Why Reshma Saujani, The Founder Of Girls Who Code, Believes Brave Is Better Than Perfect
Girls Who Code’s mission is clear and focused: to close the gender gap in technology. And with its fearless founder and CEO, Reshma Saujani, at the helm, it’s already creating a major ripple effect in the tech industry. We are thrilled to welcome Saujani as a Keynote Speaker at our #movethedial Global Summit this November 7th, especially since Girls Who Code’s mission is perfectly aligned with that of #movethedial. As Saujani says, quoting the famous activist Marian Wright Edelman, "You can't be what you can't see."
Since it 2012 launch, Girls Who Code has become a movement, on track to achieve gender parity in computer science by 2027 — “moving the dial” for almost 90,000 girls in tech. And it’s only the beginning.
Saujani is used to making positive waves: she began her career as an attorney and activist, and in 2010 she surged onto the political scene as the first Indian American woman to run for U.S. Congress. The idea for Girls Who Code stemmed from seeing the gender gap in computing classes while visiting local schools during the campaign trail. On the political front, Saujani has also served as Deputy Public Advocate for New York City and ran a spirited campaign for Public Advocate in 2013.
This past International Day of the Girl, Girls Who Code launched a new campaign and digital visual album, fittingly titled “Sisterh>>d” (pronounced “sisterhood”), which is a celebration of “modern sisterhood.”
We spoke with the trailblazing Saujani about why it’s more important to be brave rather than perfect (the premise of her upcoming book), the message of the “Sisterh>>d” digital visual album, how to challenge the status quo, and the big #movethedial moment that impacted Saujani and Girls Who Code.
What led you to launch Girls Who Code?
When I ran for Congress in 2010, I visited schools and classrooms along the campaign trail. And when I lost, something about my time visiting those schools stuck with me: the lack of girls in computer science classrooms. After doing more research, I realized that no one was even talking about the lack of women and girls in computer science. So I pulled together some funding and a team, and together we taught 20 girls how to code in a tiny bit of borrowed office space. And now, six years later, we’ve reached 90,000 girls, and we’re not slowing down. We’re well on our way to reaching gender parity in entry-level tech jobs by 2027. I never could have imagined seeing this kind of success so soon — our college-aged alumni are choosing to major in computer science or related fields at 15 times the national rate — and I’m so excited to see what’s next.
Tell us about your upcoming book, Brave, Not Perfect (which is set for release in February 2019).
A few years ago, I gave a TED Talk about the fact that we, as a society, tend to teach boys to be brave, and girls to be perfect. While girls might excel in the classroom, it’s our boys we’re seeing in the boardroom. And that’s because the real world rewards risk-takers and bold decision makers. We need to teach girls that it’s okay to dream big, to make mistakes, to fail. I want to unlock the power and potential of girls to change the world: and that starts with teaching bravery. Brave, Not Perfect is a field guide to kick-starting your bravery muscle: and learning how to break free from the trap of perfection. Because while chasing perfection may set us on a path that feels safe, it's bravery that leads us to the one we're authentically meant to follow. Bravery gives us the power to claim our voice, to leave behind what makes us unhappy, and go for what sparks in our souls. By being brave, not perfect, we can all become the authors of our biggest, boldest, and most joyful life.
What does bravery mean to you? Can you be a "nice girl" and still try to challenge the status quo?
To me, bravery is about embracing imperfection. And that has nothing to do with being nice or being a mean girl. Being a “nice girl” shouldn’t mean you have to say yes to every request or turn down the things that put you in the spotlight. Women deserve the chance to shine, to be bold, and that comes from learning to be brave.
We love the new campaign for Girls Who Code, "Sisterh>>d", featuring a remake of "Ooh, Child." Can you tell us how it came to be?
Our girls are incredible: they are brilliant, resilient and persistent. They are the future, and part of our work is helping them realize that. We decided to use this International Day of the Girl to do just that: support and celebrate our girls and girl changemakers around the world.
And why did you decide to use "Sisterhood" as the tagline?
Sisterhood is one of our core values at Girls Who Code and it’s an essential part of building up our pipeline of girls in tech. Sisterhood gives girls a community, and reminds them that they don’t have to do things alone. We landed on Sisterhood when we realized that we wanted the world to know that, together, our girls are unstoppable.
Why was the casting so important?
We know that our girls come from every walk of life and that every girl is capable of changing the world. We have a club in Florida for girls with autism and learning disabilities, and a club in Massachusetts that serves girls who are homeless. We wanted to celebrate them, and that meant celebrating every girl: including trans girls, girls with disabilities, and girls of every color and size. You can’t be what you can’t see, so we made sure that every girl might be able to see herself in our movement of Sisterhood.
What are some concrete steps that society can take to #movethedial for young girls, and decrease the gender gap in technology?
First, we need to ensure that girls not only have access to computer science education, but feel welcomed into the space. Girls Who Code has found that our gender-specific spaces work best to make sure that girls feel like they belong and that tech is for them. We tie computer science to projects that matter for girls — we always say that when you teach a girl to code she’ll change the world — so we give them the chance to get started in their clubs! It’s also important to ensure that girls stay in the pipeline; we’re doing this with our brand-new College Loops program. Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and CS-related majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That goes for both men and women, but women start out so far behind that they can’t regain the ground. We need to ensure that college women have a sisterhood they can rely upon and a network that acts as a support system.
What is your mantra in the face of challenges?
Always, always, Brave, Not Perfect. There have been so many moments in my life where I wanted to take the easy way out, to back down when failure seemed imminent. But when I take the chance to be bold and to exercise my bravery muscle, failure doesn’t hurt nearly so much as I expect it would: and sometimes, things even go right. We’ll never be able to make a difference and change the world unless we’re brave, so I practice bravery every single day.
Tell us about a #movethedial moment in your life, where someone made a huge impact in your career and helped you.
When I was first starting out with the idea of Girls Who Code, I asked as many people as I could think of for help. Help with brainstorming, help with funding, and help with shaping the idea into something that could really change the world. When I went to my friend Brian O’Kelley, then the CEO of AppNexus, he offered me something I never realized would be so important: space.
We held our very first Girls Who Code program in his conference room, and six years later, our New York office is still based out of his space. Thanks to him, we’ve been able to change the lives of nearly 100,000 girls nationwide. Sometimes those unexpected gifts can be the ones that impact you the most!
Guest writer: Karin Eldor, Senior Contributor for Women @ Forbes, and content writer for Shopify