Sarah Riggs Amico doesn’t look like most politicians who have dominated elections in recent years — a fact that she is not only proud of, but believes is an asset in her campaign for Georgia’s lieutenant governor.
With no prior political experience, the executive chairperson of Georgia-based automotive logistics firm Jack Cooper proudly sees herself as a business person, but calls herself a “huge nerd" for public policy.
“Even though I’ve been in the business world post undergrad and grad school, I still very much keep up with current events,” she says. “But it was really just something of I wanted to be informed when I went to the ballot box.”
A Harvard Business School alumna, Amico says she’s unhappy with the inequality in her state, primarily in the fields of healthcare, education, and jobs. She feels she’s not alone with her frustration with the current political climate and politicians’ inability to work across the aisle and deliver results.
“What I’ve seen is that, compared to corporate America, our political world is very dysfunctional,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine what it would look like if I came in to do my job and refused to work with anyone who disagreed with me on an issue. I would be fired in a hot minute, and rightly so.”
Initially, Amico was reluctant to run for public office, a position she imagined would force her to leave Jack Cooper at a time where she says there’s still much to be accomplished. Luckily for Amico, election laws in Georgia would allow her to keep her position as chairman of Jack Cooper, a realization that was the tipping point in beginning her campaign.
Managing Vehicle Logistics at Jack Cooper
It’s Amico’s experience in the board room that she’s relying on to set her apart from other candidates.
In 2008, during the height of the Great Recession, Amico’s parents bought their first car haul company, Active Transport. The following year, they purchased Jack Cooper.
Since the original purchase of Active Transport, Jack Cooper has grown from 120 employees to over 3,000. The employee growth is impressive in itself; however, Amico touts paying each employee’s health insurance premium — not just for them, but for their families as well — as the highlight of that story.
“I don’t believe that we have to choose between investing our people and our future and growing jobs,” she says. “That’s never been my experience.”
She believes there are always solutions available to whatever problem; it’s up to leadership to enlist help and figure them out. Buying struggling companies and building a business in a down economy has taught the mom of two how to come up with creative solutions that will sustain future growth.
From ensuring employee healthcare and parental leave, to experimenting with on-site childcare, Jack Cooper has tried everything to help build longevity and a proud company culture.
“Candidly, many people can be a decent leader when things are going their way, it’s not that hard,” she says. “I think the true test of somebody’s character and potential as a leader is, what do they look like when the chips are down? How do they handle the inevitable, unexpected bump in the road? And for better or for worse, part of the Jack Cooper story is we’ve had a lot of those ups and downs within the last eight years.”
Amico believes her passion for her employees’ well-being stems from her own father losing his job when she was a young girl. With a wife and two children, Amico says the initial outlook from her father’s unemployment was bleak; however it later freed the family to buy their first business and eventually, Jack Cooper.
“Part of what drives me as an entrepreneur and as an executive is the magic of being able to give somebody a job, where they can provide for their family,” she says. “There is absolutely no greater privilege in my mind, in the business world, than to help somebody provide for their own.”
As for her lack of political experience, Amico and her team are seeing this as an asset and part of a wider trend in the political arena.
“We saw from the election people are tired of what they see as a politician,” says Liz Jaff, who runs Washington D.C.-based strategy firm 44Renegades. “But I do think that approaching problems from a different point of view is absolutely needed in this type of environment. What Sarah is used to is fixing things. She’s not used to having someone say, ‘Well, we can’t do this because of the voters, or we can’t do this because of lobbyist’s money;’ and that’s what I think makes her such a credible candidate, she’s not going to take no for an answer, she’s going to get to a deal.”
Family-Based Decision Making
When it comes to making decisions in the board room, Amico applies the “Zoe strategy,” named after her 8-year-old niece, the eldest in the third generation in the family of Jack Cooper’s owners.
“When Zoe is in the workforce, we want to make decisions for that time horizon. So 20 years from now, what will that decision look like?”
Amico says when considering a 20 year period over a quarterly time line, policy, decisions, and solutions look vastly different.
“All the sudden, investing in your employees’ healthcare, investing in your community … in things like parental leave, or making sure you have a strong union or a healthy pension; these things make sense over that time horizon because you’re not managing quarter to quarter.”
In keeping with the Zoe Strategy, Amico says prioritization is key.
Could Jack Cooper be a more profitable business for the board members? Absolutely, she says. But, by managing the business by its six core values, one of which is “Responsibility,” Amico believes a healthy, stable future for all stakeholders — customers, employees, and community — is more important than short-term wealth; investing in them is not optional.
She plans on bringing the Zoe Strategy with her to the state house.
“We see this seemingly false choice set up by politicians today: ‘Well, we’d love to invest in healthcare, we’d love to invest in education, but we want to grow jobs,’” she says. “Well, if you’re thinking of things in that Zoe time horizon, you’ve got to do one to do the other. Long-term investments in your people always yield the best return.”
Healthcare is one of Amico’s most passionate issues. She credits it with pushing her into the “solid blue.”
According to a 2015 report by the Georgia Board of Physician Workforce, out of the state’s 159 counties, 64 of them (40.2%) don’t have a pediatrician; seventy-nine counties (49.6%) don’t have an OBGYN; sixty-three counties (39.6%) don’t have an emergency medicine physician.
The same group found that, in 2010, Georgia had 204 physicians for every 100,000 people. With a total that year of 19,860 physicians, the state placed 39th for physician to population ratio.
“Is there any question in anyone’s mind that if we had women in executive leadership roles in our government that there would not be [over] 60 counties without a pediatrician, that there would not be half of our counties without an OBGYN?” she asks. “Because, candidly, women would not tolerate that.”
Dawn of a New Era for Women
If elected, Amico would be the first woman to hold the position of lieutenant governor in the deep red state. At press time, Ballotopedia lists only one other candidate running as a Democrat, reigning Mrs. Georgia and Army veteran, Triana Arnold James.
Currently, there are four contenders on the Republican ticket, all men with prior legislative experience; the position of lieutenant governor has also been held by a male Republican since 2007.
However, Amico isn’t deterred. She sees herself as part of the larger trend of a record number of women running for office in 2018. According to Emily’s list, a nonprofit that helps women run for political office, around 25,000 women have contacted them about running, and another 8,000 people have signed up to help get those women elected.
Amico credits the 2017 Atlanta Women’s March as the catalyst for her political involvement. Attending with her daughters and husband, an Italian immigrant with myriad engineering degrees, inspired her to actively campaign for a better, more inclusive future.
“I think it’s really important to ask that [my daughters] inherit a society where their opportunities are not limited by their gender,” she says.
It’s not just being a woman that sets Amico apart, it’s being a woman in the automotive industry, says the political strategist Jaff.
Jaff met Amico at Leadership Now, a networking group of Harvard Business School Alumni; she later reached out to Amico to help with the “100 Sunflowers,” organization, which works to recruit women to run for office.
“I actually worked on infrastructure for many years on The Hill; the auto industry is one of the most exciting for me,” Jaff says. “You know, she’s a woman in trucking, which is also so rare. And I think what it says to me is, if she can win this, there are so many other female CEOs, chairwomen, high level execs, that are actually in the auto industry that should be running.”
After about a five-minute phone conversation, Jaff says she realized Amico was a “unicorn,” and urged her to run for state office; after being assured she wouldn’t have to give up her seat on Jack Cooper’s board, Amico agreed.
While many are dubbing this, “The Year of the Woman,” Amico hopes it lasts much longer than that.
“I hope this isn’t just the year of the woman, I hope it’s the dawn of a new era,” she says. “As a mom to two little girls, how many Sally Rides, how many Marie Curies … Oprahs, [and] Hillary Rodham Clintons, how many of these did the whole world lose out on because some little girl didn’t believe that path in life was possible for her? We all lose when that potential next generation of leaders, or scientists, or innovators, or job creators, misses out on the potential for greatness because these people didn’t see a seat at the table for them by virtue of what they were born looking like, or how they pray, or whom they love.”
It’s this inclusion and representation, paired with strong education and healthcare, that Amico believes will bring a brighter future for her state; Investing in children is all part of the Zoe Strategy for longevity.
“We lose a society, as a competitive economy, and candidly as a people, when groups are left out of reaching their full potential and participating in the American dream,” she says. “Everybody loses.”