Political Strategist & Entrepreneur: Nomiki Konst, 31, Founder & President of The Accountability Project (TAP), an investigative journalistic organization that focuses on political corruption in NY. Running as the youngest woman to be elected to the US House of Representatives, Nomiki knows what it takes to break the mold. She has trained Hollywood celebrities on how to communicate political issues effectively and regularly appears on Fox News to speak openly on women’s issues, campaign strategies, startups and leadership. Here in this exclusive Vanity & Trade interview, former congressional candidate turned serial entrepreneur Nomiki tells it like it is and explains why you don’t need to play a man’s game.
At only 28-years-old, you ran for House of Representatives in your hometown of Tucson, Arizona. How did you get involved in politics?
I was raised by politically active parents. I’m an only child and my parents used to take me everywhere with them – work events, political events, formal dinners. I was encouraged to debate at the dinner table and my father (an attorney) would make me flip my arguments and argue for the other side. So I’ve always been interested in political discourse.
When I was in my teens, my mom ran for office for the first time. She came very close and lost, but she was running as a long shot candidate. She walked to over 10,000 houses that summer and got to know the entire community. Eventually (after her third try) she won the Legislative seat.
Despite having a great role model, when my hometown seat opened up after my representative, Gabrielle Giffords, decided to step down, it took quite a bit to convince me to run. I started to get phone calls from political minds that I respected and admired encouraging me to run. The chance that your home district seat opens up is very rare. It made sense and, I didn’t really have much to lose.
Yet after I was asked a dozen times and finally went from responding “You’re nuts!” to “OK, I’ll think about it” to “OK I’m going to do this,” I still struggled to say “I’m running for Congress.” Until a very well respected (male) political mind called me out and said, “I know that women have issues with owning their candidacies. But even if it’s not in your bones yet, you need to fake it because confidence is what makes people want to join your campaign. If you’re in, be in. If you’re not, think of something else to do.”
That’s not unusual. While men wake up one day and think “Hey, I’m going to run for XXX seat” without wincing a bit, women — very qualified women — usually have to be asked 7 or so times before they even consider. But here’s the catch: once a woman determines she is in the race, she’s in all the way. She’ll do more retail politics and she’ll usually be more committed to understanding the issues.
I was running to be the youngest woman in the House of Representatives in history. After much discussion and research, I saw that if all went as planned, I had a path to victory. Unfortunately, there are factors you can’t always put into the equation – which, as a first time candidate, I couldn’t have predicted.
As an entrepreneur, what do you feel are the specific challenges that you have encountered as a woman in politics and business?
Woman in politics and business have to develop different strategies to success. Some of my greatest assets also held me back. It’s a dance. If there’s one thing for certain, I have to trust my instincts – even if they don’t prove right in the moment, they usually guide me in the right direction in the long run.
I’ve been in situations where I’ve been ordered around and spoken down to by men who are working directly with me or above me. I’ve learned over time how to effectively diffuse egos. Every once in a while, I run across a jealous woman – which all fellow ladies can probably relate to. I choose to see them as uninformed and not in on what the rest of us have figured out: there’s plenty of room at the top for everyone.
I’m not a very competitive person, probably because I’m an only child. I just go about my business and do my own thing. But the world doesn’t work that way. We don’t live in silos.
I struggle with my confidence and putting myself out there sometimes, despite having a pretty extroverted personality. The truth is, making “the ask” is very hard for me and I have to do that in my industry. Some of my friends are great at raising money and I watch them closely. They have brilliant confidence, a great sense of direction and lots of determination. I’m trying to work on that.
A few years ago, before the entrepreneurial bubble, I started an organization and would take a male board member around with me when raising money (as a crutch). Then the funder would ask the male board member questions that he didn’t know answers to so he would refer to me. It was always awkward. There was a very famous moment, which I later decided to document publicly in an op-ed after my campaign, where a chair of a democratic party made sexist comments and spoke down to me. My younger (male) cousin was in the room at the time and told me how shocked he was when he heard those comments. It bothered me at the moment, but it wasn’t until my cousin saw them and voiced his concern that I recognized how much I’ve just accepted certain behaviors from some men over the years.
I really love how women are rising in media and the conversation is shifting around feminism. I’ve been trying very hard to be conscious of certain behaviors that I’ve been conditioned to accept – like the one with the Democratic Party chair.
Tell us about The Accountability Project and why that is important for you?
During my campaign, I had a several interactions with the press that really opened my eyes to the state of investigative reporting and the lack of quality and resources available in that field. I became obsessed with political reporting. There was and continues to be a direct correlation with investigative reporting and the state of corruption in this country and worldwide.
We had also been going through a massive transition in the media where newspapers all over the country had to cut budgets or shut down entirely. One of the first things to go was the investigative reporting division – which is expensive to produce.
The Accountability Project is essentially a fund that outsources our reporters’ work to other news organizations that lack the resources for a full-time investigative staff. We currently only cover politics in New York. Along with TAP we have a partner media startup, but we’re several months away from its roll out.
People say never talk about politics or religion. What DO you talk about at cocktail parties then?
What else is there to talk about? Kim Kardashian? 🙂
I’ve been on so many bad dates in my life and those are usually the moments I realize that it’s impossible for me not to discuss politics. That’s why I try to read the arts, science and real estate sections of The New York Times (and occasionally I’ll even turn on E! News). One thing you learn on the campaign trail is that there is always a reference point to start your conversation. You may have to do a little work, but you must find a common point and build the conversation from there.
You spent some time in Libya working with political party leaders on transitioning to a functional democratic state following their liberation from Colonel Gaddafi. How was that experience for you, given the political and economic limitations for women?
Working in Libya was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. I was there during the brief period of stability post-Revolution before the recent instability. The country is surprisingly middle class and citizens do not pay taxes as oil revenues fund the state. However, as with most democracies, corruption is rampant. There is also a very interesting generational gap. Younger people were more capable of understanding what we were teaching them, largely because they recently had access to the Internet, which left them with an appetite for wanting to be like their neighboring countries that were more “democratic” and open. The elders, while more experienced, struggled with many of the principles we were teaching because they were conditioned to work a certain way their entire lives while living under Gaddafi.
The Libyan people are wonderful and the women I worked with were all extraordinary. There was a group of women politicians and activists that were pushing for massive reform and making progress. There was a policy that a certain number of women needed to be elected to their government, so we had a big task ahead of us to train and recruit these women. I’ve never been so inspired in my life. They are all the founding mothers of their country. I just hope things turn around soon.
What was a career defining moment for you?
I think my time in Libya shifted something in me. Working and teaching in Libya gave me perspective and a deeper understanding of global politics. I had first hand knowledge of something everyone was talking about in America when I returned. I also felt that some of the petty arguments we were having in the States were dividing us almost to the point of no return. I felt empowered to take a more active role in solving some of our political structural problems.
Give me 3 traits you think all women entrepreneurs need in order to succeed?
Intuition – Listening to it.
Talk about your tagline: Aspiring to be a ladylike broad.
I stole it from Lena Dunham. I saw her use it in something and it really spoke to me as I’ve always admired women like Katharine Hepburn and Clare Boothe Luce, or even Jackie Onassis (in her later years) who had natural elegance and acerbic wit, often undocumented publicly. Back then you had to have an air of lady-ness and hide your broad-ness. I feel like there’s a bit of that in my persona except I openly swear like a sailor (just not on camera) while in full hair and makeup.
How has fashion empowered you in the work place?
I used to do mock trial in high school and college. My coach, a female attorney, would tell us what to wear and what not to wear when we were competing. She taught us how colors emitted emotions and how shoes could project a personality trait (hint: pointy shoes make you look aggressive). While in retrospect this seems somewhat dated, it gave me an understanding of how certain clothing works in different settings. For instance, I know that on camera, I look better in a dress. (When I wear jackets and skirts, I look boxy and slumped down). Ultimately, it’s a balance between what works for me in the workplace and how comfortable I am. That’s why I always bring flats along 🙂
Describe your signature style?
For the workplace I mostly wear form-fitting dresses in solid colors. Sometimes I’ll throw on a wrap dress to change things up. I like statement earrings and bracelets rather than necklaces. Of course, a lot of this is dictated by on camera rules. When I’m not working, I am pretty bohemian. I’m usually wearing my dark-rimmed Warby Parker glasses, have my hair back in a low bun and just a little bit of makeup (Burt’s Bees colored chapstick and organic mascara). I love my organic yoga pants and flowy cotton shirts. I enjoy wearing racer back loose tank tops with light cotton oversized sweaters and skinny J brand jeans, with flat clothe shoes (also organic). I always have a couple of beaded bracelets on that are significant to me.
Who are your current favorite designers?
Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Vince Camuto make my favorite on camera dresses. They’re old school, I know. But it’s the look we go for on for punditry. I love vintage clothes and bargain shopping. It’s like art collecting – I have to hunt and match and pair. I recently found an amazing tight, black, wrap around the neck Dior dress at this consignment shop in my neighborhood for $55!! – still with its tags on! I’m not a designer snob. If I like it and it works and it’s not a million bucks, I’ll buy it. I can’t stomach spending rent money on clothes. It’s not in my DNA to do that.
Being on camera quite often, what are your must-have beauty products?
I have the most sensitive skin. I break out over everything – from what I eat (wheat, dairy) to sweat and of course, the heavy chemical makeup you wear on camera. No matter what creams and face washes I use, I will break out if I’m not taking extra care of my skin. And so I always have organic face wipes in my bag to wipe my makeup off right after my segment.
I also use a root touch up stick called “RootStix.” I met the Founder at the Renaissance Conference in Santa Barbara. She’s a mother and entrepreneur and had an idea for a great root touch up. I always have that random grey hair and I can’t justify dying my entire head, so RootStix are a great simple and quick fix for me. Plus I love the Founder!
What clothing can you absolutely not live without?
I love a good baggy organic soft t-shirt, sundresses, soft yoga pants, and draping soft sweaters. I love the cloth flat shoes. I know that bootleg jeans are coming back, but I love a good comfy pair of skinny jeans (J Brand are my fave).
Do you have a mantra that you live by?
“Leverage everything”. I once heard Anderson Cooper say that his mother (Gloria Vanderbilt) gave him that advice. It’s been very helpful in life.
What are some of the mistakes you see women make at work?
This is a topic I get frustrated talking about. I think that we as women have to stop seeing ourselves as needing to change. We have certain characteristics that sometimes work for us, sometimes work against us. We have to use our instincts – a very feminine trait – to guide us. We keep hearing that this is a “man’s world”, but we shouldn’t have to change our behaviors to accommodate ourselves to this world. Therefore, I think that women should spend their early career years taking as many smart risks as possible. See what works for you and see what doesn’t. Take notes. Learn lessons. Develop your muscle and sooner or later you’ll know how to navigate the world in your own way without having to transform and conform to society’s standards.
Who has been your professional mentor and how has he/she been impactful for you?
My mentors have all been very close friends of mine who happen to be older. I haven’t sought them out or auditioned them. They’ve just shown up at my life at the moment I need them and I’ve tried to nurture those relationships. I go to each mentor for different things. Some are sounding boards. Some are editors. Some offer me career advice or are connectors. Some of my mentors have been temporary but most have remained close friends I admire.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
Develop thick skin. Know when a “no” means a change strategy and to keep going. You can only figure that out by failing a few times and learning lessons. Take smart risks, embrace failure and be humble.
In politics and as an entrepreneur you have to sell yourself- something that many women have a hard time doing. How do you recommend self-promoting without seeming pushy?
I am fairly outgoing but struggle with self-promotion. I have to push myself to do so, because it’s part of my job. I feel awkward taking selfies and posting links, but if you want to grow today, that’s what you have to do.
Something I learned from working in politics came from research regarding female candidates, which show they don’t do well when they recite their resumes. This is not the case for men. So as a woman, one of the ways to share your resume is through storytelling. Women need to sell themselves by weaving their credentials into a story. It works so well and it is what I teach people! And all humans respond best when you tell a story- they are the best form of education and people remember them!
Follow Nomiki Konst