Alejandra "Ali" Campoverdi is a compelling study in contrasts. The Latina beauty, who modeled for Maxim in 2004, is running for Congress in California's 34th district, with a positive “take me as I am" approach as refreshing as it is empowering. Should she win the seat, Campoverdi would join a vastly male-dominated Congress, which is only 2 percent Latina.
Campoverdi, who grew up in Los Angeles, tells SWAAY she was moved to run for office not long after Donald Trump won the election. With a plan to counteract his administration's attack on women's rights, the former White House staffer is running a campaign on a platform of inclusivity, social support and access to healthcare, inspired by her own personal experience with cancer. These days, Campoverdi is focused on changing the political conversation by embracing every part of herself, including her past as a model.
“I see first-hand the lack of opportunities women see for themselves, many times because of circumstances out of their control," she says. "It has showed me how important it is, more than ever, to have role models that are owning their full selves publicly, especially in politics."
Beauty, intelligence and bravery. Is there anything more powerful?
1. Tell us a little about your background.
I was born to a single mother who emigrated to the US from Mexico. There were eight of us in a three bedroom. We struggled. We were on welfare at times, and took WIC and Medical (California's Medicade program). For me, like a lot of kids of immigrants who were the first in our families to navigate the education system, I've been working since I was young. I've had all sorts of jobs: I've waited tables, I've worked in clothing stores, I've been a model. You do [whatever you have to] to make ends meet. When you juxtapose an experience like modeling with a career in politics, or something more serious, it's interesting how that causes cognitive dissonance for folks; that you could embody these different types of experiences.
2. Can you speak a little about your decision to speak publicly about posing for Maxim?
For me it's very important to own all parts of myself and all parts of my experiences. That's why in my campaign for Congress I've been so honest and vulnerable about things other people might feel embarrassed to share. It's a strength. It's not something to hide from. The fact that you may have had sets of experiences that are different makes you real. I think people are at a point especially when it comes to politics, where they are looking for real candidates. When I was at school at Harvard I had classmates who had been expecting to run for a long time, and who didn't want to be photographed with a solo cup. For someone to be so consumed with the future of power that every decision they make has been to further that ambition, that's scarier to me than a real person, especially a real woman, who has navigated her life in real time and understands the perspective of folks in her district.
3. What's it like running for office?
I've worked as a staffer in politics when I worked at the Obama campaign in '08 and then as an aide in the White House. It's very different being the candidate but I learned that running for office really pulls into focus what matters most to you. You're living in a high frequency and in order to express to others what you care about you have to know what you care about and why you're doing it. There is an interesting introspective process that you go through as a candidate. I feel that it should be something that is empowering for more women; to not feel afraid that going through process will bring shame or scrutiny. All sets of experience are a benefit. I was someone who went to Planned Parenthood in my life so I have a particular perspective about why it's so important for women to have access to these services.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Female sexuality and intelligence aren't inversely related. As a 37-year-old woman I feel fully confident wearing a nice dress and knowing my femininity doesn't have to take away from accomplishments. Every woman's femininity is something very personal, and can be all things at the same time.
4. What sparked your desire to run?
The catalyst for me was Donald Trump's election and the Affordable Care Act being at risk of being repealed. After President Trump's election, I, like a lot of young people, felt really nauseous for a few days and was thinking about what I could do to push back against his disastrous proposed policies. I worked on Obamacare at the White House and for me it was a personal crusade. In my family, generations of women have battled breast cancer and I myself carried the BRCA2 gene mutation, so I know first hand how much is at stake. My aunt had just been diagnosed with breast cancer around the time I decided to run. I wanted to put skin in the game. I wanted to know I did everything I could to make sure the election was about people and how these issues affect people
5. What was working with President Obama like?
It was the greatest privilege to work for President Obama. I never dreamed that I would have that opportunity. When I joined the Obama campaign I had just graduated from Harvard and I had a lot of student loan debt; I still do. But I moved to Chicago and worked unpaid because I really believe in a vision for the country. I lived off my credit card and had no health insurance. When I got the job at the White House I worked from the Oval Office for those first couple of years, and it was the full circle moment of a lot of dreams in my family. My Mom was in her late teens when she emigrated from Mexico and the day I got to walk her into the Oval Office and introduce her to President Obama was a day I will never forget. [Another moment that stands out is] when the President did an interview with Latina Magazine, and I found myself sitting next to him, just the two of us in the Oval, while he's talking to Latina Magazine. As a woman, and as a Latina, that was a moment everything pulled into focus about what's possible in this country. Even though social mobility can be traumatizing and isolating for a lot of us, with hard work and with support and by protecting pipeline programs and educational opportunities that we have right now, what's possible for young people is pretty incredible.
Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton
6. Can you talk a bit about the reaction to your Maxim photos?
When I was at the White House and the Maxim photos first surfaced in Gawker [in 2009], some media outlets took snarky shots at me. I took it very personally initially because I didn't fully understand the depth of sexism in politics. I was afraid it might hinder my career. A wonderful woman I worked with at the White House told me to put my head down and do the work, and that's what I've always done. I always work harder than I have to. I'm a lot older now and I have a better perspective about how sexism in politics actually works. I understand that it isn't something personal to each of us, but we have to each take our own stand to stand against it. When this happened for several months I didn't want to wear makeup. I wanted to wear loose fitting clothes and almost disappear. What I learned is our accomplishments stand for themselves. Just because you wear makeup and a nice dress doesn't take away from your intelligence. Female sexuality and intelligence aren't inversely related. As a 37-year-old woman I feel fully confident wearing a nice dress and knowing my femininity doesn't have to take away from accomplishments. Every woman's femininity is something very personal, and can be all things at the same time.
7. What do you say to women who don't know how to get involved?
I think now more than ever it's a time for women to step up because women's rights and bodies are under siege in Washington. I understand that folks may be disillusioned with the political process, but it's more important than ever to roll up our sleeves. I've been really inspired by women who are are looking for ways to become more politically engaged or are considering running for office for the first time. At the end of the day when only 19 percent of Congress is women, and only 2 percent is Latina; how can we sit there and say we aren't being represented right, when we aren't being represented enough? I would encourage all women to get involved in whatever groups are forming around them. Whatever skills you have, put them towards the defense of women's rights because it's never been more in the balance than it is today.
8. Can you tell us where you see the health care industry going?
It's a huge complicated issue to make sure everyone has access to affordable health care. I personally think health care is a human right. We need to make sure everyone is able to go to a doctor or have access to lifesaving treatments. We need to make sure that kids have access to preventative services that will save their lives. The Affordable Care Act, while not perfect, was an important step in that direction. And it's important we protect the progress we made through the Affordable Care Act. This fight isn't over. The important thing is to keep holding folks accountable for the human cost of the decisions that they're making. This is why I decided in my ad to be very personal about my experiences and those of my family. This is a life or death issue.
9. What do you do in your free time?
Right now I don't have a lot of free time. But I love music, I love traveling, I love eating. I am a big foodie.
10. Do you have a life motto?
Someone gave me advice at the beginning of the process. She said if you run as if you aren't afraid to lose, you will run your best campaign. I would give that advice across the board. If you live life like you aren't afraid to lose you will live your best life. Keep pushing, keep being bold and keep taking those risks. Women of color, young women, women with nontraditional backgrounds, we don't normally have safety nets in our fights, our causes and our careers. But that's no reason to not put it all out on the line. Sometimes that means we will be criticized, sometimes we will be judged but authenticity will always shine through at the end. The more of us join together and push that multidimensionality forward, the more we can blaze a path for each other and the easier it will be every day.
Sweaty Palms & Weak Responses
Early spring 2018, I walked into the building of a startup accelerator program I had been accepted into. Armed with only confidence and a genius idea, I was eager to start level one. I had no idea of what to expect, but I knew I needed help. Somehow with life's journey of twists and turns, this former successful event planner was now about to blindly walk into the tech industry and tackle on a problem that too many women entrepreneurs had faced.
I sat directly across from the program founders, smiling ear to ear as I explained the then concept for HerHeadquarters. Underneath the table, I rubbed my sweaty palms on my pants, the anxiousness and excitement was getting the best of me. I rambled on and on about the future collaborating app for women entrepreneurs and all the features it would have. They finally stopped me, asking the one question I had never been asked before, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
Taken back by the question, I responded, "I just know". The question was powerful, but my response was weak. While passionate and eager, I was unprepared and naively ready to commit to building a platform when I had no idea if anyone wanted it. They assigned me with the task of validating the need for the platform first. The months to follow were eye-opening and frustrating, but planted seeds for the knowledge that would later build the foundation for HerHeadquarters. I spent months researching and validating through hundreds of surveys, interviews, and focus groups.
I was dedicated to knowing and understanding the needs and challenges of my audience. I knew early on that having a national collaborating app for women entrepreneurs would mean that I'd need to get feedback from women all across the country. I repeatedly put myself on the line by reaching out to strangers, asking them to speak with me. While many took the time to complete a survey and participate in a phone interview, there were some who ignored me, some asked what was in it for them, and a few suggested that I was wasting my time in general. They didn't need another "just for women" platform just because it was trending.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve. I became irritated. Just because HerHeadquarters didn't resonate with them, doesn't mean that another woman wouldn't find value in the platform and love it. I felt frustrated that the very women I was trying to support were the ones telling me to quit. I struggled with not taking things personally.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve.
The Validation, The Neglect, The Data, and The Irony
The more women I talked to, the more the need for my product was validated. The majority of women entrepreneurs in the industries I was targeting did collaborate. An even higher number of women experienced several obstacles in securing those collaborations and yes, they wanted easier access to high quality brand partnerships.
I didn't just want to launch an app. I wanted to change the image of women who collaborated and adjust the narrative of these women. I was excited to introduce a new technology product that would change the way women secured valuable, rewarding products. I couldn't believe that despite that rising number of women-owned businesses launching, there was no tool catered to them allowing them to grow their business even faster. This demographic had been neglected for too long.
I hadn't just validated the need for the future platform, but I gained valuable data that could be used as leverage. Ironically, armed with confidence, a genius idea, and data to support the need for the platform, I felt stuck. The next steps were to begin designing a prototype, I lacked the skillsets to do it myself and the funding to hire someone else to do it.
I Desperately Need You and Your services, but I'm Broke
I found myself having to put myself out there again, allowing myself to be vulnerable and ask for help. I eventually stumbled across Bianca, a talented UX/UI designer. After coming across her profile online and reaching out, we agreed to meet for a happy hour. The question I had been asked months prior by the founders of my accelerator program came up again, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
It was like déjà vu, the sweaty palms under the table reemerged and the ear to ear smile as I talked about HerHeadquarters, only this time, I had data. I proudly showed Bianca my research: the list of women from across the country I talked to that supported that not only was this platform solving a problem they had, but it's a product that they'd use and pay for.
I remember my confidence dropping as my transparency came into the conversation. How do you tell someone "I desperately need you and your services, but I'm broke?". I told her that I was stuck, that I needed to move forward with design, but that I didn't have the money to make it happen. Bianca respected my honesty, loved the vision of HerHeadquarters, but mostly importantly the data sold her. She believed in me, she believed in the product, and knew that it would attract investors.
From Paper to Digital
We reached a payment agreed where Bianca would be paid in full once HerHeadquarters received its first investment deal. The next few months were an all-time high for me. Seeing an idea that once floated around in my head make its way to paper, then transform into a digital prototype is was one of the highlights of this journey. Shortly after, we began user testing, making further adjustments based off of feedback.
The further along HerHeadquarters became, the more traction we made. Women entrepreneurs across the U.S. were signing up for early access to the app, we were catching investor's attention, and securing brand partnerships all before we had a launched product. The closer we got to launching, the scarier it was. People who only had a surface value introduction to HerHeadquarters put us in the same category of other platforms or brands catering to women, even if we were completely unrelated, they just heard "for women". I felt consistent pressure, most of which was self-applied, but I still felt it.
I became obsessed with all things HerHeadquarters. My biggest fear was launching and disappointing my users. With a national target audience, a nonexistent marketing budget, and many misconceptions regarding collaborating, I didn't know how to introduce this new brand in a way that distinctly made it clear who were targeting and who we were different from.
I second guessed myself all the time.
A 'Submit' button has never in life been more intimidating. In May 2019, HerHeadquarters was submitted to the Apple and Google play stores and released to women entrepreneurs in select U.S. cities. We've consistently grown our user base and seen amazing collaborations take place. I've grow and learned valuable lessons about myself personally and as a leader. This experience has taught me to trust my journey, trust my hard work, and always let honesty and integrity lead me. I had to give myself permission to make mistakes and not beat myself up about it.
I learned that a hundred "no's" is better than one "yes" from an unfit partner. The most valuable thing that I've learned is keeping my users first. Their feedback, their challenges, and suggestions are valuable and set the pace for the future of HerHeadquarters, as a product and a company. I consider it an honor to serve and cater to one of the most neglected markets in the industry.