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Youngest Congresswoman: I was okay with losing

Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, the youngest woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, said she won a hard-fought battle because she was willing to lose.

Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who challenged an incumbent in the primary before going on to win the general election in 2014, said she decided to run when she was 28. She announced her candidacy the next year, and won her seat at 30. But it was not partisanship that drove her. She said it was her desire to open up Congress to new perspectives from a different demographic at a time when the average representative was 58 years old and, of course, male.

“I thought we needed a new generation of leadership in Washington, and we needed more women representing our perspective,” Stefanik, who represents upstate New York’s 21st district, told attendees of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women summit in Washington, D.C. on Monday night. “Every expert told me, ‘You’re not going to win,’ [so] willingness to lose was important.”

It was also important to challenge orthodoxy. More women need to run for office and they need to run as women, she said, not as the closest facsimile to the aforementioned 58-year-old man.

“You have to embrace your authenticity and your unique perspective as a woman,” Stefanik said. During her run for office, she told summit attendees, she was criticized for wearing patterned tights. Clearly, her detractors were wrong. Voters recognize and respect authenticity, Stefanik said.

And finally, while it’s great to be smart, it’s much more important to put in time and effort, Congresswoman Stefanik told the audience. “Nothing replaces hard work. Women have different challenges. You have to be willing to put in the hours and work harder.” She recounted traveling three hours to meet with five people and getting stuck in a blizzard.

The bottom line remains that this country needs more women in elected office, she said. Of the 10,000 people who have served in Congress, just 300 have been women and 100 of those are serving now.

That 0.03% is not anywhere near enough for a constituency that is not a coalition, she said, but the majority of voters.