In 2017, a question gnawed at Lori Trahan.
A business consultant, she remembers often being the only woman in a boardroom. She was hired by Uber to help gauge how it could get female drivers involved. (She ended up driving an Uber herself for months as research.) And with President Trump’s 2016 election — and Congress’s dismal share of female representation — it again came into focus.
“Why,” she asked herself, “aren’t there more women running?”
Then an answer hit her — an aha moment plucked from a movie script — when a congresswoman, her congresswoman, announced she would retire.
“I never had a moment in my life that was more clear,” Trahan said of now-former representative Niki Tsongas’ August 2017 announcement that she wouldn’t seek re-election. Trahan, in Seattle to visit a client, immediately called her husband, Dave.
“This,” she told him, “is what I’m supposed to do.”
She’s now part of a historic wave of diversity in Congress, and one of a record-high four women sworn in Thursday to represent Massachusetts. It’s a group defined by Elizabeth Warren’s star power, Ayanna Pressley’s history-making entrance, and Katherine Clark’s rising profile.
Trahan, who emerged from a 10-Democrat primary by a mere 145 votes, may be the most inconspicuous among them. Amid an era of political fire-breathers, she’s guided by pragmatism, said friends and colleagues. As progressives call for blood, she hews to moderation, in politics and tone.
But to those who know her best, the 45-year-old is a scrappy overachiever, with energy to burn. She worked two jobs as a teenager, earned a Division I scholarship in a sport she never played before high school, and cut her teeth on Capitol Hill as an aide known for problem-solving.
“She’s a workhorse,” said former US representative Martin T. Meehan, Trahan’s boss for nearly a decade. The moment — and the Democrats’ control of the House — should only elevate her, he said. “There’s more women serving in Congress than in any period in our history. There are more women in our delegation than in any period. I think that makes Lori more effective.”
A product of Lowell, Trahan grew up in a Highlands neighborhood tightly packed with two-story Colonial homes and modest ranches. Her evenings as a youth were spent racing her father, Tony Loureiro, an ironworker, a mile at a time at a local track.
He never let her win, reminding her: “When you cross that finish line, you don’t leave an extra breath in your lungs.” It wasn’t until the eighth grade that she finally beat him.
“You’d think I just won the Olympics,” Trahan said in an interview.
At dinner time, the competition wouldn’t stop. If she and her three sisters offered little about their day, her father would instruct them to grab that day’s edition of The Lowell Sun, read the front page, and report back to the table.
Trahan, the second-oldest, would revel in playing devil’s advocate during those debates, even when her family chided her for not believing the view she was pushing.
Her mother, Linda Loureiro, chuckled at the memory. “She’ll be good at being bipartisan,” she said.
In high school, Trahan juggled school, a summer job with the city, and weekend shifts at the Owl Diner, a venerable eatery known for its omelettes (Trahan recommends the “Merrimack St.” a ham-and-cheese special) and for being a popular campaign stop in election season. The 6-foot Trahan easily stood out. She was the “tall one” to customers as she bounded through the low-slung doorway separating the lunch car and dining room that constituted the restaurant.
“She had a hard time getting in the door,” joked Tom Shanahan, the diner owner.
That height, and hustle, went to good use. After picking up volleyball as a freshman, the middle hitter caught on with a club team, requiring her to travel twice a week to train in Quincy. That meant many nights grabbing a commuter train from Lowell to Boston’s North Station, an MBTA subway to Quincy, and walking from there.
She ultimately caught the eye of coaches at Georgetown University, where she was a four-year letter winner and earned a degree from its School of Foreign Service.
Ahead of her, she thought, was a State Department career and world travel. But her college years were also marked by her father’s uncertain health. He was experiencing limping, inexplicable tingling, and numbness. When he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1994, it jolted the family.
Tony and Linda implored their daughters not to let the disease disrupt their lives. “I’m not going to make this a problem until it’s an issue,” Tony told them. But for Trahan, the decision was clear: Even with no clear job prospects, she moved back to Lowell after graduation.
“I think that was a defining moment,” said Amy Meier Foundos, Trahan’s teammate at Georgetown and a close friend. “I remember when he was first diagnosed, Lori was kind of on the edge. We had both finished our degrees. Everybody was young, trying to figure out what to do. And she knew she had to go home.”
Any uncertainty about her next step quickly evaporated. That summer, Trahan landed a position at Spindle City Corps, which connects Lowell’s youth with community service projects, and it quickly set her on her next path. Housed in the same Lowell office building was Meehan’s district office.
By fall, Trahan joined Meehan’s Washington, D.C., office as a scheduler. Over the next decade, she helped direct community outreach in Massachusetts, helped Meehan’s campaign fund-raise, and after a stint in the Massachusetts treasurer’s office, returned as Meehan’s chief of staff for 14 months, between 2004 and 2005.
“Lori is the person I remember calling when you don’t know what to do next,” said Shilpa Phadke, who also worked under Meehan and now is vice president for the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Be it researching complicated legislation or trying to build supportive coalitions, Phadke said, she would turn to Trahan.
Trahan, though, said she didn’t view the job then as a steppingstone to running for office. She often talked about entering the private sector, colleagues say, and she liked the idea of running a sales team.
“I always saw her as a CEO-type,” said Meehan.
She eventually became one. She moved from Meehan’s office to ChoiceStream, an advertising tech firm where Trahan held a variety of roles, including chief revenue officer. She entered with zero tech experience, but Steve Johnson, the former CEO, said that after hiring her with a friend’s reference, it didn’t take long for Trahan to jump-start what was a small startup of seven people — “about 15 minutes after she starting working for me,” he said.
She eventually left to join Concire Leadership Institute, a consulting firm whose founders credit her for helping launchit years earlier in an informal role. They said they later gave up their controlling interests in the company, making Trahan owner and CEO. Trahan closed the company on Dec. 31, according to an adviser.
She would plunge into companies, sometimes as a “mystery customer” to mine how they could improve service. That included Uber, who hired the firm in 2016 to study how the ride-sharing company could better attract more female drivers. Trahan spent months as a driver, criss-crossing Route 3 to pick up customers.
By the time Trump claimed victory in 2016, Trahan, like many women across the country, was looking anew at how they could influence the country’s direction.
Trahan had laughed off the idea of public office before. Roberta Emerson, a longtime childhood friend, had once prodded her to run for Lowell City Council after they graduated from high school in 1991.
“She would look at me as if to say, ‘You’re nuts,’ ” Emerson said. More than 25 years later, she was among those holding signs for Trahan as she ran — and won — in the Third District.
“I’ve shifted directions in my life a couple times. Most times, I’m 80 percent sure this is a good move,” Trahan said. But that doubt wasn’t there this time, replaced by the weight of the moment, the opportunity. Sitting inside her Westford home recently, she also cited her daughters: Grace, 8, and Caroline, 4, the latter playfully circling a nearby coffee table.
“I think it’s showing the girls that when the world’s on fire, you grab a hose and get in.”