During her 12 years as president of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards has tripled membership to more than 10 million and elevated the organization’s voice in the fight for women’s rights–all despite political headwinds. Here’s how she has used the fervor unleashed by partisan debate to amplify her mission.
Talk, Listen, Learn
When Planned Parenthood first started offering a text-chat service, Richards recalls, “a young woman texted us late at night and said, ‘I have no one to talk to.’ And we texted back and said, ‘We’re here to help you.’ And then she told us her story. She really did need to see a medical professional immediately, and we were able to make that appointment. And I’ll never forget—we texted at the end, ‘Do you have everything you need for now?’ And she said, just like a teenager would, ‘You have been a lifesaver,’ with a little smiley face emoticon. And then a couple minutes later she texted back, ‘But will you still be there later tonight if I need you?’ That, to me, is what Planned Parenthood is all about.”
Don’t Wait To Be Asked
Richards is encouraged by the various ways people have rallied to support the cause of women’s health. “On Etsy, people are making so many things for Planned Parenthood: T-shirts, candles, buttons, hats, you name it,” she says. “People stop me on the subway and ask, ‘What should I do?’ My message is, ‘Don’t wait for instructions. Just do it, whatever it is you’re going to do.’ Who knows what it’s going to take to change the direction of this country? It’s going to be everybody doing their part.”
Invest In People
Being a good leader, Richards says, “means investing in the folks who are coming up after you. This is something I learned from my mom [former Texas governor Ann Richards], who was always encouraging women to do more, think bigger. At Planned Parenthood, we invest in thousands of young people by getting them trained to be public speakers and advocates. That is probably the most important mark I hope to leave on Planned Parenthood: having a whole new generation of leaders come after.”
This story was adapted from the Fast Company Innovation Festival.