How I got here: Nancy Jacobson

Nancy Jacobson is the Founder and CEO of No Labels, a non-profit political organization in Washington D.C. that uses bi-partisan approaches to bring people together to solve today’s toughest political problems. She previously held senior roles on political campaigns for President Bill Clinton, Senator Al Gore, and Senator Evan Bayh.


Nancy Jacobson is the Founder and CEO of No Labels, a non-profit political organization in Washington D.C. that uses bi-partisan approaches to bring people together to solve today’s toughest political problems. She previously held senior roles on political campaigns for President Bill Clinton, Senator Al Gore, and Senator Evan Bayh.


I sat down with Nancy to learn about her high school, college, and other early experiences that helped her become a successful leader. I think our conversation could be very useful in helping all students as they look ahead to their potential career paths, and especially those who are thinking about pursuing politics in their future.


Samantha Lazar: How would you describe what you do currently?


Nancy Jacobson: Currently I am the Founder and CEO of a non-profit called No Labels. I’m working to bridge the divide between the right and the left, the Republicans and the Democrats, so that they can work together and solve problems. 


I work with people up on Capitol Hill, Senators and Congressmen, to put them into a coalition so that they can solve their problems better.


SL: When did you first become interested in politics? 


NJ: When I was in elementary school, I got the chance to do an internship in the Miami Mayor’s office. That was the first time (I was only in fifth grade) I became interested, and then when I went to college, I knew that would be an interesting topic to study – political science. 


And, when I was in college, I spent two summers interning in Washington, because I’m really a very big believer in doing internships to help you figure out what you like and what you don’t. I really enjoyed those internships.


When I was in Washington on my internship, I met somebody working for Gary Hart, who at the time was running for President. They had me sign my name on a piece of paper if I was interested in working for the candidate and I did. And then they called me, and it led to me organizing the campus at Syracuse University for him. 


So I was getting students to support him. I did a fundraiser and then the campaign really took off. He won New Hampshire, and they put me in charge of the district of Syracuse, and that really launched my interest. 


SL: Can you tell me about your high school experience? Were there any skills that helped you in your career or clubs and classes that you were involved in? 


NJ: I’ll be honest with you, in seventh until tenth grade, I wasn’t a serious student. Studies just weren’t my strength. 


I was more social. But in 11th grade, I found out about a program called high school in Israel, where you live for two months in Israel with other high school students. 


And when I went on that trip, my eyes just opened up to the greater world and that experience changed my life. 


That trip triggered me to get more serious and more ambitious, because I don’t think I understood what ambition was before then. But when I went away, I met so many people doing different things with different interests. And I realized – I’d better get it together because there’s a whole world of people out there that are more on top of it (than students I had met before).


SL: Can you tell me more about your college experience and how it prepared you for your career? 


NJ: So I went to one university for my first year of college, but I felt that the people around me just wanted to have a good time, and after that Israel trip in high school, I felt that I wanted to do more.


So I transferred to Syracuse for my next year and the minute I touched ground there, I was filled with so much energy. It was so exciting to me, and I said to myself that I’m going to do everything I can to be engaged, and I’m going to love this university. So I went in with this amazing attitude and I just decided I wanted to join things. 


So I joined the Student Judicial Board to be one of the Justices. I did join a sorority. I got very involved with the Gary Hart campaign. I went up to New Hampshire and I canvassed and I worked in Washington as an intern. So I guess what I’d say is I started working within my interest. So I think some people wait until after college to work in their interest, but I just got involved there. I think all of that work gave me more and more confidence, and I think that’s important. You always have to stretch yourself to build your confidence. You’re not going to get confidence by staying in a bubble. 


So I think I did a lot to give me more and more confidence. 


SL: It’s great that you started so young. 


NJ: Yes, if I was to say or give you a recommendation, I would say, the younger you can start to give yourself different experiences, you’re just gonna be ahead of the game. You’re gonna see different people, because we all live in our little bubbles, and you want to stretch yourself. 


And I think the earlier you can stretch yourself, that is going to lead you to more opportunities, and you’re going to get to know yourself better. Part of it is figuring out what you don’t like, and you’ve got to do things to figure that out. So you’ve always got to be open to trying new things.


SL: Who were the most influential people in your life growing up? What impact did they have on you? 


NJ: When I was around 26 or so, I was the third person hired by President Bill Clinton to raise money for his campaign. 


And on the campaign, there was a man that I was paired up with to raise money. He was the Finance Chairman and there was one piece of advice he gave me that always stayed with me. 


Now this was part of a tragic story unfortunately. Right after Bill Clinton was nominated to be President, this man and his son, who was just graduating high school, went on a private plane in Alaska and the plane crashed into the mountain and they died. It was a terrible story. It was a sudden terrible thing.


But there was this piece of advice that he gave me that I always think about, and it stuck with me, and it’s so simple. It is really simple, but he said to me, ‘Nancy, you should always talk to people. Never stop talking, keep talking, you never know what it leads to.’


And that is the simplest piece of advice but I’ve got to tell you that it has been the key to my success because I’m always in conversation with people. I never know where it leads but it’s allowed me to create this organization and it’s helped me to raise these funds. I’ve raised probably over 55 million dollars in the last 12 years because I’m always talking. You never know where a moment will lead to, but if you stay in a bubble, you’re guaranteed it’s not going to lead anywhere. But, if you put yourself out there and talk to people and ask questions, you just don’t know where it leads, and that’s the adventure of life. 


The whole adventure is never knowing, is the person you’re going to meet today going to change your life or not, you just don’t know. So that to me was the single most important piece of advice I got. 


SL: That’s good advice. I really like that. And then my last question is, what would you say are your biggest accomplishments? 


NJ: I think setting up the No Labels organization from scratch – that’s my biggest accomplishment. I think having an idea which was to bring the Republicans and the Democrats together. 


From your area, [Congressman] Josh Gottheimer is one of our leaders of the Problem Solvers, which is great. 


So I created the Problem Solvers Caucus. I named it, I created the whole thing, and we put Congressman Gottheimer in there, in fact, but I created the Problem Solvers. 


We raised so much money for all these members, and I think that’s my biggest accomplishment – creating No Labels and The Problem Solvers Caucus.