nancy rodrigues.

richmond, virginia.  |  sister. wife. friend. mentor. & Secretary of Administration for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

I recently had the pleasure to listen to this woman speak at The Grace Harris Leadership Institute annual conference in Richmond, Virgina. I felt energized as I heard her encourage several hundred women to run for political office. She said, “I don’t care if you are an R or D, just get out there and participate… and call me if you do, I will be happy to support you to the best of my ability.” Obviously, this is a woman who understands the importance of mentorship. As I surveyed the other women I sat with that day, I felt (and shared) their excitement of future possibilities. One woman leaned into the table and said, “That woman needs to run for Governor.” I smiled as I scribbled down another name to my j jane wish list: Nancy Rodrigues.

With over 30 years experience in public service, Nancy has developed an extensive knowledge of state government. She believes that government can improve the lives of her fellow citizens and she works hard every day to implement that fundamental belief.

When I requested an interview, she graciously invited me into her office and into her life of service.

How did you choose your career path and was it a conscious decision?

College was a conscious decision. I remember a time when I was about six years old, and my mother had some friends over, and one of them said to me, ”Nancy, what are you going to be when you grow up?” I replied that I was going to get married and have two kids, probably because I was watching Ozzie and Harriet on television. That was my world. And she responded, “Aren’t you going to go to college?”; and I said, “Oh, no! I am not going to go to college.” My mother overheard the conversation and she quickly stepped in, “What happens if your husband dies, how are you going to feed those babies of yours?” From that day on, I knew I was going to go to college. My ultimate goal was to work in all three segments of government – I have achieved that goal. It’s been a phenomenal experience and it’s not over yet!

So you grew up with the idea you could be anything you wanted?

Not necessarily. A common myth we have in America is that we can do whatever we want to do. It’s just not true. As much as I would like to be a ballerina or an astronaut, I could have never done those things. There are certain things we simply cannot do and we have to recognize that. But I could go to college and create a beautiful future.

What do you like most about public service?

I truly believe that government can make people’s lives better and I am proud to be a part of that. I love creating change. It may take time, but working in this field gives you the opportunity to make positive change. The most incredible thing about public service is that you can actually influence change that helps people.

What is the most challenging aspect about your current position? And how do you work through the challenge?

The budget – running a government is expensive. I don’t believe that Virginians realize the cost of doing business has gone up across the board, and that includes government. We want a good voting system, public safety, education, etc., and that costs money. Additionally, I would say that there is a disconnect citizens feel towards government. There is a lot of frustration. It is a big challenge to correct that and I work hard to connect with the public to make that better. Working as a public servant is a calling for me. When I think about the challenges, I think about the starfish story: there was this guy walking along the beach and he saw thousands of starfish everywhere. He noticed a woman on the beach who was throwing the starfish into the ocean. The man says to the woman “Are you nuts, what are you doing wasting your time? How can you expect to make a difference?” The woman looked at the stranger, smiled, picked up another starfish, and threw it into the water. “Well, I just made a difference to that one.” So, I guess I will keep throwing starfish into the ocean.

How do you get through a rough day?

Bourbon helps. And the Y.M.C.A.

What has been your greatest obstacle in life and how do/did you navigate it?

Time. Time for sure. There is no navigating time. Trying to make the best use of each day. We all come with an expiration date. And in this job, we are only here for a short period of time. Four years to be exact – I need to work very hard to make an impact. Time is the enemy.

If you could do one thing to change the way government operates, what would it be?

The election process, hands down. We need to make it easier for people to vote. Even making voting accessible for two days instead of one would make a big difference. People are working two jobs. They are caring for their children and their parents, in some cases. It is critical that we offer a flexible voting experience.

I’ve heard you encourage a large group of women to “Run for office. I don’t care which party you choose to affiliate yourself with, just get out there a run!” Why do you feel more women don’t choose the path of public service?

 It is partially a lack of confidence. Also, women have their roles in society. The role we see for women on television is the “nurturer” role. While I think it is shifting, those ideas are still there. The vast majority of white males run for elected office positions. Women need to have the confidence to apply for those positions too. I always say, “Don’t complain if you didn’t show up. Put your hat in the ring!”

If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps, what steps do they need to take to get moving?

Be actively involved. Identify the issues that you are passionate about and get involved!

Where do you get your information, news, etc.?

A nun made us read Newsweek and other news magazines in high school and it was a great lesson, because I don’t believe anything I read unless it’s from an independent source. I listen to MSNBC, FOX, and CNN. I love Jon Stewart. Rachel Maddow is good, a little too left. But she is smart. I like to look at the information collectively.

So cliche, I know, but can women really have it all?

No. We can’t really have it all… not at the same time. Women have to decide at different times what they are going to do: raise a family or build a career. For example, I hear people say Hillary Clinton is too old to be president. But we need to recognize that women place a hold on their professional lives in order to raise their children. So many times, women reach their potential later in life because they were raising a family.

Do you have children?

No, candidly … my desire to be a mother left me when I lost my mother. When she died, so did that part of me. However, I fill that role in other ways. I have mentored many young professionals and the interns around here call me Mother Secretary or Mother Rodrigues. I am glad they feel so comfortable around me, because I truly do care about them. My husband has children from his first marriage, and while I am not their mother, I would do anything for his children.

Can you share one of your proudest moments?

I have two moments that stick out. Life in public service offers an incredible experience and you meet the most fascinating people. I was so honored to receive a letter from the Portuguese Ambassador who sent me a letter of off congratulations when I was appointed Secretary of Administration.

Another time, I was sitting with Governor Tim Kaine, Attorney General Bob McDonnell, and the Electoral College members. I was sitting in the House of Delegates in the confederate capital and we were getting ready to vote for the first African American president. That was pretty special. It was surreal. I looked around the room and thought, “What is a kid from Newark, New Jersey the daughter of immigrants, whose first language is not English, what is she doing sitting among the attorney general, the governor, and about to view history?” It was a true honor.

How do you have difficult conversations at the office?

Ethics. You must stand by your convictions. It takes courage. I mean if the emperor has no clothes on, the emperor has no clothes on. And the reality is, women like to be liked, but you have to have the courage to stand by your ethics. You have to do the right thing and sometimes that means saying what needs to be said.

What is wrong with our political system? (I know this is a big question.) I recently learned of this guy who is serving in the legislature by day and by night he is serving time in jail. I don’t know what is more disturbing, the reason he is in jail, or that voter’s elected a convicted sex offender.

The reality is, in this case, less than six percent of the voters – voted. It is really outrageous. These types of people get into office because we don’t have better people running. It’s that simple. I can understand why people are turned off with politics right now. But there are a lot of truly great statesmen and women. And we always need more of them.

What has been your greatest lesson learned?

At the end of the day, when you look in the mirror of reality you become really good at picking out all the bad stuff, but you need to look at the good stuff too, because it is there. It is equally important to look at both.

What is your best advice on how to live a graceful life?

Know and like yourself. If you don’t know who you are, then you don’t know what you are capable of. If you don’t like yourself, you probably aren’t going to like anyone else. Take the time to learn who you are.

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