As a key figure behind the scenes of scores of campaigns and initiatives, strategist and fundraiser Stefanie Roumeliotes knows that the political economy of San Francisco and beyond is about much more than money.
Stefanie Roumeliotes is having a very busy fall. Roumeliotes and her firm, SGR Consulting, have had their hands full working on a variety of endeavors and campaigns at the national, state and local level as 2020 pivots from one crisis to the next. As a strategist, Roumeliotes helps clients like Mayor London Breed with her political initiatives and serves as the chief business development officer for the Democratic Data Exchange, all while keeping up her longtime work for Governor Gavin Newsom. She has also served as a key fundraising volunteer for both Kamala Harris for President and the Biden Victory Fund — recently helping to spearhead a Bay Area virtual event that raised $3 million for Joe Biden’s campaign and featured an appearance by VP nominee Harris.
“Her political career started here,” Roumeliotes says of Harris from her new and otherwise empty downtown San Francisco office. “As a woman of color, Kamala is what representative leadership looks like for the future of the United States of America. California, and especially San Francisco, have provided a platform and springboard for rising political stars. We’re ahead of the game, which is probably why sometimes we’re labeled as too progressive and misunderstood.”
Photos of Breed, Newsom, Biden and Harris are on a gallery wall alongside other megawatt clients Roumeliotes has worked closely with over the last 20 years: Secretary Hillary Clinton, for whom she served as northwestern finance director during Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, Secretary of State Alex Padilla and the late Mayor Ed Lee. On a quick virtual tour, Roumeliotes stops at an illustrated poster with two words: “Make Herstory.”
“That’s probably my theme,” she says. “Make herstory.”
Were it a typical election cycle, with voting begun and money spent, she would have her staff, often all-female, crowded into the same room, feeding off the energy of the political and philanthropic causes reflected in SGR’s diverse portfolio: the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the United Nations Foundation and Futures Without Violence, among many others. But on a recent October day, a month out from perhaps the most consequential presidential election in memory, it’s just Roumeliotes framed by a Zoom-sized window, while her lean team works remotely. Even virtually, her demeanor is open, her eyes clear, her voice steady.
“Some of the most true-blue San Franciscans are feeling frustrated and a little bit helpless about what’s happening in the streets of San Francisco,” she says of the conversations she is having. “Luckily, we have been a part of organizing that energy to help folks get politically activated. One of the things I’ve said all along is: It’s not enough to engage philanthropically in our community. You must engage politically because those who are elected to office carry a lot of decision-making power. Fresh financial resources and enthusiasm in San Francisco this cycle have made an impact. I strongly encourage San Franciscans to continue to be active in local politics beyond this November.”
Roumeliotes, who lives in Hillsborough with her husband, an orthopedic surgeon, and their 6-year-old twins, reflects on the power across the political ecosystem, including her own fortitude. “The experience of owning and running SGR and the years I’ve spent in politics have helped me unveil my inner warrior and understand my own grit in the game of life. For me, sure I get tired, sure I felt defeated after standing for hours at the Javits Center in New York City on November 8, 2016, to realize that Donald Trump had won the election,” she says. “But I got up the next day to say, OK, we have to keep fighting. It’s time to identify our next North Star and to protect those that are vulnerable and all that we’ve built to date.”
In considering her early North Stars, Roumeliotes talks about a fascinating vacillation. “I was always caught between politics and theater,” she says. At a young age, she ran for student council, alongside auditioning and dancing, which she majored in at UCLA. “There’s definitely a cadence in politics,” she says. “I do like the beat.”
The parallel evolved to a desire to combine purpose with activation. At 24, she interned at EMILY’s List (Early Money Is Like Yeast) with the former director of its San Francisco office, Judith Kanter, whom she credits with teaching her how to give politically. “Fundraising in politics kept coming to me easily and quickly,” she says. “I have always felt that political dollars are essential to elevating and communicating one’s message and mission.”
In her own business, which Roumeliotes founded a few years later, in 2004, elevating other women has also been intentional. Clint Reilly, who owns Gentry and the Nob Hill Gazette with his wife Janet, was a key democratic strategist in San Francisco a generation before Roumeliotes, and points to the success of SGR’s team. “They’re universally impressive: smart, hardworking, honest,” Reilly says, “and it says something about Stefanie that she’s able to attract these talented young people.” Roumeliotes’ former staffers have gone on to business and law school, as well as positions in the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s offices and organizations like Emerge America. “I wanted to create a workplace where young women could be mentored, trained and empowered to grow within our political and philanthropic ecosystem,” she says, “and where forever they would be part of the SGR family.”
While insiders may know Roumeliotes and her team well, much of her work happens behind the scenes, where she can nurture and protect valued relationships with donors like Reilly, as well as Susie Tompkins Buell, local activist and co-founder of Esprit de Corps. “When I have a longstanding relationship with a donor like Clint, like Susie, I am not just going to call to ask them for dollars,” Roumeliotes says. “I will only ask them to support the efforts that I know align with their interests and devotedness.”
“I’ve never seen her try to sell something that she didn’t believe in herself,” says Buell, who has worked with Roumeliotes on Secretary Clinton’s presidential campaigns, as well as Breed’s mayoral campaign. She underscores Roumeliotes’ energy and conviction as both exciting to experience and inspiring purpose. “That’s a very important energy to have in politics and certainly in fundraising.”
For Roumeliotes, highlights of her career resonate from these relationships. She points to her role in helping elect the first female lieutenant governor of California, Eleni Kounalakis, as well as Breed, San Francisco’s first Black female mayor. “I did the work alongside warriors like Susie Buell, Joyce Newstat.”
Newstat, who was policy director for Newsom during his tenure as mayor of San Francisco, looks back on the first same-sex marriage ceremonies at City Hall in February 2004 as “one of the biggest moments of civic pride I’ve ever seen.” Later in 2015, when marriage equality was recognized on a national level, Roumeliotes recalls a meaningful moment with Newstat: “We stood together on the steps of City Hall when we heard the news that the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of marriage equality, that love wins.”
“People don’t talk about how strategic and how critical the fundraisers are, and they’re often the glue,” Newstat says, noting that women are not brought to a larger table nearly enough. Roumeliotes is an exception. “She knows how to map the money, but also map the people and relationships,” Newstat says. “Stefanie is often hired as the fundraiser, but the truth of the matter is: I often refer to her as the brains behind the operation because she is so smart, so strategic, and she’s truly the secret sauce.”
Because Roumeliotes strategizes for the nonprofit arena as well, part of her job is communicating the ongoing importance of organizations and events that may fall below donors’ radars during pressing crises as well as an election cycle, such as Futures Without Violence launching the Courage Museum in the Presidio.
This story will go to press before we know the outcome of the presidential election. Win or lose, Roumeliotesis pondering her next pivot. Because busy as October is, her mind’s eye is searching past November, at national governors’ races, at that next North Star. As a strategist, as a business owner, as a warrior fighting for a better future, it has to be.