Q&A: Shannon Garrett
Editor’s note: Each Q&A in the Influential Women enewsletter will feature a woman from the region who’s influential, a rising face in her industry or doing interesting work. Submit tips on potential Q&A subjects to tgortsema at grbj dot com.
Shannon Garrett is a nationally recognized political strategist, civic engagement consultant and leadership coach.
Garrett’s firm, SMG Strategies, combines over 20 years of electoral, legislative and legal experience with “humor, mindfulness and a no-nonsense approach to building a more active and diverse democracy.”
Her personal mission statement is “Honor. Empower. Amplify.”
Biggest career break?
I haven’t had one big career break. Reflecting on my path, it’s been more like a series of doors cracked open for me. When I was five, I announced to my family that I wanted to be the first female president. It was a family joke for a number of years, but when I found myself graduating from college with no idea what to do for work, I hopped in the door of a U-Haul with friends who were moving to D.C. A job waiting tables led to politics, because a regular patron opened a door for me. And I just kept asking more people to open more doors all around D.C. — until a friend’s mentor back in Michigan, a woman I had not yet met, recommended me for a position back here. I was selected to open the doors on a new Great Lakes regional office for a nonprofit called The White House Project, where I would recruit and train women for political leadership. And when that organization was closing, Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, or GROW, opened their doors to teach me how to turn my now vast political experience into my own national political consulting business. And here we are, 40-plus years after my childhood announcement and still no female president, and I’m helping women around the country walk through doors as elected school board trustees, city councilors, state senators and even a few U.S. congresswomen.
I’m proud to have worked with many amazing, brave and barrier-breaking women along their political journeys. But the summer day in 2016 when my 12-year-old niece came to me with a campaign plan and door-knocking script she’d written herself to support the first major party female presidential candidate and the day later that fall when I took her to meet that candidate in person — those were moments when my five-year-old self stood taller and prouder than my 45-year-old frame.
Best advice you’ve ever received?
When I got my first adult job, my dad told me you should never bring work home with you: that you should stay as long as it takes to get it done, and keep your home life separate. When I would get overwhelmed, he would also remind me that I wasn’t a heart surgeon: that no matter how critical the problem seemed, no one’s life literally rested in my hands. Fast forward to today, where I run my business out of a home office and where I often hold a candidate’s ambitions, fears and reputation in sacred confidence. But his early advice laid the foundation for the work-life balance that I draw upon every day.
How did you make your first dollar?
I grew up living in a seasonal campground every summer. My very first job was bundling eucalyptus branches for a nickel a bag for our campsite neighbors who were flea market vendors. I graduated from there to a quarter-a-room cleaning gig at the campground lodge. My first real paycheck came from running a fruit market for a local farmer.
My sense of self. I don’t mean that to sound trite or egotistical. What I mean is that it took a long time, a lot of hard work and more than a few tears to become me — to be confident in my own experience, my own expertise, my own assets and my own flaws and failures. I’ve been blessed to learn from others how to lead as your true, authentic self.
After a couple decades working to get more women and more diversity into elected leadership, I feel pretty close to my dream job right now. Though lately I sometimes find myself daydreaming about my other childhood ambition: astronaut.
If you were president for a day, you would … ?
That’s a dangerous question for a political consultant!
Quick answer: I would gather emissaries from our country’s most underserved populations and ask them what changes they’d make to address the greatest challenges in their communities, and I’d have a team of lawyers and policy writers standing by to address as much as we could through executive orders.
I’d also appoint my dad as chief rose gardener. It’s a job he’s been asking for since I was five.
Last book you read?
“Mrs. Sherlock Holmes,” the true story of a New York lawyer-turned-detective in the early 1900s and “Packing for Mars,” about the strange sciences involved in space travel.
Last search term you googled?
Michigan 2020 election dates. Because I have a lot of people asking for those filing deadlines.
Your worst habit?
Starting a podcast binge after 8 p.m.
To unwind, you like to … ?
Chill out with close friends and good bourbon around a warm campfire.
Anything involving clean water and a sandy beach.
Chocolate. Can that also be my worst habit answer?
Person you most admire?
My grandmothers. Both of my grandmothers were independent-minded feminist role models without ever using those words. In their own ways, they each taught me how to show up for others, how to fight for what is right and the importance of family.