Portrait of a Girlboss: Aviva Rosman and Alex Niemczewski, co-founders of BallotReady
In a little less than four weeks’ time, citizens across the nation will be heading to the voting booths to cast their ballot for the next President of the United States (and to get their “I Voted!” stickers so they can post it on Instagram). It’s been a doozy of an election season to say the least, perhaps most poignantly summed up by the fact that the word “pussy” was mentioned by an unprecedented number of newscasters in the last week. The first debate between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump was the most-watched presidential debate of all time, and judging by the endless, impassioned debates going on on your Facebook timeline this very instant, it’s safe to say people are paying attention (if only to things they agree with) this election season.
But so it goes. You’ve got your horse in the presidential race picked out, but what about all those other bubbles you’re supposed to fill in on your ballot? Who has the time and energy to hear about complex-sounding propositions when every other week, some leaked footage or emails are being dropped on the public’s doorstep like so many bags of flaming dog poop?
Enter BallotReady, the website that’s going to take you from “This gal’s name sounds like a cartoon character! I’m going to vote for her!” to “She’s going to fund more arts education and support better maternity leave policies?! She’s got my vote!” Established in January of last year, co-founders Aviva Rosman and Alex Niemczewski have set out to bolster the very foundation of our democracy and not only get the vote out, but get an informed vote out.
The COO and CEO, respectively, met as undergrads at the University of Chicago; as a sophomore, Alex was Aviva’s orientation leader—“I took her to her first party!” Alex said, laughing. But it wasn’t until five years later that the idea begun to formulate in earnest: Aviva, a political junkie since childhood, was running for the local school council in Chicago and called up Alex to ask for her vote. “I told her I would, but I hadn’t even realized there was a local election! And then she won,” Alex said. (“Actually, Alex didn’t even end up voting for me because she was busy,” Aviva clarified, laughing.)
Be that as it may, Alex had actually had elections on her mind; she’d crafted a very early version of what would become BallotReady for her own informational purposes. “It was ugly and really only usable for me. But then we started talking and it was something we just sort of liked talking about. In the beginning we were just kind of nerding out about it. And then we realized other people had this problem too.”
Fast forward to almost two years later, and BallotReady is up and running with a super simple, easy-to-navigate user interface that will lay out everything you need to know, specific to your zip code, come Election Day. With funding and assistance from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and board oversight from President Obama’s chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod, BallotReady is primed to reach its goal of a million users by the big day.
Alex and Aviva chatted with Girlboss about their journey, the enthusiasm of 80-year-old politicos, the challenge of finding information that doesn’t exist on the Internet (oh, the horror!), and keeping a cool head during a heated political season. Check it out and then head over to BallotReady and make sure you’re prepared AF come November 8.
So one of the prevailing narratives during any election season—and this one in particular, it seems—is the Everyman’s discontent with the political process; people get frustrated because their voices are not being heard. And yet when you look at voter participation for down-ballot issues and local elections, it’s pretty abysmal. So there’s some disconnect. It seems obvious that people need more information and it needs to be easier to get it.
Alex: Well, like on my ballot, for example, there are over 100 candidates. Even if there are 50 candidates, that takes so much time to research.
It’s a lot of work for voters. And we’re...lazy. Why hasn’t something like BallotReady existed prior to this point so that it makes it easier to be informed?
Alex: Well, we’re collecting information on over 20,000 candidates. That takes a ton of work! Especially at the local level when candidates aren’t as forthcoming; sometimes they don’t even have websites. I mean, just even figuring out who’s running for office—you’d think the state of Illinois would know everybody who’s running for office, but you actually have to call county by county, municipality by municipality, to get those really local candidate lists.
Oof. And then we’re still lazy whiners, even if someone gives us easy access to the info. How are you getting people excited about voting and getting the word out about BallotReady?
Aviva: That’s our big push this election. We do it partly through partnerships. For instance, Patagonia is featuring us in all their stores and we’re doing some events with them. We also partner with specific organizations like the Chicago Humanities Festival. So that’s one avenue. Another thing is just social media. People are compelled by this idea that you should be able to vote informed on your entire ballot! So we see a lot of people sharing from our Facebook posts. Most the stories focus on Hillary vs. Trump and the horse race, so we’re trying to say, “Hey! There are 22,000 other candidates we can be talking about.”
And in a lot of ways, those are the ones that affect your day-to-day life.
Alex: Exactly. We also recently started an ambassador program. Because there are people out there that are just really excited about voting, and when they reach out to us—well, because we had so many people reach out to us, we created this program—they’re doing things like hosting a debate-watch party and then talking about BallotReady, or they’re registering people to vote and telling them about BallotReady. So we just give them tools to spread the word.
Who are these people volunteering for BallotReady? What’s your demographic of ambassadors look like?
Alex: We have some people who are over 80! [laughs].
Whoa. Lifelong politicos.
Alex: Well, and then there are people that are younger, too. So I’d say ages 18 to 80 [laughs].
So you’re working on honing a tool that’s a cog in the whole political process. You guys are obviously passionate about politics. How difficult is it to separate your personal politics from what you do and make sure the product you’re putting out is unbiased?
Aviva: It’s very easy! We designed the site so there’s no room for bias, and what I mean by that is we do things like listing the candidates in random order, because we know that when a candidate is listed first on the actual ballot, they can get up to a 5% increase in votes. But the content and information on the candidates—we don’t rate them, we don’t endorse them. There’s no room for editorializing. We just tell the voters where the candidates stand on issues, their previous experience. We’re just aggregating everything and letting you choose what you want to see.
Let’s talk about how you got David Axelrod, President Obama’s chief campaign strategist, to be on your advisory board. How did you get David Axelrod to be on your advisory board?!
Alex: The University of Chicago Institute of Politics—we basically asked them, “Can we...pitch this to David?” And they were like, “Prove yourself to us and then we will allow you to meet with him.” [laughs]. And we did prove ourselves! So we met with him and asked him to be on our board of advisors. He had a bunch of questions for us and he liked our answers, so he said yes! And that was about a year ago.
Aviva: We practiced the whole pitch with them before we did it for [David]. And then when we walked in, he’d already read everything we’d sent him and been on the website, and he was like, “Here are my questions.” The other thing is that since then, he’s introduced us to Mike Murphy, who is a Republican political strategist, and he’s joined our board too, so we have balance.
What advice would you give to girls and women looking to start their own initiative or organization or business?
Aviva: Women think they’re not qualified enough, or that they need more information before they can act. We’ve been analyzing our candidate data on the federal level for all these states, and obviously there are way fewer women running. But the women have way more advanced degrees! They’re more likely to have a PhD or their master’s. So I think my advice to women in both politics or business is to just jump in. I’m a strong believer that if you start something you’re passionate about, something will come of it.
Alex: And I’d say find a friend to do it with! [laughs].