Mandana Dayani thinks you should vote, and her supporters agree. With mail-in ballots in people’s hands and less than a month until election day, the cofounder and creator of I Am a Voter, a Los Angeles-based nonpartisan movement, has spent the last two years working toward this moment.
The Angeleno knows there’s a lot at stake on the local level and with the presidential election, especially because of the pandemic-related downturn in the economy and other hot-button issues, including rising homelessness, ongoing racial unrest, police brutality and civil rights injustices.
“I don’t understand how we can get people excited about 10 Marvel movies a year but we can’t get them excited about something that’s so important,” Dayani said over the phone, referring to roughly 45% of U.S. voters — about 100 million Americans — who didn’t show up to the polls in 2016 when reality-TV star Donald Trump won the presidency over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “This is the coolest thing you could ever do. How are people not voting?”
Especially when this is a mega-year for voting in our country. 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment, one of three Civil War-era constitutional amendments, which put into law that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
It’s also the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, and the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory tactics by Southern states against Black voters.
In the age of Instagram, TikTok and deliberate fake news, Dayani, 38, gathered 30 women who work in fashion, entertainment, marketing and tech to discuss voting. Two years ago, they launched I Am a Voter, which has used fashion collaborations and social media efforts to combat voter complacency. The collective agreed on an impartial approach, Dayani said, because “the world feels divided enough. The last thing we need to do is impose our beliefs on other people. They know the issues. We want them to show up and vote for whatever it is that they care about.”
In what is already a divisive time, I Am a Voter has stood out by managing to weave together fashion and politics in a way that isn’t preachy. The organization’s goal is as simple as the message emblazoned on its collaborations and merchandise: Vote.
The word is featured on the sold-out black I Am a Voter X Stuart Weitzman boots that Jill Biden wore during early voting in the Delaware state primary, with her presidential-candidate husband, former Vice President Joe Biden. And the word appears prominently on I Am a Voter-branded merchandise that celebrities such as Tracee Ellis Ross, Taylor Swift, Halle Berry, Viola Davis and Dwyane Wade have worn on social media. That simple message was also captured in recent social media videos by influential figures such as fashion designer Tom Ford.
Dayani said the idea for the movement was to create a “safe space where people could be excited about voting, where they could see it as this sexy, cool thing.” Getting the message out there has involved branded merchandise from L.A. brands such as the Great’s I Am a Voter-branded boxy crew T-shirt ($105), Mother Denim socks ($24.99) and Jennifer Meyer’s 18-karat gold “Vote” necklace ($650) as well as items from labels such as the Groomsman Suit (a branded tuxedo jacket, $154) and Evolve Together (facial masks, $8.97).
Creating a movement
I Am a Voter is not limited to cool-kid moments. As Dayani sees it, the movement is making information about voting and elections more readily available, and the hope is that its merchandise will drive people to the organization’s online platform, iamavoter.com, which provides polling and voter-registration information. (Interested parties can also text VOTER to 26797 to be kept in the loop.)
The idea for I Am a Voter came to Dayani, who’s married to Keshet Studios President Peter Traugott, shortly after she gave birth to their second daughter in 2018. “I couldn’t believe the state of our country,” she said, adding that she reached out to politicians at the time to see how she could get involved. “I took several meetings with different senators and congressmen. I tried to understand why we are where we are. Every single conversation kept going back to, ‘If you want to change this, then we need more people to vote.’”
Therefore, Dayani’s mission became clear.The path to get there wasn’t. However, one look at her varied resume would prove she’d find a way. Jumping into the unknown is where Dayani thrives. After all, it’s not a coincidence that fashion is in I Am a Voter’s DNA.
A bit of a shape-shifting soul searcher, Dayani is a former lawyer who worked at a talent agency that represented stylist-turned-designer Rachel Zoe. After Dayani completed work on the licensing deal for Zoe’s then-forthcoming clothing line, Zoe asked her: “Do you know how to launch a fashion brand?”
“I was like, ‘Of course,’” Dayani said. “I literally knew not one thing about it but I was on a plane four days later on the way to New York.” She couldn’t resist a challenge. “It was like a master’s in everything,” said Dayani, who, for six years, oversaw investments, licensing, publishing, digital media and endorsements as vice president at Zoe’s fast-growing company. It was a moment ripe with opportunity, but there was one serious snag. Dayani was reluctant to appear on Zoe’s reality show “The Rachel Zoe Project,” which aired on Bravo for five seasons through 2013.
“I was like, ‘Rachel, I cannot be on a TV show and run for office one day,’” Dayani said. “She was like, ‘But you do everything with me, so how are you not going to be?’” Dayani appeared regularly on the show but, looking back, described herself as a “very awkward participant.”
Dayani’s days in reality television appear to be behind her. In some ways, her latest endeavor isn’t too far off from her childhood aspirations. “Will & Grace” star Debra Messing, a close friend, was with Dayani during initial I Am a Voter brainstorming sessions. “That’s Mandana’s genius,” Messing said. “She is a marketer. She’s a brand maker. She knows how to take a stick on the ground and make it something that everybody wants to buy. She was, like, ‘We need to do that with voting.’”
After much discussion, Messing connected Dayani with Shannon Watts, a former stay-at-home mother of five who founded Moms Demand Action in 2012. “Shannon Watts, to me, is the epitome of the most incredible activist,” Dayani said. “She’s like my Beyoncé.”
Watts gave Dayani a few pointers on how to build a grassroots campaign. Then Dayani called friends and colleagues to gauge their interest. More than 30 women came on board as cofounders. Among them are Tiffany Bensley of consulting firm Type Navy; CAA Foundation Executive Director Natalie Tran; April Uchitel, former chief executive of beauty retailer Violet Grey; actresses Messing and Sophia Bush; and Sacha Brown of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
I Am a Voter launched during New York Fashion Week in September 2018. To mark the occasion, Dayani and Bensley handed out small monochromatic pins emblazoned with the organization’s name to friends who were stylists, designers and publicists. “It became this rogue thing,” Dayani said, adding that influential allies were “walking around at fashion shows pinning people on the front row.”
Also during fashion week, designer Jeremy Scott amplified the message by wearing an I Am a Voter T-shirt to a glitzy event at New York’s Plaza Hotel. Designer Prabal Gurung, who has been vocal on social media about voting this year, placed branded pins on the seating cards for his runway show. The nonpartisan group also launched initiatives with Bumble and Vice Media that month.
This summer, in the midst of the pandemic, I Am a Voter held #RegisterAFriendDay, a social media campaign that reunited actors with former costars. Messing participated, with her “Will & Grace” costars Eric McCormack and Sean Hayes, as did Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. (from the “Iron Man” and “Avengers” movies) and “Friends’” Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow and Courteney Cox. According to I Am a Voter, the effort generated 2.5 billion social media impressions and 1.6 billion media impressions.
“We are leveraging their audiences to get more people onto the platform,” Dayani said, adding that I Am a Voter provides brands and influencers with a weekly digital tool kit that includes fact-based social media assets they can share with their followers however they want.
“Mandana lives, eats and sleeps this,” Bensley said, with a laugh. “She actually doesn’t sleep because of this. We have an incredible group of people around the table, but Mandana is absolutely the driving force. I think the reason that she’s so successful is that she inspires everyone — from the people on the team to the partners. Her energy is so authentic that everybody who speaks to her is like, ‘How can I help? What can I do?’”
Their interest is noteworthy because everyone working with the organization, including Dayani and Bensley, is a volunteer.
“Everybody involved has full-time jobs and runs their own companies, but they work endlessly on this effort,” Bensley said.
Dayani and her fellow cofounders haven’t done much, if any, media surrounding their work with the organization. She said that’s because it isn’t about any one of them. Everything is about their message. “We always look at ourselves as the publicists for I Am a Voter,” Dayani said, “but we’re not I Am a Voter itself.”
Dayani said the individuals working with I Am a Voter are free to express their own beliefs on their personal social media accounts. “Everyone ultimately has permission to be who they are,” Dayani said. “I’ve been passionate about my beliefs and justice my entire life. It’s why I went to law school. I started activism when I was in the fourth grade. I’ve been volunteering since then. It’s hard for me to not be really passionate and vocal about anything I see and experience that feels unjust.”
For Dayani, the issue of family separation for asylum seekers is an especially personal topic. She immigrated with her parents from Iran as a child. “We came as religious refugees,” she said, crediting HIAS, a Jewish American nonprofit that provides humanitarian aid to refugees. (Dayani’s mother is Iranian, and her father is Kurdish; her paternal grandfather was the rabbi for the Kurdish Jewish tribe in Iran.)
Dayani moved from Iran to New York just shy of her sixth birthday. Her family settled in Los Angeles when she was in the first grade. “I was raised with this idea that America saved our lives,” said Dayani, who graduated from USC’s Gould School of Law. “We were so patriotic and grateful to America. I was always aware that I was lucky because so many people didn’t get to leave the terrible circumstances that we were living in. I always felt this pressure to give back and to make it worth it to my parents, who sacrificed everything in their lives to give me this chance, and to this country, who took a chance on us.”
Just getting started
Because of Dayani’s positive experience immigrating to America, the human-rights crisis continues to weigh heavily on her mind. It is, in many ways, the impetus behind her recent activism. “I cannot imagine how anyone could do that to another human being,” she said. “I still can’t process the trauma that these kids will endure for the rest of their lives.”
As Dayani and Messing found themselves distraught by the 24-hour news cycle, the women launched a podcast called “The Dissenters” in May. “Everything we did was inspired by Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” Dayani said, explaining the podcast’s title is a nod to a quote by the 87-year-old Supreme Court justice, who died last month. Available through Apple Podcasts, “The Dissenters” explores finding one’s passion and purpose through interviews with Clinton, screenwriter and actress Lena Waithe, activist and actress Jane Fonda, writer Glennon Doyle, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) and designer Christian Siriano. “Debra and I are obsessed with these people,” Dayani said. “To us, they’re the biggest celebrities in the world.”
As Messing and Dayani did research, they were surprised to discover that most of their subjects had stumbled into advocacy. “They were all accidental activists,” Dayani said. “None of these people set out to start a foundation. They, in the moment, saw something that was wrong and said, ‘This is not OK.’ That’s really where it starts for everybody, and that was our journey as well.”
“It really was Mandana’s brainchild,” Messing said of the podcast. “Mandana and I have gotten into the habit of sending each other articles and links and videos of people who blow us away because, obviously, it has been an incredibly difficult time. Everybody has been struggling, and that includes us. In order to continue to fight on behalf of marginalized people, these were ways that we could perk each other up and bolster each other to say, ‘Keep going.’ One day, Mandana said, ‘You know, if we did a podcast, we could make these people talk to us.’”
Dayani first met Messing on vacation with a mutual friend years ago. The two bonded over shared interests and beliefs. “I respect Debra so much,” Dayani said. “She has been doing the hard work for so long and really puts herself on the line for her beliefs.” She hopes their friendship lightens the tone of their interviews. “Clearly we’re not journalists, but we are super fans,” she said. “They’re our heroes. That hopefully comes through.”
Dayani has plans for “The Dissenters,” including a conference with workshops where people can meet heroes and learn how to fund their own advocacy work. As for I Am a Voter, Dayani said the organization will continue its mission long after this presidential election. “We’re just beginning,” she said. “We need so many more people to vote on a local level. We talk about the presidential races, but really local elections have led the way when the federal government couldn’t.”
“That’s the thing with Mandana,” Messing said. “These ideas are all hers, but somehow she gets you involved and makes you feel as if you have anything to do with it. The heart and the soul of all of these efforts is really Mandana.”
But what about her childhood dream? Does she still aspire to one day run for office? “Any form of public service would be an honor,” Dayani said. “I don’t know what that would look like, but I would love to do it at some point in my life.”