Chrissy Houlahan, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania’s Sixth Congressional District, speaks with VISTA Today about growing up as “a Navy brat,” moving around a lot when she was younger, and her interest in swimming.
The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Houlahan also discusses her education at Stanford and MIT, as well as the time she spent growing AND1, the successful basketball apparel company that was based in Paoli. She also elaborates on her broad experiences in different sectors of society, and how that has made her the quintessential candidate for Congress.
Where did you grow up, Chrissy?
I was born on the Naval Air Station in Patuxent River, Maryland and am the oldest of two children. As a Navy kid, I grew up everywhere. I think I lived on Patuxent Naval Air Station for about six weeks before we moved, and we did it again nearly every year after. I ended up going to more than ten different schools over the course of my childhood.
What did your parents do?
My dad was a P-3 pilot in the Navy. P-3’s are anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft. My dad was in my grandfather’s Navy P-3 squadron, which is how my parents met. My dad is also a Holocaust survivor. He came to America as a very small child with his mother after World War II, which he survived by being hidden by a Christian family in Poland.
When I was growing up, my mom was a Navy wife, a tough job in its own right. She was always packing and unpacking the family with every move. She was an active member in numerous chapters of the League of Women Voters, and a constant inspiration to me as she was always taking classes everywhere we went. I remember the stacks of her computer punch cards from when she took programing classes in the 1970’s and 80’s. When I went to college, she finished her MS graduate degree and shortly thereafter, started her own business in remote sensing for geographic information systems.
What do you remember about moving around a lot?
I remember a lot of putting things into boxes and taking things out of boxes! As my father moved up through the ranks, we had limitations on how much we were allowed to move, so we would constantly have to inventory all of our belongings and could only keep the things that were most important to us.
My birthday is in the summertime. I remember, as a kid, not ever really having a birthday party because we were always moving in the summers, and I usually didn’t know anyone. My mom, who had also grown up as a Navy kid, empathized with me. She always made a big deal out of other holidays like Halloween, I think as a way to try to make that up to me.
It was a challenge going to so many different schools. I always tried to be a good student and focus on academics. Each state and school district has their own curriculum, so sometimes I would “learn” something multiple times. And sometimes I would realize that there had been a gap in my learning and that I should have learned something long ago.
What sports did you play growing up?
The sport I was most attracted to was swimming – which fits in with my family’s Navy background. By the time I was sixteen, I was swimming competitively, scuba diving, and doing open water rescue as well. I had a job as a lifeguard for years. Anything related to the water and the ocean was important to me.
That love of the open water opened up an opportunity to go to the University of Hawaii’s Blue Water Marine Program when I was in high school. My dad was stationed in Hawaii at the time, and because of my training, I was able to take classes and become a marine biology instructor on the Blue Water Marine program’s sailboat.
Where does your drive to learn and compete come from, Chrissy?
I attribute my drive to my parents being such great role models for me. I grew up with this drive to succeed and to serve because I learned it from my parents.
When did you first notice your competitive drive
I think of myself as being a competitive person, but most of all I am competitive with myself. I recognized early on that I was very focused and driven. It’s a personal thing for me. One of the things I’ve learned about running for office is that we’re all doing everything we can, in every way that we can, with the time that we have, so that we can try to make a difference.
What lessons did you learn from swimming that stay with you?
I was a rough water swimmer for a while. Most rough water swimming is done in the ocean. When you go for that long swim that you’ve trained for, you have no idea what the wind, the currents, or the visibility will be like. You just know that you must be prepared for whatever conditions you encounter. I’ve always found that to be a useful life lesson.
After high school, where did you go to college?
I went to Stanford on an ROTC scholarship. I wanted to go there because my parents were living in Hawaii and I wanted to be close to them. Also, I wanted to be a pilot and an astronaut, so the fact that Sally Ride went to Stanford inspired me to go there as well.
My parents will tell you that I was never seriously looking at other schools, but I did apply to a few. I wanted to mix engineering, being a pilot, and an ROTC scholarship. Other schools had all of those things, but Stanford was the right school for me.
In hindsight, was Stanford a good choice for you?
Absolutely. I went to Stanford and started in a freshman dorm of ninety kids. In that dorm, I met my husband and two of my business partners, both of whom live here in Chester County less than a mile from me and my family today.
After Stanford, I went back to school for an MS in Technology and Public Policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I served at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts and was able to get into a great two-year cross-disciplinary program at MIT focusing on linear programming and operations research, complemented by another year’s worth of coursework in political science and business.
The skills and lessons I learned from that experience have proven to be extremely valuable throughout my career in service, as an engineer, as an entrepreneur, and as an educator.
As you look back over your career Chrissy, who gave you your big breaks?
My parents gave me my biggest breaks, no question. But the group of my freshman dorm-mates Jay Coen Gilbert, Jim Fox, and my husband Bart Houlahan and I have been working together for thirty years now. We all invested in one another and took a chance on one another, and that was a big break for me too. There’s half a dozen of us who all live in this area and have been lifting one another up for years.
What has kept this group together all these years?
We trust one another, and we do not let egos get in the way. We are similarly compassionate, but also competitive. That has made for good business over the years.
We all started together at AND1 Basketball. Over a decade, we grew that company together to be a successful business. As we looked back, we were all proud of the company we had created. We had a great working culture. Everyone had healthcare, good vacations, and strong family leave policies. We gave everyone forty hours of community service. We had prescriptions dropped off at work and nursing rooms at work. We had a ‘Take your kid to work day.’
This was back in the 1990s and early 2000s in Paoli, not the Silicon Valley of today. We knew we could run a better company if we supported our employees, and we proved it with incredible business and job growth and employee retention.
How did B Corp come into existence?
Twelve years ago, when AND1 was sold, by law the sale had to go to the highest bidder. That’s the way it works. The person who bought the company did not value the culture we had created and took many of the policies I mentioned away. That’s partially where the idea for the Benefit Corporation concept came from – that a for-profit company should be able legally to consider the community, environment, employees, as well as your profits, when making critical decisions.
That simple idea sparked a national and even an international movement. Now, in 37 states and several other countries, an entrepreneur can choose to run their company as a Benefit Corporation. This primarily came out of our experience of selling AND1.
What are your current challenges and opportunities? What are you focused on?
As I enter the closing weeks of my campaign for Congress, I’m mostly focused on communicating what I believe in. In speaking to a vast majority of voters, people are troubled by what’s happening in our government and the way we communicate with one another. We need to bring a kind of trust back to our government that is focused on solutions, whether that’s healthcare or good jobs or a great education or just being able to retire with security and dignity.
What kind of Solutions can you bring to the table?
Because I have broad experience in different aspects of our society – military, business, and education – I think I have a unique perspective to bring to Washington. These are the fundamental pillars of what it means to be a citizen of our country – to serve and protect, to work at and lead a business that cares for people and our planet, and to educate our kids.
I’ve heard from many voters about jobs, education, healthcare, and security. I have a lot of experience in each of these areas that I consider basic human needs. I’m heartened by the fact that people are responding by expressing their values and volunteering for the campaign – whether that means calling voters, knocking on doors, or making a donation. We’ve become so civically engaged recently because people are genuinely worried about our future.
I’ve been able to be successful here because of the opportunities that Chester County has provided–to be an innovator, an entrepreneur, an educator, and raise a family. Those first-hand experiences would be especially valuable for me and for us in Washington.
One of the foremost reasons I was motivated to run, in addition to the political climate of today and the current administration, is that our Pennsylvania Congressional delegation doesn’t have much diversity: most of our Congressional representatives have never served in the military, started or grown a business, or taught kids in school. My business, military, and classroom experiences will be important for making legislative decisions that are right for Pennsylvania families and communities.
What’s been your best experience thus far on the campaign trail?
Some of my best experiences are actually some of the worst too — when I get a letter, or a phone call, or a hug from somebody who is really worried. Just the other day a woman reached out to me saying she was a Republican and wanted me to know that she was going to vote for me and had volunteered to help my campaign, but she was genuinely scared for our future.
Those types of conversations humble me and show me what is at stake for many of my voters. I find it amazing when people share their fears and hopes with me to remind me why I’m running: so I can make a difference for them.
Finally, Chrissy, what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given.
My father, who has been a great inspiration to me, always told me not to negotiate with myself. When I was applying to college and talking myself out of my dream school, he encouraged me to apply to Stanford and let them decide if I met their standards. Throughout my life, every time I’ve faced a tough decision, I always hear my father’s voice reminding me to not negotiate with myself.
His simple advice was useful again in 2017 when I was deciding to run for Congress. I thought to myself, if you feel like you can be valuable and helpful to people, then put yourself out there and let voters decide. Once again, my dad was right and I have been so grateful and humbled by all of my supporters who have lifted my campaign and my message of hope and service.