I now understand that leadership is part art and part science. I’ve learned to let go of the need to do everything myself, understand what the organization needs to grow, and trust my gut when it comes to making a hire. With each new hire, I’ve brought along personalities and skill sets that are opposite and complementary to my own.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Audrey Henson. At age 26, Audrey Henson founded College to Congress, a national nonprofit that provides scholarships and professional development training to high-achieving, low-income students to intern with a Member of Congress who otherwise couldn’t afford to do so. She is on a mission to ensure all students, regardless of their backgrounds, can pursue careers in public service so that Congress reflects the people it’s intended to serve. In three years, C2C has raised over $1 million, partnered with over 60 Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, and provided fully funded internships to 38 students.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
College to Congress was inspired by my personal experience securing my first congressional internship and navigating the start of my career in politics. I fell in love with politics in high school but actually working in D.C. seemed like a fantasy. I was raised by a single mom in a small Texas town. My family barely had any money and no political connections. I started college at community college because the Federal Pell Grant was the only way I could afford to go to school. With a little luck and a lot of hustle, I landed my first congressional internship but my dream job in my dream city felt like a nightmare because the internship was unpaid. I ended up taking out a student loan and working two part-time jobs in addition to my full-time internship to make ends meet.
While it was a big risk, that internship changed the trajectory of my career. I went on to become a full-time congressional staffer, work for a political consulting firm, and even serve as campaign manager for a hotly contested congressional race. One evening, I was journaling and reflecting on how my life changed so drastically in five short years. Everything pointed back to my congressional internship. The name College to Congress popped in my head. I wrote our business plan in a weekend. Now, three years later, we have a national movement that is kickstarting careers in public service for students across the country.
What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
College to Congress is about disrupting the congressional staffing pipeline. We work to ensure Congress reflects the fully socioeconomic diversity in America by providing access and means to congressional internships. Congressional internships are the gateway to full-time staffing positions in Congress; however, internships went unpaid for about 25 years. This meant that many entry level positions went to people who had political connections and could afford to work for free. This is why the current intern pool and majority of staff positions are filled by white men from affluent families.
We not only provide talented students with access to highly competitive congressional internships, but also connect congressional offices to a diverse and talented intern pool that they don’t have time to cultivate. Additionally, we remove the financial barriers to success by covering all costs associated with an internship including travel to and from D.C, housing, meals, transportation, a professional wardrobe for each intern.
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors? Can you share how they made an impact?
I’ve been blessed with incredible people in my life. I count as mentors, Russ Schriefer and Ashley O’Connor at Strategic Partners & Media, a political consulting firm. After I left the Hill, they took me under their wing and showed me the larger world of politics. I also have an executive coach, Kathleen Sheekey.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
“Hire people smarter than you and then get out their way.”
I’ve grown C2C from a one woman shop to a six-person team, but it has not been without growing pains! I am a big picture thinker. When I first started C2C, I surrounded myself with other ideas people. While this environment was inspiring, there were so many unfinished projects (or I was stuck figuring out everything myself!) I now understand that leadership is part art and part science. I’ve learned to let go of the need to do everything myself, understand what the organization needs to grow, and trust my gut when it comes to making a hire. With each new hire, I’ve brought along personalities and skill sets that are opposite and complementary to my own.
How are you going to shake things up next?
Applications to our program have quadrupled in three short years, so our short- and long-term goals are figuring out how to grow and scale in effective ways. Congress needs interns year-round. Additionally, Members of Congress have D.C. and district offices so there is an opportunity to expand there. We’ve also received requests from state governments that would like to model our program. The sky is the limit to how we can help empower our future public servants and policy makers.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
I wake up to the Wall Street Journal everyday then listen to two podcasts, The Daily by The New York Times and The Ben Shapiro Show. I do my best to keep my news balanced. But of all the content I take in, my favorite is NPR’s How I Built This. I’m so inspired by all the entrepreneurs who come on the show and tell the real story of how they built their empires.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I am already building my dream movement! College to Congress is a movement to inspire the next generation of leaders to get involved in politics and public service.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you
“Don’t be ashamed of where you come from. Own your story and harness it for good.”
How can our readers follow you on social media?
My twitter personal @AudreyHensonC2C and I’m on Instagram at AudreyHenson_C2C
Follow College to Congress: @C2C_DC on Twitter. @collegetocongress on all other platforms
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!