Interview

Audrey Henson : Founder and CEO of College to Congress

March 18, 2021

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Audrey Henson founded College to Congress, a DC-based nonprofit working to create a more inclusive and effective Congress by empowering the next generation of public servants. College to Congress is disrupting the pipeline of congressional staff by helping students from rural, low-income, and disadvantaged backgrounds secure full-time internships in Congress and covering the true cost of an unpaid internship. 

To date, College to Congress has provided fully funded internships for 37 students from across the country including DACA students, veterans, and student parents. 

In the wake of COVID-19, Audrey has successfully launched C2C-U, a free professional development platform that trains students from all over the nation. The award-winning platform matches students with a DC-based professional mentor and provides career opportunities directly to C2C-U students. 

For her work, Audrey was selected out of over 11,000 companies for a WeWork Creator Award, was awarded the SEEDSPOT Audience Impact Award (the highest honor in her cohort), is a 2020 Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree, and a current Socrates Fellow at the Aspen Institute. Audrey is featured in The New York Times, CBS This Morning, CBS News, The Washington Business Journal, Politico, and more.

Audrey Henson, Founder and CEO of College to Congress

 

Audrey Henson, Founder and CEO of College to Congress

 

TALK TO US ABOUT COLLEGE TO CONGRESS AND YOUR ROLE AS CEO/FOUNDER. WHAT DOES YOUR DAY TO DAY JOB INVOLVE AND HOW BIG IS YOUR TEAM?

My role has changed and changes so much as the organization grows, especially during this pandemic. Originally, I was a team of one just trying to turn this idea in my head into a legitimate organization. 2020 made me focus my priorities on making sure C2C isn’t a casualty of this economic downturn. It’s no secret that nonprofits were hit hard due to the pandemic so It’s my main goal to make sure we are funded into 2022 and beyond. 22,000 nonprofits have failed thus far in 2020, and we will not be one of these organizations. 

WHERE ARE YOU FROM? WHERE DID YOU GO TO COLLEGE? DO YOU USE THIS DEGREE IN YOUR CURRENT CAREER?

I was born in a small Texas town where we had more cattle than people. I was born into poverty, it’s been my life’s goal to end the cycle for my future generations to come. After a move to Florida in elementary school, I finished all my schooling in Florida and went to a local community college, Saint Petersburg College. I finished my degree at USF where I double majored in PoliSci and Theatre performance. I use my degrees on a daily basis. My PoliSci education prepared me for a career in politics and my theatre degree prepared me for on-camera interviews and the regular speaking engagements I participate in on a weekly basis. 

HOW DID YOU GET STARTED IN POLITICS? DESCRIBE YOUR CAREER PATH AND PLEASE INCLUDE INTERESTING INFORMATION REGARDING YOUR MENTORS IF YOU HAVE ANY.

I knew I wanted to be involved in politics from an early age. But it wasn’t until I secured my first congressional internship, that my dream became a reality. In my junior year of college I wrote to my home state representative and applied for a position in his office. Within a week, I was invited to join their team, but I was shocked to find out it was unpaid and I needed to relocate to DC in a week. After frantically packing up my life and making my way to the nation’s capital, I quickly realized how expensive the summer would be. After spending the summer working two jobs in addition to my congressional internship, it was clear to me that the congressional staffing pipeline was broken. Why is it so hard for students with similar backgrounds like mine to begin a career in public service? Four years later, College to Congress was born to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering a career in our nation’s oldest institution. 

WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO START COLLEGE TO CONGRESS? HOW DID YOU FIRST START THE ORGANIZATION AND WHO HELPED YOU?

The idea of C2C came from my own experiences struggling to survive while working an unpaid position in DC. I had some amazing friends that helped support me initially, two powerhouse women come to mind. Bree Ungar and Domonique James would host me on the weekends to workshop the business plan and were amazing sounding boards to help brainstorm solutions to the problem I set out to solve, changing Congress one intern at a time. 

WHAT DO YOU FIND TO BE ESSENTIAL SKILL SETS AND PERSONALITY TRAITS FOR BEING A GOOD INTERN / STAFFER?

Always be a self-starter. C2C interns always stand out in an office because these interns go through 7 months of personal and professional development training before setting foot in DC. These students are staff assistant-ready on day 1 of their internship. We consistently hear that our most successful interns go above and beyond in their roles and responsibilities, consistently offering to help out in their office in anyway that they can.

TELL US ABOUT THE INTERNS THAT HAVE COME THROUGH YOUR PROGRAM. WHERE ARE THEY NOW? DO THEY ALL INTERN IN DC OR OTHER DISTRICT OFFICES?

We have 4 C2C alumni currently working in both chambers of and on both sides of the aisle. These young adults are shining examples of what the mission and vision of C2C are trying to accomplish. To further scale our impact, we have recently launched C2C-U and moved all of our training online this past Spring. We are proudly serving 500 students right now through our online portal. Graduates of C2C-U can apply for our Intern Opportunity Fund for funding for campaigns, district offices, congressional offices and other public service related internships. 

DO YOU MENTOR ANYONE? TIPS FOR FINDING AND NURTURING MENTORING RELATIONSHIPS?

Mentoring is one of my favorite ways to spend my day. I mentor several C2C students who reach out to me on a regular basis. I dedicate the time they need to ensure they are successful in any career path they choose. I also currently mentor 3 entrepreneurs and these relationships are more structured than the relationships I have with my students. My advice for anyone who is seeking a relationship like this is to figure out what you need from a mentor, treat the search for a mentor like a job, and always bring an agenda every time you talk. 

I’M A YOUNG WOMAN AND I WANT TO GET STARTED IN POLITICS, PERHAPS MID-CAREER. HOW DO I MADE A CAREER SHIFT?

One of the best ways for anyone to get involved in politics is to volunteer. Find a campaign you’re passionate about and volunteer your time. Network within your campaign to find a position that your certain skill sets would be fit within the team. 

WHAT IS THE MOST REWARDING PART OF YOUR JOB? BIGGEST CHALLENGE?

Rewarding- Helping individual students find the career path they are most passionate about. Challenge- Reinventing your business plan during a world pandemic. 

AS THE YOUNG, FEMALE EXEC OF SUCH A PROMINENT POLITICAL ORGANIZATION – DO YOU FEEL YOU’VE BEEN FACED ANY UNIQUE CHALLENGES GETTING TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?

Yes, both because of my age and gender, I’ve been held to a higher standard than my peers. 

YOU COULD NEVER DO YOUR JOB WITHOUT __________.

My supportive partner, Andrew, who helps me in so many ways. He’s truly an amazing man. 

WHAT IS THE BEST PROFESSIONAL ADVICE YOU HAVE EVER RECEIVED?

Hire people smarter than you are and then get out of their way. 

ADVICE YOU WISH YOU COULD GIVE YOUR YOUNGER SELF?

Don’t be ashamed of where you come from. Own your story and harness it for good.

ANY LEADERSHIP PROGRAMS, MENTORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES, OR ORGANIZATIONS YOU WOULD RECOMMEND TO SOMEONE GETTING STARTED IN POLITICS?

Obviously I recommend C2C-University, a self-paced, online curriculum, mentorship program, and intern placement hub designed to help college students and recent graduates secure and succeed in paid internships on Capitol Hill. https://www.c2cuniversity.org/

Also I’m a fan of Running Start, The Yale Women’s Campaign School at Yale and the American University We Lead (proud alum here).

BEST TIPS FOR STAYING ONTOP OF YOUR TO-DO LIST OR STAYING ORGANIZED?

Begin every day by writing down your goals and try to accomplish them before 1 pm. 

FAVORITE RESTAURANT IN DC?

Oyamel

IF YOU COULD WEAR ONLY ONE CLOTHING LINE FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, WHERE WOULD YOU SHOP?

Revolve

DO YOU COLLECT ANYTHING?

Plants

WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR NEWS?

I don’t just use one news outlet, each day. I wake up and read Political Playbook, Axios, listen to NPR Up First podcast, Fox News debrief, and Alexa’s Yahoo Sports Rundown

FAVORITE BOOK?

The Lean Startup, The Fixer Upper, the Double Down Series, so many.

LAST PLACE YOU TRAVELED TO?

Aspen, CO Valentines Day 2020! Fun fact, I got an extra free day of vacation because we were snowed in. 

IF YOU WEREN’T IN YOUR CURRENT ROLE, YOU’D BE A ____________.

I wanted to be a news anchor growing up and honestly, I still think that would be a really fun job.

WHAT RACES / CANDIDATES EXCITE YOU IN 2020?

FL-13 Congressional District, MD- 07 Congressional District, the Presidential Election, and the GA Senate Race.

WOULD YOU EVER RUN FOR OFFICE?

My beliefs and values aren’t polarizing enough to make it through today’s primaries. I have financially supported a number of really fantastic women this primary cycle and all of them lost to extremists. It’s a difficult time in the country and voters are demanding an extreme opposite of the status quo. I’m looking forward to the day when voters once again value morals, experience, and institutional knowledge. 

FINAL THOUGHTS?

If you would like to make an impact on a student’s life who has been displaced by Covid-19, sign up to be a member of our C2C-500 club here: Join the C2C500 Club! You can also learn more about our organization on our website at www.collegetocongress.org or follow us on social media: Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin: @collegetocongress and Twitter: @C2C_DC

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I'm Amy.

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Involved in politics for 20 years as a campaigner, a staffer, and now as a lobbyist - I've also worked as a creative director, freelance writer, and web-designer. These worlds all collide here at Pink Granite where we work to connect women to the resources they need to grow a career in Texas politics.

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