Reshma Saujani will tell anyone that her life has been full of failure. She applied to Yale Law School three times before she was accepted. She has lost two huge New York City primary elections in the last four years. And she constantly aspires to try things that she may not be able to accomplish.
In many ways, she compares it to a coder’s journey in trial and error. When trying to create a sequence or build an algorithm, they try, fail, try again—until they solve the problem at hand.
“You must have the resilience to stick with it until you get it right, and that feeling when you eventually do is so powerful,” Saujani said. “I think it makes you feel like you can do anything.”
But truthfully, Saujani isn’t an image of failure at all. She’s a risk-taker, and she’s succeeded at something incredibly important and timely: creating a movement of empowerment for women in technology.
Saujani, the former New York City Deputy Public Advocate, is the founder of Girls Who Code, a non-profit organization that works to inspire, educate, and equip girls for careers in computer science. Its Summer Immersion Program, offered in nine cities around the country, is a seven-week course that focuses on three main aspects: skills, exposure, and mentorship. Instruction ranges from basic computer science fundamentals to robotics, web design, algorithms, and mobile development. Girls are also encouraged to start Girls Who Code clubs in their own schools.
Listening to Saujani talk about these young girls making huge strides in computer science, it becomes obvious nothing inspires her more. She understands their struggle to find an interest in this field. Saujani herself was “terrified of math and science,” she said. Her parents were political refugees, expelled from Uganda in the 1970s because of their Indian descent.
They moved to a small town in Illinois, where they were one of the only Indian families. She graduated from the University of Illinois, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and eventually Yale Law School. In a family of engineers, Saujani was the first one to pursue a liberal arts degree, but was inspired by the challenges her parents survived. She wanted to be a change agent, a policymaker.
Saujani has been named one of Forbes’ Most Powerful Women Changing the World, Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People, Ad Age’s Creativity 50, and Business Insider’s 50 Women Who Are Changing the World. She was the first Indian American woman (and South Asian woman) to run for U.S. Congress.
“I feel very blessed, because my parents literally escaped with their lives and got a chance to come to this country and have a chance at a life,” she said. “I was given that gift and I feel obligated to try to give it back every day.”
The seed for Girls Who Code was planted when Saujani ran for Congress and saw very few girls had access to technology education, no matter the neighborhood. There were schools in New York City with robotics labs full of boys, and others where girls were struggling to find a computer or a teacher who could teach them to use one.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings by 2020. To reach gender parity by that time, women must fill half of them. Saujani saw this massive gap, and created Girls Who Code to close it.
“These things [the girls] have built, they are things that make their communities better,” she said. “We have learned that there’s not an aptitude issue, it’s about the fact that girls want to change the world, and don’t see computer science as a means to do that.”
To Saujani, gender equity in technology is the most important domestic issue of our time, and she is determined to affect change in it. Her book, Women Who Don’t Wait in Line, is about women’s aversion to risk and failure holding them back in the workplace. Saujani struggled with it herself for many years.
“I felt like I had to do the job before I applied to the job,” she said. “We are terrified of taking risks and we need to change that.”
Breaking through those barriers means elevating each other through a sisterhood where women hire each other, vote for each other, lift each other up, Saujani said. That movement is beginning to gain momentum. Girls Who Code is now one of many women in tech organizations. All over the globe, there are resources for computer science education, including Black Girls Code, Girls Teaching Girls to Code, Girl Develop It, and Women Who Code. There are also grassroots chapters of many of these organizations, which offer local meetups, classes, clubs, and general support systems for women interested in coding education in various cities around the world.
“I love women’s issues,” Saujani said. “The plight of women in equity is every part of my life. I love having experiences and being able to share my failures with other women, by talking about it authentically.”
In her own words…
What is your biggest advice for aspiring tech leaders?
“For girls in our program, I tell them to pay it forward. The only way we can build a movement is if we take each other’s destiny in one another’s hand.”
What is your favorite thing to cook?
“I don’t cook. My husband does all of that stuff, but I do like to bake when I am in that mood.”
How do you unplug?
“I’m a voracious reader. I love to read. I love my dog, Stanley. I try to write in my journal and meditate for three minutes a day. Coming off of three years of intense campaigning, it’s nice to just be able to pay attention to the sounds on New York streets, take my dog for a walk. It’s the little things in life that I have been able to enjoy the past couple months. “