Q & A with a Startup Founder: Emily Cherniack

This post is part of an ongoing Q & A series with startup founders, experienced social entrepreneurs, fundraisers, and philanthropists to help aspiring or current startup leaders make big things happen.  The first installment is with the amazing Emily Cherniack, founder of New Politics.

Describe your organization in 3-5 sentences:

New Politics is a political organization that embodies a “human capital” strategy to improve the outcomes of our politics and governance– anchored by alumni of the service and social entrepreneur movements. Our vision is that one day our political system functions more effectively because a majority of our political leaders have first dedicated themselves to a period of national service and thus are undaunted by our toughest challenges, work to find common ground, put our communities first, and solve our problems.

New Politics works to achieve this vision by recruiting, training, providing support, and electing candidates to local and state offices and building a grassroots base to do so.

Where are you in the startup phase (how long, are you full-time, etc)?

New Politics is almost 6 months old.  The organization started out as an idea with some initial conversations in March and by end of July I was working full time on the organization.

How did you get into the position of leading a new venture?  And what motivated you to “go for it”

I actually never thought that I would start an organization.  I am much more of a behind the scenes person and spent the past few years in the role as Chief of Staff to the amazing social entrepreneur Alan Khazei.  I had just finished leading his U.S Senate race and was looking for my next job opportunity.  Ever since I worked on my first campaign in 2009 I had been fascinated by the entire candidate process and wondered why more people from the service and social entrepreneur space weren’t running.  To me, these were the amazing leaders who should be running for office.  I was also seeing the challenges our elected leaders had in their lack of ability to work together.  It was at this point I realized that this was something that was desperately needed.

How do you handle mistakes and setbacks?

When starting an organization, it’s important to keep in mind that you will make mistakes and you will have setbacks.  Nothing is going to be perfect, or work out exactly how you think it will.  I have found that mistakes and setbacks are an important learning tool for reflection and figuring out how to improve.  My first big mistake happened when I went to pitch my first potential donor.  I totally thought he would support this new idea, which would help give me some resources to work on this full time.  As it turned out, the person did not like this idea and was definitely not going to support it.  I was at a loss because I was so sure I would get his support that I had no other potential donors lined up to meet with and had no idea what to do about getting start up funding.

After reflecting on this setback I realized that I made a mistake going to this person so early in the development stage.  The idea wasn’t really complete yet and I should have waited before approaching him first.  I also realized not to put all your eggs in one basket.  It’s important to meet with as many people as possible because you never know who will be inspired and who will want to support you.  My first key supporters were people that I actually did not think would be the first ones in and now I have some great champions who have the energy and belief in this idea to be long term advisers and mentors.

What are the most important skills and characteristics to start an organization?

No one is going to have all the skills they need to start an organization.  The most important skill is self-awareness and knowing what you are good at and what you need other people for.  I think being a great relationship manager is very important because you have to connect with people whether it is donors, potential team members/staff, your board or advisory committee.   Communication is also a skill that is incredibly important for a start up.  You have to be able to communicate your vision and what you are trying to do.  It’s something that I have been working on because it is actually not my strength.  The more you can communicate simply what you are doing, the more people will want to be involved in it.

Commitment is also important.  There is a saying at City Year, where I used to work that “your commitment brings about the commitment of others”.   I truly believe that the more passionate and committed you are to your organization, the more others will feel that energy and want to also be involved.

How did you decide to “go for it” and start your organization?

I had finished a political campaign and was looking for another job.  I had been thinking about this idea for awhile but never had the opportunity to do anything about it and realized that this was the time—now or never.   I truly believe that if we don’t get the best people into politics that our country will not get back on track and I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines anymore and wait for that to happen.  I also think life is short and I figured that if I didn’t start this now, I would always look back and wonder, what if?  I would rather take risks, start something and fail then be afraid to fail.  My motto is “Go big or go home”.

What’s the hardest part about starting an organization that you didn’t expect?

I didn’t expect it to be so lonely.  I am hoping to have more resources soon to build a team but even with that, it can definitely be lonely being a leader.  At the end of the day, you are the one that has to keep plugging along and setting the vision for the organization, and that can sometimes be very lonely.

What types of advisers should a founder recruit?

It’s important to recruit people who can balance your strengths.  For example, if you are not a great fundraiser, you should recruit someone who has that experience to be helpful to you.  It’s important to have a balance of skills and diversity from your advisers.  If you are working in diverse communities and all your advisers are white men, you are not going to have diversity in perspective.  It is also important to have advisers you can be totally honest with.  Save the dog and pony show for other situations.  Your advisers should be people you can trust to say the tough things to, admit mistakes, and truly ask for help.

What characteristic of your personality to use the most as a startup founder?

Starting an organization is really hard and the one characteristic I rely on the most is perseverance. I have found that having the perseverance to accomplish a long-term goal no matter what obstacles or challenges are has been key.   There have been several times that quitting would have been easiest but it’s been my willingness to stick with it, even when others thought I should give up, has been the most important characteristic I have used in this endeavor.

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