpful in building camaraderie amongst other women going through the same things on the campaign trail, sharing our own experiences and learning from others further along, as well as gaining candid feedback on the products and tools available. I appreciate the non-partisan nature of the group; interacting collaboratively with people from other parties has made me less blindly partisan and a better candidate.

What's your advice for finding time for your personal life (family, personal growth, etc.)?

I’ve been pretty up front through my campaign that I have the immense privilege of running for office as a young mother because of a very supportive and extensive family close to me. My in-laws and father are all retired and share our childcare. I have the luxury of not being the breadwinner of my family, and my entire family was fully behind me. When I first was deciding to run, my family off-loaded most of my domestic duties (laundry, cooking, shopping) and…. Voila! magically 20 hours/week appeared for my campaign! Fun? Well… you really need to enjoy campaigning to run for Congress for over a year. I truly did enjoy meeting so many amazing people, but it is exhausting. The campaign was my personal growth this year, and my new political connections became my new friends. Running for Congress truly was a life-altering experience and my time became structured very differently.