November 12, 2018

This Millennial social entrepreneur is disrupting the college to Congress pipeline

Audrey Henson has 5 pieces of advice for navigating the ups and downs of launching a mission-driven organization.

Social entrepreneur Audrey Henson founded College to Congress to create more opportunities for the best and brightest to be able to intern on Capitol Hill. Because most congressional internships are unpaid, the nonprofit is helping to develop a more inclusive pipeline for the next generation of public servants. Photos courtesy of College to Congress

On a Friday night in April 2016, I was sitting on my front porch journaling about my journey to build my dream career in Washington, D.C. By 26, I’d earned my first six-figure salary, helped elect two female Members of Congress (including the youngest woman ever in history!), and worked on a successful historic Gubernatorial race. No one could have predicted that I would be where I was. In this moment of gratitude, I created my nonprofit, College to Congress.

My childhood was not the typical upbringing of a CEO. I was raised by a single mom in a small Texas town where innovation was limited and success meant graduating high school. My mother, two brothers and I later moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, where I was first introduced to national news and politics. I was moved by the passion of civic engagement and wanted to take action. As a college student, living and working in Washington, D.C., felt like a fantasy because my family had no extra money and we didn’t know anyone in politics.

The more I journaled, the more I realized that my life’s trajectory changed after my internship in Congress. I secured that first internship by sheer willpower. It was unpaid, so I worked two part-time jobs and took out a loan to survive my summer in D.C. As I chatted with my friends and colleagues, this was a challenge that was not shared by all. Although I was in debt, I was living my dream of working in a career of public service. Three years later, I was driven to pay it forward by removing barriers to success for other talented students who had all the passion and potential but whose families lacked deep pocketbooks to fund a life-changing summer internship. Thus, College to Congress was born.

College to Congress (C2C) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a more inclusive and effective Congress by empowering the next generation of public servants. With this mission, C2C has seen a lot of success in a short period of time. In just over two years, we’ve provided 19 fully-funded internships, helped our alumni land full-time jobs after graduation, partnered with over 50 members of congress on both sides of the aisle, and raised over $1 million.

While it’s easy to idolize the entrepreneur life—and don’t get me wrong, there is something deeply fulfilling about having your personal story as a vehicle to inspire others—entrepreneurship is far from glamorous. Many people don’t talk about the loneliness of late nights and weekends, working solo for months before the support shows, missed family gatherings, or even the emotional turmoil of going after a goal and not getting it. Despite all of those things, I wouldn’t change my decision for the world.

[Read: 3 ways we can get along with the other side]

By Millennial standards, I’ve discovered the secret to success: how to make an income while making an impact. If you’re an aspiring social entrepreneur, I offer these five pieces of advice to help you navigate the ups and downs of launching a mission-driven organization.

1. Be obsessive.

If you ask anyone who knows me (or was unfortunate enough to be my seatmate on a plane), they’ll tell you how obsessed I am with College to Congress. After all, founders have to be obsessed. Start-ups require everything from you: Your time, energy, passion. That obsession will give you the necessary fuel to push through the difficult days, weeks, months, because you know where you’re headed.

Audrey Henson with the 2018 class of College to Congress interns.

2. Build a strong infrastructure.

One of the reasons we achieved success in a short period of time is because we had our “you-know-what” together from the beginning. I had no business experience, but I Googled my way through a business plan. I built one-, three-, and five-year budgets, researched how to build and scale effective teams, and created a company culture from the second hire on. Passion is important when you start, but having infrastructure will allow you to hit the ground running—not to mention give you credibility in the eyes of investors because they see you are not flying blind.

3. Be persistent—never take “no” for an answer.

In business, a “no” simply means “not yet.”

As I was just beginning my fundraising efforts, I set my goals sky high. I wanted to partner with Salesforce, a major Fortune 500 tech company. Their CEO Marc Benioff was among the many reasons I sought to partner with them. From his passionate commitment to income equality and equal pay came Salesforce’s commitment to develop the 1-1-1 Philanthropic Model. I sought to build a culture like Salesforce, which was founded on trust, transparency, and giving back. Salesforce is constantly ranked as one of the nation’s best places to work. And I’m sure the fact their employees get seven paid days of volunteer time off each year has a lot to do with it.

Be fearless because, after all, the worst that can happen is that you took a risk on yourself to better your country. That’s not a bad story to get to tell.

In early 2017, I pursued a partnership with Salesforce. Initially, while some representatives within the company were personally invested, we had a lot to prove to demonstrate how College to Congress aligned with the corporate goals of Salesforce. Rather than writing it off as a loss, I pivoted strategy and reached out directly to their Federal Affairs team in Washington, D.C. I engaged them in our events, asked for their guidance and input, and was able to visibly demonstrate the importance and impact of College to Congress. This engagement eventually led to a wonderful partnership that we announced this summer!

4. Build (unlikely) allies

At College to Congress, we run a program specifically for our interns to build allies across the aisle. It’s my favorite thing we do. We thoughtfully pair up political opposites, find one thing (non-political) they both love and help each other understand WHY they share their beliefs. (You can read more about it here).

So needless to say, I’m big on allies. Early on, I made a commitment to true bipartisan representation at all levels of our organization. We’ve seen so many wonderful success stories from these alliances, one of which happened early on in our growth. House of Representatives Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer and then-Republican Chairman Fred Upton came together to support our work in a joint op-ed about the importance of opening opportunities for all students who want to start a career in public service.

5. Be Fearless

Starting anything—much less a company!—is hard. Founders are notorious for beating themselves up for mistakes or missed marks, battling imposter syndrome, and “becoming” the business. All these challenges are very real and counterproductive to your success. They will break you down and ultimately affect your mission. It’s important to remind yourself that you don’t have to do your work—you get to. By grinding everyday to build your social-impact business, you are living the American dream.

If that isn’t enough to get you through, here is a quick tip I found that helped me: Imagine yourself at a job interview. The hiring manager pulls out your resume and goes, “Wow, it says here that you founded an organization and ran it for 5 years.” You share all your successes and challenges, the ups and downs. You go on and on about the incredible team you created and the high-fives you shared after you made your first $10,000. Now think about where you are today. This is an exciting time! Be fearless because, after all, the worst that can happen is that you took a risk on yourself to better your country. That’s not a bad story to get to tell.

Audrey Henson

College to Congress

Audrey Henson is the Founder and CEO of College to Congress, a nonprofit creating a more inclusive and effective Congress by empowering the next generation of public servants. College to Congress is accepting applications for their Summer 2019 class through Nov. 30, 2018.