Lori Trahan knows a thing or two about transferable skills. After climbing the Hill ranks from scheduler to chief of staff, she decamped to the male-dominated world of tech, where her congressional experience came in handy.
Now that she’s back as a freshman Democrat — in the same seat once held by her former boss, Massachusetts Rep. Marty Meehan — she’s trying to think like a consultant. That means being willing to say, “Wait a second, that’s crazy.”
We talked to Trahan about quiet time, hiring some familiar faces and why she’ll definitely be taking a vacation this year.
Q: How did you get your job in Meehan’s office?
A: So I graduated from Georgetown. Originally I was hoping to be a Foreign Service officer, take the exam and be gone. But my dad got MS, and I went home.
I met the congressional team that summer when I worked in an office building [in Massachusetts], on the next floor up. I was eager to get back to Washington. They had an opening as D.C. scheduler … an entry-level position, but one that touches the entire office — committee meetings, hearings, things like that. It was a good first job.
Q: What was one of your daily rituals as a new staffer?
A: I would beat my boss into the office, because the only time it was ever quiet was before the chief of staff got in, before all the legislative assistants came in.
Q: What made you want to leave the Hill behind?
A: It’s funny to say this out loud. When I was here, partisanship was becoming more of the norm. It was Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America; he tried to impeach the president. I had been involved in the government shutdown of 1995.
Even though we were successful as an office passing the Campaign Reform Act of 2002, you did get the sense that those bipartisan landmark bills were in the rear view.
I was young, wanted to have a productive career, and so I shifted gears. I went back home and worked in Cambridge, right in Kendall Square. I was the only female executive in a high-tech startup. It was a lot of transferable skills. Having worked in a small congressional office was great for a startup environment, where everyone is doing everything as you try to grow. That led me to start my own company with two other women from Harvard Business School.
The 2016 elections changed everything. I was, at the time, working on getting more women into leadership roles, figuring out “How do you set the conditions for more women to stay in the workforce in the private sector?” After 2016 I looked back at Congress and thought, “Wow, it’s still only 19 percent women. If there’s any place where we need more women at the table, it’s the U.S. Congress.”
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Q: You’re now in your old boss’s seat. What will you do differently?
A: Well, there are a lot of lessons that I took from working for him. There was one thing that was always pretty prominent: “Don’t forget where you came from.” He hailed from the same gritty city that I did, Lowell.
But it’s all about carving your own path. I know the district really well as a result of working in a congressional office, but the district has changed too.
Something I learned from the business world is that culture happens. You can be deliberate about it and have an office culture that you want, or you can let it happen accidentally. What I do and what I say every day is probably the most powerful lever. So I can’t say to people that I have work-life balance, and then be here until midnight. I can’t say, “Oh yes, it’s important that you take time with your family,” and then never take a vacation.
Q: I hear that you hired some people who used to work for you while you were Meehan’s chief of staff.
A: Yes, how amazing is that? I was really lucky to call up people I worked with years ago and attract them back to the office. We know each other well, so we’ve got a lot of respect and a lot of trust.
I haven’t worked with some of these folks in 15 years. What they’ve been doing in the meantime is as valuable as what I’ve been doing in the meantime. We’ve all grown. The fact that they said yes … I don’t even have words for how deeply grateful I am, but it also makes it more fun.
Q: Do you pay interns?
A: We’re looking at it from a budgeting perspective. So far we’re committed to paying our interns.
I never actually got to intern in a congressional office. I played volleyball at Georgetown, and I did come and apply for an internship. But I quickly realized that was a dream. There was no way I could balance leaving campus, where I had to practice for four or five hours a day, to come in and intern.
Q: Is there any downside to coming back to Capitol Hill without fresh eyes? You’ve been here before. You’ve seen it. Do you wish you could see it new again?
A: Because I left and did something for a bunch of years that’s very different, I do look at it more from that lens.
And I’ll tell you why: I was a consultant for a little while, and so often I would say, “Your most valuable employees are your brand-new employees,” because they haven’t been indoctrinated yet. They’re not patriotic on all the workarounds you do. They’re like, “You do things like what? Wait a second, that’s crazy.” Capturing that reaction and that unvarnished feedback is really important.
When I think of the diversity of this class, that’s what’s most exciting. People are saying, “I don’t want to tinker on the edges, I want to do something big.” That’s really cool to be a part of.
[You’ve been talking to] former staffers who are now members, and I think there’s value in that. But equally as valuable are people who haven’t worked here and say, “You do things like what?”