A partner and executive at PricewaterhouseCoopers for 12 years, Laura Cox Kaplan oversaw regulatory affairs and public policy for the world’s largest professional services firm. Kaplan had been hailed in 2015 as one of Washington’s “Most Powerful Women” by the Washingtonian magazine. The magazine noted that Kaplan held “the purse strings of the company’s political-action committee” – one of the largest corporate PACs dolling out more than $3.5 million in hard dollars per election cycle. But her more significant value was derived from building strategic partnerships and executing on a sophisticated political engagement strategy that helped to position PwC and define its brand in Washington. In other words, Laura Cox Kaplan was a certified power player, at the top of her game, in the nation’s capitol.
One of Kaplan’s missions at PwC became putting more support behind women running for congress. In the wake of the government shutdown of 2013, Kaplan began getting calls from frustrated contributors to the PAC. “Why should I keep giving money to people who shut down the government and kill the economy?” was a common refrain. “It was like a bolt of light,” Kaplan recalls. “It should have been obvious that we needed to be focusing more resources on getting more women elected. In the shutdown crisis, the women were the ones who crossed the aisle, sat down together, and forged a path forward.”
PwC, which has a strong record of supporting women in its leadership ranks, embraced the idea, becoming a leader in supporting women in elected politics on both sides of the political aisle. The motivation for Kaplan to challenge the status quo had actually occurred earlier, and changed the trajectory of her high-powered career. “A friend of mine wrote a book that has become very famous,” Kaplan recalls, with the hint of a chuckle, “she asked several women, including me, to write about a time when they had taken risks and leaned-in to their careers.”
The friend, of course, is Sheryl Sandberg and the famous book is Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Succeed, which triggered an international debate on women in the workplace, how they succeed and what holds them back. Kaplan wrote about growing up in Rising Star, Texas (population: 800) and falling in love with Washington after spending a college summer working on Capitol Hill. She recalled that she was working in her “dream job” at the Department of Treasury, and was then offered a job at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). It was a big decision, and Kaplan thought back to a family friend who talked her out of going to the University of Texas in favor of a smaller college (Kaplan, realized she should have been true to her own aspirations and transferred to the University of Texas at Austin after her sophomore year). Kaplan wrote:
Mulling the choice between…Treasury and the uncharted waters at the SEC, I knew I could not make that same mistake again. I leaned in, and it was the best move I could have made. The…lesson I hope to teach my daughter (and son) is not to let fear stop you from doing what you know you can do.
Kaplan’s first job in Washington was the result of her grandmother reading in the newspaper that then-Rep. Charlie Stenholm, a conservative Democrat from Texas, was hiring. Kaplan worked her way up from receptionist to deputy press secretary. At the age of 24, Kaplan became Alabama Senator Richard Shelby’s (R-AL) press secretary, while also free-lancing as a moderator on cable broadcasts for other Senators and the Senate Republican Conference. She went on to oversee the communications strategy for the Senate Republican Conference under Conference Vice Chair the late Paul Coverdell (R-GA).
Kaplan had a newly-minted master’s degree in communication from American University and was trying to decidebetween law school and a career in journalism when she was hired to use her policy and communications skills to help electronic brokerage Instinet, then a subsidiary of Reuters, navigate tricky regulatory waters. While Instinet lost its battle, Kaplan developed critical policy and regulatory experience, and when George W. Bush was elected President, she was hired as a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Banking and Finance at the Treasury Department. She developed the expertise that led to a position at the SEC as a member of then Chairman William H. Donaldson’s senior management team.
Meanwhile, Joel Kaplan, a Harvard educated Marine Corps Officer, who had been a law clerk to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, was named deputy chief of staff to the President. A friend introduced them. “How about this nice Joel Kaplan? You wouldn’t consider dating him, would you?” asked Bush Director of White House Personnel Dina Powell. They did date and Joel and Laura, who live in the Washington metropolitan area with their two children, have been married for 11 years. Joel Kaplan is now Vice President for Global Public Policy at Facebook.
Joel was a college classmate of Sheryl Sandberg’s and introduced the two women. Laura readily admits that her politics are different from Sheryl’s but says, “It’s important to have friends who think differently, and who don’t necessarily share your political views. It can make you smarter by expanding your perspective.” That view underpins much of Kaplan’s work related to empowering women and motivates her to work with organizations that are committed to helping women on both sides of the political aisle.
After the SEC, Kaplan was recruited to join PwC as a direct admit partner. The auditing profession had image problems in the wake of the corporate governance and accounting failures at Enron and WorldCom, and Kaplan, who had worked on corporate governance and accounting reforms in the Bush Administration, felt a sense of mission about helping the industry regain investor confidence and trust. Kaplan knew a lot about government regulations and how it could affect a firm, and understood how to collaborate with colleagues across the accounting profession and in the investor community to help drive change.
Kaplan says her views about the unique value that women bring to both the corporate and political space were informed significantly by her work at PwC, and what she saw in the c-suite.
“Diversity was always a priority at PwC because we saw the positive impact it had on our bottom line, and our clients’. We didn’t need government intervention or imposed quotas to encourage us to do what was already in our own self interest and the interest of our clients.”
One of the firm’s decisions: investing in women.
“We had to pursue some out-of-the-box thinking to retain women, despite recruiting women and men in near equal numbers. PwC’s way of thinking about our human capital challenges inspired me to think differently and to create a unique approach to political engagement related to women.”
“When I met with elected women on Capitol Hill, they underscored the need for campaign dollars earlier in the cycle– before primaries. We opted to give money to women incumbents earlier, rather than in smaller contributions over the course of the two-year cycle. That way, she could leverage fundraising momentum and also focus on bigger goals.”
Kaplan said she also worked with House Republican Leadership to help several less tenured women Members create Leadership PACs which are important to help Members of Congress pave the wave to positions on key committees. “And, we looked for non-profit groups that were doing a great job at helping to build the talent pipeline by encouraging young women to consider a future in politics. Often when we looked at open seat races, we were surprised by the lack of women running. Clearly, we can’t elect more women if women are not running.” She said the final piece of the puzzle was talking more openly for the first time about the firm’s political strategy and the investment they were making to increase the number of women serving in congress.”
Kaplan was at a good place professionally and personally when Sandberg asked her to write her lean-in story. But when Kaplan read her own story, she wasn’t pleased. “I didn’t like what I had written,” Kaplan admits. “It was clear to me I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough or taking the kinds of professional risks to really grow personally and professionally. I also realized I hadn’t been enough of an advocate for other women, nor had I used my own platform as effectively as I could.”
Kaplan realized she wanted to do more to encourage more women (especially Republican women) to seek political office–and that a daring decision was in order.
Kaplan gave up her partnership at PwC and now sits on several corporate and nonprofit boards and focuses much of her time on promoting women’s interests through several organizations. She serves as the Republican co-chair of Running Start, a non-profit that works to motivate and train young women on both sides of the political aisle to seek elected office. She is a founding board member of All in Together, a nonprofit that promotes women in civic and professional leadership, and she serves on Advisory Boards for the Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M University, the Wilson Center’s Women in Public Service Project, and the Women in Politics Institute at American University.
She is also on the board of the CoStar Group, Inc. (Nasdaq: CSGP), a data and analytics provider for the commercial real estate industry. If that isn’t enough to keep busy, Kaplan is an adjunct professor at American University, teaching a course entitled “Women, Leadership, Politics and Power: from the C-Suite to Capitol Hill.”
She developed the American University course to highlight what is different about women and what kinds of roadblocks women set up for themselves (a Sandbergian concern!). “What gets in our way?” she asks. “If we are such great, amazing off the charts leaders, who score high on leadership metrics, what happens to prevent women from reaching our goals? Yes, sometimes we face external roadblocks. There are things that get in our way sometimes. But an awful lot of our roadblocks are internal. It’s the stuff we do to ourselves. It’s self doubt that affects our confidence. It’s that tendency to ruminate when things don’t go perfectly. It’s that ideal of perfectionism, that unattainable goal, that sets us back. What do we do about these internal roadblocks?
“The course helps us see these internal roadblocks that tend to be unique to women. A lot of the course is things I’ve learned–or things I wish I had learned. The course is intended to be transformational. It’s certainly transformational for me and I hope it is for my students. I love teaching it.”
If anyone can be a role model for young women, it is Kaplan, who, it is fair to say, through grit and hard work, remains one of Washington’s most powerful women.