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The Year of Business Women Gaining Public Power

While many hold their breath for the big women's political news of 2015 - the seemingly imminent candidacy of Hillary Clinton - a powerful, experienced group of women are missing a significant opportunity to take on public leadership and exert influence on a broader scale: business women. Now is the moment to act for business women with an eye on gaining public power, advancing their careers, and shattering glass ceilings for future generations of politically-minded women. Clinton's candidacy, and the potential candidacies of other women who will seek the presidency or vice presidency in 2015, present long-term opportunities for business women who are ready to jump in feet first, and pick up on the key strategies their male counterparts have deployed for centuries: raising a lot of money for a favored candidate, becoming an advisor on key policy issues, and/or becoming a personal emissary for one's chosen candidate.

These days, the run-up to a presidential campaign starts several years before the pertinent Election Day. It's also a billion dollar business. Every one of these campaigns needs lots of smart help from business women with financial and marketing acumen; networks of like-minded, influential and well-heeled colleagues; and deep expertise on a range of policy matters, such as trade, employment, economic development, finance, healthcare and the numerous other business areas in which government has operations.

It seems business men have mastered the art of leveraging their business experience to create a public and political profile - influencing key policy decisions and having the ear of key elected leaders, whether it's casino magnate Sheldon Adelson or Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt. But we've also seen a number of successful business women make the transition from business powerhouse to political powerhouse.

Consider Barack Obama's Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. She stepped up to lead his 2008 presidential fundraising operation when few thought he had a chance. She did so after following in the steps of every smart business investor: considering the odds, determining they are good, and realizing that taking on a large and national - if risky - project would make her known, invaluable, and owed a lot. A billion dollars later, Pritzker was in the inner circle and is now influencing national and international economic policy

There is the case of George W. Bush's National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. Rice signed on with Bush in the earliest stages of his presidential campaign, notably, as his primary advisor on key topics about which he knew little. She traveled with him constantly; she gave up her personal life; she remained faithful in the most difficult of circumstances. Come Election Day, a little-known college professor and big-business board member became her candidate's National Security Advisor.

Sylvia Burwell, President Obama's budget director and now Secretary of Health and Human Services, moved from Walmart (of all places) to the Cabinet Room. Did Barack Obama worry about the flak he would take from Democratic Party activists who seriously dislike Walmart? I don't know. But it wasn't enough to deter him from selecting her. She had been the lead for the Obama/Biden Transition Agency Review for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and before that headed Bill Clinton's 1992 economic transition team.

Every single business woman who wants to rise in business and become somebody in the public arena can do what these women have done. It's simply a matter of identifying one's core offering, finding an introduction to the candidate or the candidate's key advisors, and then - happily - committing to a substantial, if unpaid, commitment of time.

While this endeavor isn't for the faint-of-heart, running your company isn't either. And, when you look around and evaluate how the men who got to run the company got there, odds are they seized the opportunity to build a second base of power and clout. But there can be significant benefits to taking on this new role - appointments to important positions of influence; meetings with hard-to-reach decision makers; and the opportunity to become known in the media as a policy influencer.

There's no better time to get in the game. For the first time in American history, several women will be vying for the highest offices in the land, on both sides of the political aisle. From Democratic U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren to South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, women elected leaders have been making the moves to position themselves for presidential-ticket position. Any one of these women may make waves in 2015. And, if her turn doesn't come in 2016, it sure might in 2020.

Business women have a unique opportunity to get into the political game next year to lay the groundwork for influence in 2016 and beyond. And there's no time to waste.

Rebecca Sive is the author of Every Day Is Election Day: A Woman's Guide to Winning Any Office, from the PTA to the White House, an adjunct lecturer at Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago and an expert on women's political participation and public leadership.


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