Wogrammer, 08/01/18 - A Common Thread of Service: Air Force Vet Chrissy Houlahan Hopes to Weave her Business, Education and NonProfit Experience into Congress
By Kristen Shipley
Chrissy Houlahan doesn’t consider herself “from” anywhere in particular. She lived up and down the coasts and overseas growing up because her father served as a Captain in the US Navy. Though the family moved often, her parents kept her grounded by instilling the importance of education by example and exposure. They pressed her to meet women in non-traditional occupations, like aerospace engineering. When she was young, her father took her to Moffett Federal Airfield in California to meet the team designing space shuttle tiles, which sparked her interest in learning about space. Chrissy was inspired by her mother taking college courses in computer programming during a time when computer programming hadn’t yet become popular.
“[My mom] walked around with punch cards with her code and encouraged me to do the same,” says Chrissy.
Her intrigue for space extended to the ocean as well, given their vast and mysterious exploratory nature. Chrissy became a certified scuba diver, an open water swimmer, and taught marine biology on a sailboat in high school as part of the Blue Water Marine Life Program at the University of Hawaii.
Inspired by engineer and astronaut Sally Ride, Chrissy attended Ride’s alma mater Stanford University to study Industrial Engineering, at the intersection between business and engineering. While on an Air Force scholarship, she thought she wanted to be a pilot — like her father and grandfather who flew planes in the military. Because Stanford didn’t allow the military on campus in 1985, Chrissy traveled to San Jose State University with twenty of her peers for training sessions, often missing classes. This put a strain on Chrissy and her classmates’ academics. When her ROTC class dropped to only four members, she found herself to be the only woman. When offered the chance to earn her coveted pilot’s license, Chrissy declined, deciding she wanted a more stable lifestyle for her children than the one she had growing up.
Chrissy worked as a program and project manager, in a classified capacity, building and designing various projects within the Strategic Defense Initiative and American Defense in the Air Force. She left the military in 1990 and then went on to earn her degree in Technology Policy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Marrying her college sweetheart, she moved to Chester County, PA. Chrissy joined her husband in running AND1, an athletic and footwear company, as the Chief Operating Officer (COO). The small entrepreneurial team proved a good fit for Chrissy and the company grew from a startup into a major brand.
Chrissy parlayed her business acumen to serve as the founding COO of B-Lab, a nonprofit that promotes B Corporations, “businesses certified by the nonprofit B Lab meet rigorous social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency standards.”
After starting her own business, Chrissy channeled her passion for education and public service as a Teach for America Corp Member, teaching chemistry to students in North Philadelphia. She noticed through her teaching experience that literacy was a major issue. She then became president and COO/CFO for the Springboard Collaborative, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit focused on improving early childhood literacy in under-served communities country-wide. She collaborates with teachers and students to create technology solutions that enable them to get the information they need. One of the projects that she created started from a design on a paper napkin and will soon be implemented and impact over 7,000 kids this summer.
“[Throughout my career] there’s a common thread of service, care for community, and care for each other,” said Chrissy.
Concerned about the state of our nation, Chrissy feels a lot of the progress the United States made has been threatened.
“National security, education, and the environment. I haven’t spent my life working on these things to watch my government tear that apart,” says Chrissy.
She plans to advocate for these issues and more in Congress. After winning her primary, Chrissy continues her efforts to unseat the incumbent candidate. Pennsylvania is the largest state with no female representatives in Congress. Chrissy hopes to change that by using her engineering background and diverse work experience to tackle complex problems facing government.
“We suffer from a lack of diversity in Congress,” says Chrissy. “A pretty monolithic group of people make decisions on things that are not monolithic.”
Inspired by the Women’s March on Washington, Chrissy spent about 2–3 months evaluating the possibility of running for Congress, weighing the risks and rewards. She says that it’s important not to get paralyzed by the analysis or talk yourself out of something when tackling a new challenge.
“Don’t negotiate with yourself because you are convinced someone else will tell you no,” says Chrissy. “Take the risk.”
This story was written by Kristen Shipley, wogrammer Journalism Fellow. Learn more about our fellowship and apply at wogrammer.org/fellowship.