Though many people feel outraged by current events taking place on American soil and abroad, the hurdle between anger and action often seems too broad to jump. Though many are armed with information (and more than enough articles to fuel their fire), figuring out how to actually make a difference isn’t only a tricky situation for individuals to figure out, but companies as well. And knowing which cause to focus on, when there are so many worthy reasons to give back? That’s a whole other ballpark.
For Dr. Ximena Hartsock, a Chilean-born entrepreneur, getting involved was never a question, but rather, a calling. And one that took her from her home country to the United States, where she began her education at George Washington, and later her career. She quickly found herself drawn to Washington working for the then-mayor Adrian Fenty. She explored many roles, starting as the administrator for DC Public Schools and then the Director of DC Parks and Recreation. The experience was inspiring and eye-opening, and it became the catalyst that got her truly thinking differently. “In 2010, when the mayor’s term ended, I helped form a national education advocacy group where I managed grassroots advocacy. Being in both of these roles - as a recipient of constituent communications and later in advocacy as a sender - helped me see the need for tools that bridge the gap,” she said.
Following the mayor's office’s, Hartsock became the Director of Grassroots for a national advocacy organization, where the idea for her now super-successful company, Phone2Action, was born. The platform helps companies and individuals raise funds and awareness for specific causes, and to date, 5 million people have used their services to connect with lawmakers, sending more than 10 million messages to officials and hundreds of thousands more via phone and social media.
While she’s now leading her company, she notes that really, it all starts from her passion: “I am an advocate at heart and started doing campaigns in middle school. Advocacy is the driving force of everything I do.”
Hartsock took time to chat with SWAAY about her inspiring tenure, what’s next for Phone2Action and what she’s learned as an entrepreneur:
What inspired you to start Phone2Action? How did you meet your cofounder?
Like I said, after leaving the DC Government, I became the Director of Grassroots for a national advocacy organization. In this role, I traveled the country encouraging parents and teachers to talk to their lawmakers about education issues and reform policies. I realized that most people didn’t even know who their lawmakers were or how to contact them. And more importantly, I recognized that there were no technologies available to help solve this problem.
So, I made it my mission to build a tool that would easily connect people with their lawmakers from their mobile devices. I knew that a tool like this could help people engage and participate in public policy so I decided to pursue the idea. As I searched for partners, I talked to many developers, and a friend suggested I reach out to Jeb Ory, who was building mobile apps at the time. He saw the business value of the idea and has been my partner and co-founder ever since. I would have not been able to build the company without him.
Phone2Action is the first company that created a multi-action, multi-channel mobile-responsive advocacy platform. This engagement platform sits at the intersection of mobile technology and social advocacy. We are venture-capital backed which helps fuel growth and innovation. We are redefining the market with a unique blend of software tools, revolutionizing how our clients can use software to create and run public policy campaigns. The country’s most innovative organizations use Phone2Action to power their campaigns.
What surprised you the most about becoming an entrepreneur?
I was surprised about the many myths that exist about entrepreneurship.
Some of those myths can be detrimental to women, because we sometimes tend to question our own skills, abilities and/or preparedness. Several people told me that my lack of technology or entrepreneurial background was going to be a problem, but I decided to follow my gut and not worry about what I didn’t know.
My advice for other women is to feel confident about the skills you have acquired as well as your knowledge. Leadership, critical thinking, and communication skills are all transferable and have been extremely helpful to me in entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is not a job, rather, it is a way of life.
What's been the most rewarding moment from starting Phone2Action?
Seeing Phone2Action users advance campaigns is deeply rewarding. The American Heart Association has used our tools to save people’s lives by fighting for CPR training in schools, the Christopher Reeves Foundation uses them to support people living with paralysis, and organizations like the Consumer Technology Association, or companies like DJI Drones use the tools to support disruptive innovation. It has become a dream come true for me to have a job where I get to build digital tools to give superpowers to so many advocacy heroes.
Photo: New York Times
What advice would you give to fellow female entrepreneurs?
Surrounding yourself by good people is critical, because no accomplishment in life is done alone. I lean on wonderful people, men and women, for wisdom, knowledge and friendship. Seek mentors but also mentees, because personal mastery requires constant learning which is only possible with give and take. Most importantly, do what you love
Alas, always hire great people. That is the key to success. My team is amazing, and I not only admire them, but I love them. And then there are our clients, who are top priority. Our first company principle is that our customers are the reason we exist. Phone2Action is customer-centric and customer-obsessed. We are nothing without our customers, and they are our number one investors.
What's next for Phone2Action? Your personal goals as a woman?
We in a unique moment in time where public policy has become mainstream. At the same time, smartphone adoption is at a record-high. People are fired up about policy issues today and are using technology to elevate their voices.
Our vision is to Power the Movements that Change the World and we come to work every day to build tools that enable advocates to facilitate that change. Now is the time for continued mobile innovation so that advocates and leaders on the ground are empowered to act and have the technology that can take their efforts to the next level. Our clients are at the forefront and they deserve the very best tools.
Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.
When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.
2016: What rules?
Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.
Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.
And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.
And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?
Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.
Digital policies for 2020 and beyond
While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.
Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy
Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:
- If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
- While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
- If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
- Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
- Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?
Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.
Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply
The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:
- Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
- Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
- Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
- Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
- Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
- Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
- Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
- Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.
Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles
Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.