New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has some lofty goals, among them to fill the U.S. Senate with a majority of women.
This story first appeared in the January 8, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The junior Democratic senator from the Empire State would also like to achieve equal pay for women, have more female chief executives, and, quoting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to create an environment where “women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.”
Gillibrand told the crowd that they represent “some of the greatest job creators in our whole country, certainly New York State and New York City. Your ideas, your energy, your dedication to markets and growth is really inspiring.”
Gillibrand talked about how she got to this point in her career and how she was drawn to public service. She noted that her grandmother worked as a secretary in state government in Albany and started a grassroots effort to advocate for women’s involvement in politics. Years later, when Gillibrand was working as a lawyer, she began to think that she needed to make more of a difference and pursue a career in public service. She then heard a speech by Andrew Cuomo, who at the time was secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration, about being involved in public service and making a difference and was inspired to ask him for a job. She got the job, even though it meant moving to Washington, which she wasn’t thrilled about.
“It transformed my life because I realized you can do so much to help others through public service,” said Gillibrand, who served as Cuomo’s special counsel.
Later, she decided that to continue her career in public service, she needed to run for public office. Gillibrand ran for a House seat in 20th Congressional district, where she was brought up, near Albany. It was a heavily Republican district, but she beat the odds and won.
During her second term in the House, she was chosen to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat when she became secretary of state, and in November was re-elected to the Senate with a record 77 percent of the vote. She said Congress could take a lesson from Seventh Avenue.
“Washington is broken — we have so many problems to solve and nothing gets done,” Gillibrand said. “One of the things I’ve focused on is exactly what’s right about this room — it’s a room of people who work together to build an industry and collaborate to get things done. You’ve achieved an enormous amount of success because you’re not only practical, but you can see clearly the path that’s in front of you to get there. New York’s fashion industry is one of the strongest, most important, growing industries in our state and in our country. It’s an integral part of our economy. Not only does this industry provide 175,000 jobs (in New York state), it generates over $10 billion in wages and over $1.6 billion in tax revenues. It continues to grow and create innovation, which is why it’s so important to us in our state. It has over 800 companies in our state, more than double that of Paris, and I think it’s important for us to maintain our leadership as the center of the fashion industry in the world. I think it’s important that we continue to focus our policies and our priorities to help to continue to allow this industry to grow. Those are issues that are critically important to me as your senator and someone who wants to continue to see economic growth and economic recovery.”
Gillibrand said she’s had several fashion industry roundtables and has heard consistently the need for easier access to capital for small businesses and young designers, the desire for less government red tape and bureaucracy in areas such as Customs, the importance of protecting trademarks at home and abroad and helping to support Made in America products and jobs.
“The other thing that I’m hoping to work on, and this is true both in politics and economic life, is increasing the leadership of women,” she said. “I think women can make an enormous difference in the economy. Women are now graduating with more than half of our college degrees and more than half of our advanced degrees. So, if you are going to try to out-compete and out-educate other nations, you’re only going to do it if women are part of the solution. Women are still only paid 77 cents on the dollar for the same exact work as men, and we still aren’t seeing women of color in leadership or getting equal pay. If you are Latino, you’re only getting 63 cents on the dollar; if you’re African-American, you’re getting 71 cents on the dollar. Just 3 percent of women are ceo’s of Fortune 500 companies, but when women are on corporate boards, those companies actually perform better — there are higher returns on investment. So what that tells us is that women have a lot to offer. That’s why it’s important to focus our efforts to make sure to tap all of our nation’s potential, and that means empowering women and getting them up the corporate ladder and into leadership roles.”
Gillibrand said women also start small businesses with eight times less capital then men, but are still among the fastest growing in the sector.
“The same thing is true in politics,” she added. “We only have 20 percent of women in Congress today. I can tell you if we had 51 percent of women in Congress today we wouldn’t be spending time debating contraception and all the craziness of the last Congress. We’d be focusing on the economy and job creation, and all the priorities that people really need Congress to focus on. My goal is to get that 20 number up to 50 sometime in this generation.”