It wasn’t until Elise Stefanik won her primary last fall that she learned her Congressional bid had the chance to make history. A general election victory to represent New York’s sprawling 21st district in the U.S. House of Representatives would make the then-30-year-old Harvard grad the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

“Once the news was out, parents started bringing their daughters to various political events on the campaign trail to show them what they could achieve one day,” she recalled during a recent phone interview. “And a lot of them were non-traditional, non-political families – Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike. It was incredibly humbling.”

The distinction carries with it both responsibility and opportunity, says Stefanik, who was tapped to chair the House Republican Policy Committee’s new Millennial Task Force to tackle issues facing her generation. Some GOP leaders are calling her the future of the party.

We caught up with the 2002 Coca-Cola Scholar to learn more about her life and career, and how she and her fellow Millennials are shaking up government at all levels.

Did realizing the potential significance of your election change the tenor of your campaign?

It didn’t change the reasons why I got into the race. I ran for office because I thought Washington was – and is – in need of a new generation of leadership. I’m one of two Millennials currently serving in Congress. We need outside-the-box, creative thinking to solve truly generational issues facing this country. I also care passionately about upstate New York. I grew up in my family’s small business and want to make sure hardworking families and small businesses have opportunities to grow.

Speaking of small businesses, you worked for your family’s small business in upstate New York (Premium Plywood Products) before joining the race. What did that experience teach you, and how have you applied what you learned in Washington?

Anyone involved in a small family business understands that you’re instilled with an incredibly strong work ethic. My parents started Premium Plywood Products when I was seven years old, so at a pretty young age I saw the amount of risk it takes to start a small business. I also saw that you wear multiple hats. It’s not a large operation with segmented jobs. You have to be willing to juggle different challenges and also be willing to identify different opportunities. So I think the work ethic and dedication has served me well in different opportunities I’ve had throughout my life and now here in Congress. A lot of what we do in Congress is focused on constituent service. I treat constituent service like customer service. My team is incredibly accessible and responsive, and we treat everyone the same when they walk in our office – just like a small business would.

Did you have political aspirations growing up, or did they develop later in life?

I was always interested in getting involved in my community. My first campaign was in 6th grade when I ran for middle school student council on the promise to bring a snack machine to my all-girls school. I also had the opportunity to work for several elected officials and President George W. Bush, but it wasn’t really until much later that I ever thought about running for an office like Congress.

You’ve credited Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book, Lean In, with helping you decide to run for office. Why?

I read Lean In at a very critical time when I was deciding to run, in early 2013. There were many more naysayers than supporters. A lot of people thought it was a crazy idea for a then-29-year-old to challenge a seated incumbent, let alone win a very competitive primary and the general election. In the book, Sheryl takes on some of the issues of my specific age range – women in their late-20s and early-30s who often are hesitant to press fully ahead into their careers. She gave me the courage to do that at an important juncture in my life.



Elise Stefanik

You were recently asked to chair a task force on Millennials and the GOP. Tell us more about its mission and path forward.

I went to House leadership to suggest we have a Millennial task force to identify key policy issues Millennials grapple with. In May, Millennials became the largest generation in the workforce, and we will make up the plurality of voters in the 2016 election. So it’s incredibly important – substantively on the policy side and politically for candidates and elected officials – to communicate with Millennials and integrate their viewpoints. And clearly there is an untapped appetite because the first hearing in Washington was standing-room-only with a line out the door, and 90 percent of the audience was Millennials. That's not the typical demographic of a political hearing. It shows there is a thirst to get involved and fix what’s wrong with government.

How have Millennials affected the political landscape, and what opportunities do both parties have to leverage the power of this generation?

The Millennials are a nontraditional generation. Unlike our parents’ generation, we don’t affiliate with one party overwhelmingly over another. We’re far more independent, and we seek to find bipartisan compromise. Millennials also have a distrust in the efficacy of government, and I think part of that stems from our upbringing. When you think of entire industries that have been disrupted by ideas or concepts that are important to Millennials – companies like Uber, Lyft, Amazon Prime, Facebook and Twitter – these companies are tapping into a consumer-based economy. Washington, comparatively, is out of date. The way our government functions is out of date. If you look at some of the innovative initiatives at the city or state level… elected officials are doing much better at thinking outside the box to make government more efficient and effective. We need to be doing that at the federal level, too, and I think there is bipartisan support for that. I’m a proud Republican, but I am a believer in bipartisanship in Washington. And I think as you see a new generation of leaders emerge, which is inevitable in Congress over time, you’re going to see a willingness to reach across the aisle.

You’re eight months into your first term in office. Any favorite memories?

Finally being recognized as a Member of Congress! For the first few months, the Capitol Police – who we’re very lucky to have and who have really difficult jobs – didn’t recognize me. I had trouble getting on the House floor to vote at first. So I think it’s a milestone just to be recognized!

What are your hobbies and passions outside of work?

I like to do anything outdoors. I’m an avid snow skier when I have time, and I’m a pretty good water skier. I grew up skiing with my dad. I’m also really interested in theater and the arts, and I’m a big reader. I try to read 45 minutes to an hour every night, and I post most of the books I’m reading on Instagram (@elisestefanik). I’m one of the few members of Congress who personally posts to social media.

Is there a particular memory from your experience as a Coca-Cola Scholar that has stayed with you?

The Coke Scholars program was an incredibly important part of my senior year of high school – from going through the application process to meeting fellow Coke Scholars in Atlanta – and the continued support the program provided when I went to Harvard. Some of my best friends from undergrad I actually met through the Coca-Cola Scholars program before I started my freshman year. And I keep bumping into Coke Scholars in different capacities. For example, fellow Coke Scholar Ben Sasse (R-NE) was elected to the Senate in 2012. And after my junior year in college, I went on a fellowship to Israel. On one of my first few days there, I heard two students sitting behind me on the bus talking about Coca-Cola. I turned around and said, “You guys are Coke Scholars?” And they repied, “Yes! Were you?” They’re still great friends of mine. In Israel, of all places, we met fellow Coke Scholars! It’s really exciting to see the network grow over time.

What advice would you give to the newest class of Coca-Cola Scholars, particularly those with an interest in public service?

One of the lessons I’ve learned is that you should embrace what makes you unique. When I first started running for office, I was told I had to sound and act like a typical Congressional candidate who’s double my age and represents a certain demographic. That turned out to be bad advice, so I didn’t take it. I owned the fact that I was a young female candidate who was different and had a different perspective – and that ended up being a strength in the campaign. I think owning your unique voice and tapping into that desire for authenticity is really important if you’re considering running for office.