My story from TED


My new TED talk has just been published. Dale Carnegie used to say that there are three talks in every speech you deliver, the one you plan, the one you deliver and the one you meant to deliver. Well, here you can read the one I planned and/or watch this link with the one I delivered. Of course I still think I can do so much better, so I will continue to improve and one day I will deliver the one I meant to.

I consider myself lucky to have been born in a country generally considered to be the best place in the world to be a woman.


I was 7 years old when women in Iceland went on a strike and brought the country to its knees. Nothing works when women are not at work.

Halla Tómasdóttir at TEDWomen 2016 - It's About Time, October 26-28, 2016, Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts, San Francisco, California. Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED

Halla Tómasdóttir at TEDWomen 2016 – It’s About Time, October 26-28, 2016, Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts, San Francisco, California. Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED

I was barely 12, when Icelanders had the courage to be the first country in the world to democratically elect a woman as President. I will never forget the day that she stepped out on the balcony of her home with her daughter as she had won the election.


Her presidency did not only impact me as a young girl, boys were equally influenced. She frequently shares the story of a young boy who met her and asked if boys could also grow up to become presidents. Role models matter.

Even with such great role models I really did not envision myself running for President. When I was first encouraged to run my initial reaction was “who am I to run for President”. Women are indeed less likely to consider running for office. According to a 2011 study, 45% of women considered running for office vs. 62% of men, a gap of 16 percentage points, which is the same gap that existed a decade earlier.


photo by Bara Kristins

The decision to run (and to lead) may still be more difficult for women to make, which is a real shame because I am convinced that the world is in real need for more women leaders and more principles based leadership in general.

I had no prior political experience and frankly little desire to subject myself, and my family, to the scrutiny of political life and the loss of freedom associated with a life as head of state. But I had/have the desire, if not the need, to make a difference and do good. Running for President was an opportunity to bring my voice and the vision and values of the nation itself to work on a powerful platform. I felt I owed it to my children and the next generation of girls and boys to choose to fight for their future even if that choice was indeed much harder than choosing freedom and flight from the challenges of running.

Running for President turned out to be the journey of my life (so far anyway). The journey started with more than 20 potential candidates, boiled down to 9 candidates qualifying and ended in a race between 4 candidates, 3 men and me.


The drama that unfolded during these elections may not equate to that of the US Presidential Elections, but rest assured that we had our own drama. Our sitting President of 20 years had announced that he would not run again. This gave rise to an unprecedented number of candidates running. He later changed his mind and entered the race when our Prime Minister resigned following protests after the infamous Panama Papers leak. Days later the President himself stepped out of the race again, due to his wife’s relations to the Panama Papers and used that opportunity to endorse two men he felt were qualified to be his successors.

So on May 9th, 45 days before election day, it was not looking too good for me.

The polls had me at 1%, so it is probably an understatement to say that I had to work hard for my seat at the table and access to TV as the network had decided to only include those with 2.5% or more in the polls in the first TV debate. I came in at 2.5% on the day of the first TV debate. I found out late afternoon that I was to participate in the debate – that evening.


On this journey I had to face and overcome plenty of challenges and I now know these challenges with MEDIA, MUSCLE AND MONEY to be somewhat typical for female candidates.


Media access and airtime proved to be more of a challenge for me than the male candidates. The leading male candidate had 87 appearances in broadcast media during the months leading up to the elections meanwhile I had 31. When I finally got access to mainstream media, I was repeatedly asked if I was going to quit.

During the TV debates I typically got less airtime and more than once moderators forgot to ask me a question asked of all other candidates. My name was on several occasions left out of news coverage and political commentary about the elections and I was the only candidate of the final four that never got a front page interview.

There are those who say that gender does not matter when it comes to media. I can’t say I agree. Much like anywhere else, people in the world of media are subject to both conscious and unconscious bias and if we want our democracy and society to work, we need to have the courage to talk about it.

We saw sharp rises in the polls after each time I appeared on TV, which proved to be the most powerful medium to get my message and character across. So it was ultimately the power of media that provided me the opportunity to become known and to get my message across. Media matters.


Political experience and muscle to execute a successful campaign is also very important to any campaign and independent candidates, like me, have less access to such resources and less knowledge about what it takes to run a campaign. I was an entrepreneur in running for office and so were the people working with me, almost all volunteers. This lack of experience and access to an experienced political machine and muscle undoubtedly came at a cost for our campaign, but it allowed us to break many of the rules of the game of politics and create new ways to engage with people and by that I believe we positively influenced the tone of this election. We ran a positive campaign, became our own media by using social media effectively and engaged in direct contact with voters through live Facebook sessions where we took any question raised by a voter and responded on the spot – we decided not to keep any secrets. When reaching young people proved to be a challenge I enlisted young people to help me with Snapchat and managed to use pretty much every filter and self-deprecating humor to build up a strong following.


One can’t discuss politics without mentioning money. Money influences any campaign and we had less financial resources than the competition. We may also have had a harder time asking for financial support and I may have had the ambition to do more with less, which some would say is very womanly of me.


But even with third the money and media and only entrepreneurial muscle behind our campaign we ended up surprising everyone, including myself, on election day I came in neck to neck with the leading candidate when the first results came in.


When all votes were counted I received nearly a third of the national vote, defeating the polls by an unprecedented and surprising margin. I was especially pleased to learn that I earned proportionately greater support from young people. In a young people’s parallel election conducted in one district I came out as the clear winner with 36% of the votes, the runner up got 18%.


So even if I did not win this election, I can truly say the journey was successful and provided for tremendous learning and growth for me, my family and friends. Many refer to me as the winner of this election and people approach me in the street and say “if you’d only had one more week…”. Some encourage me to run again and there are also those who think my daughter should run in 2040 but one of the personal highlights for me was the moment I observed my own 13 years old daughter on TV for the first time in her life and she was smart, self-confident, sincere and supportive of her mother. It was probably the highlight of the journey for me.


photo by Árni Sæberg

There were other signs of positive impact that matter a great deal to me. I received this photo of pre-school girls kissing my picture as it was displayed on a bus stop.


That picture alone was really enough of a win for me. What we see, we can be. So “screw” fear and challenges, it matters that women run for office, be it the CEO office or the office of the President.

I also managed to make an impact on the New Yorker who referred to me as “A Living Emoji of Sincerity” following the last TV debate, possibly my proudest title yet because women sometimes get penalized for using what I call our “emotional capital” yet I know from experience that we become truly powerful when we do have the courage to do just that.

I will never be able to give proper thanks to the people who worked with me on this journey and showed up on Election Day to show me support beyond my wildest dreams. We celebrated as we had won, because that’s how we felt.

I can only hope that my participation in this race may inspire others to take the leap, to run for office, to offer themselves up for leadership. One thing I know for sure, there is plenty of room for leaders in this world and each and every one of us is here to make a difference.

It may be impossible to share all the lessons learned from such a journey, but I am convinced that the following are key to successful leadership and life:


  1. Hard work

Anything worthwhile takes a lot of hard work. We worked extremely hard and showed resilience and perseverance, important ingredients if one wants to break new ground. I was not going to quit.

  1. Listen to your own authentic voice.

“The 1% day” was a sobering moment. It served to remind me that it has served me best in life to listen and trust my own authentic voice. The times I have ignored it, and followed the herd, have served me less well. During a campaign you receive a lot of well-intended advice on how to dress, what to say (and not say) and so on and so forth. I am thankful for every advice I get and I always give it due consideration as we are here to listen and learn, but I fare best when I make sure I am listening to my own authentic voice. Putting it simply “You may cheat on your intuition, but your intuition never cheats on you”.

  1. Surround yourself with aligned people, but avoid sameness.

We are never alone on any journey and when we are smart enough to surround ourselves with people who are aligned in values and vision, but have complimentary skills and views, we can go much further. I am so proud and grateful for the power and positive spirit of the small team of family and friends who came together as true entrepreneurs in the political arena and pulled off something that most PR experts and political commentators said would be impossible. As a matter of fact when I consulted a leading PR expert about running, he told me that I would never receive more than 7% of the votes, possibly 10% if everything worked out perfectly. I am also thankful to him, because he gave me a different perspective and a reality check, but on the 1% day I decided to prove him wrong.

  1. Invest time and attention in people who energize you, starting with yourself.

Even if you work hard, no great achievement is possible if you can’t keep up your energy levels. I am a struggling student in this area, but I now know that I am at my best when I surround myself with people who energize me AND am able to effectively ignore those who drain my energy. As you can imagine, I faced my share of both fair and unfair criticism during the campaign. It did not always come in pretty packages, and when people straight out lie about you, it is easy to get frustrated and “lose your cool”. I was able to stay above it, to go high when others went low. I also invested time and attention in creating a support network and good practices to make sure I could. I was not perfect, but made sure to take care of myself and to regularly make time to laugh and be in the company of family and great friends that energize me.

  1. Embrace your quest

Every time I experienced lack of energy to continue up stream, I went back to WHY I was doing this and HOW I had decided to run my own race and work from a set of principles, I called them 4G, representing the Icelandic words. GAGN (to be of service), I ran to do good and to be of service. GLEÐI (Joy), I decided to enjoy the journey and do my utmost to inspire others to do so as well. GAGNSÆI (Transparency), I was open, honest and transparent about anything people would wanted to know about me, we kept no secrets. Last but not least I ran on the principle and in the spirit of GIRLPOWER.

I find that being clear on the purpose and principles of any journey attracts mission-aligned people to the quest. I got up every day knowing that what I did and said mattered, and also how I did it. And I never forget that as a Presidential candidate I was a role model with the potential to inspire. I tried to be the change I want to see.

I am glad I had the courage to run, to risk failure yet receive success. I can’t say it was easy – but I can wholeheartedly say it was worth it.

I also feel incredibly lucky to have had the pleasure of listening to so many stories from around the world, each one moved me and made me better. Sincere thanks to the TED community for helping me learn and grow. I will be sharing my favourite talks with you as TED makes them available.


With Nancy Pelosi following our talks.