Deskside

Reshma Saujani

Founder, Girls Who Code. New York.

By: Noah Lehava
Photography:

T.Swift may have wrangled together practically every Insta-girl worth her million+ following (you know, and Olivia Benson) for her overly CGI’d music video, but when it comes to IRL #girlsquads, Reshma Saujani has created the ultimate. As in, her #squad of aspiring teen coders, who, because of Saujani’s Girls Who Code 10-week summer program, are essentially destined for world domination. Seriously. It all goes back (and it still very much exists) to the legitimate deficit of women who work in the tech industry, a field often associated with a Redbull-swiging, hoodie-wearing boys club. But like we said, Saujani set out to change all that (even leaving a political career to pursue the cause) and with Google and Twitter (to name a few) execs backing her initiative, she’s already inspired over 10K (and counting) girls across 34 states to enroll in computer science and engineer programs. Like we said, Saujani is a big deal, so we got her talking about how her political background helped her develop an effective program, bootstrapping it at the beginning, embracing failure, and why her job isn’t done just yet.

 

ON WHAT MADE HER DECIDE TO START GIRLS WHO CODE:


“I’m kind of a unique person, or a strange person to start an organization called Girls Who Code—I’m not a coder, I didn’t major in Computer Science, but I’m a deep believer in women and girls and economic equity. When I was running for office, I saw the gender divide in schools and the question of where are the girls lead me to form Girls Who Code. There are 1.4 million jobs that are open in the computer science technology-related field but less than 3% of them are going to be filled by women. 20-30 years ago almost half, 40% of all computer science graduates were women and today that number is 3%, so you’ve had this dramatic decline of women in the tech field at a time when we are becoming so much more digitally advanced. Tech is such a huge part of what we do, so I want to figure out why that’s happening—that’s what really inspired me to start Girls Who Code.”

 

ON HOW STARTING GIRLS WHO CODE WAS SIMILAR TO HER POLITICAL EXPERIENCE:


“In many ways it felt a little bit like starting a campaign. I spent about a year and a half just doing a lot of research and talking to a lot of people, understanding what the problem was and if we were going to create a solution, what would that look like. So it became clear to me that it was a summer program and it should be eight weeks long, that it was everyday and should be girls only. It was important to be in a tech company because you can really change girls impressions of computer science by walking into a Google and seeing what it’s like to work there everyday. Then I was reaching out to a network of friends saying, ‘you know, I’m trying to start an organization,’ and have them connect me to people that they knew at companies. A lot of it was just bootstrapping it. I found a friend to lend me his conference room to host my first program and I looked to see if girlswhocode.com was available and bought it on my credit card. It’s like anything that you start in the beginning; it’s very friends and family and it’s very much like bootstrapping it.”

 

ON HOW SHE GOT THE ATTENTION OF GOOGLE, TWITTER AND EBAY:


“For the first year and a half it was about what is it, and what’s the problem that I’m trying to solve and piecing that together. Once it became clear that it was a summer program in a tech company for seven weeks and it was 20 girls, I had to recruit the tech company, recruit the 20 girls and then raise the money. So many of our initial successes were getting some big company involved. I was at a conference sitting next to the guy who ran community affairs at Google—I didn’t even know that— and he was like, ‘what are you working on,’ and I was like, ‘I’m trying to teach girls how to code.’ He happened to be in the position to give out small grants from Google and gave me one. Then being able to go to other companies and say, ‘I have Google on board,’ was huge. The same thing happened with the CMO of eBay, Richelle Parham. I sent an email [out] saying I was raising money; one of the youngest female engineers at Twitter, Sara Haider, got that email and brought that to Dick Costolo and Dick had me fly out to Twitter a few weeks later to pitch him on the idea. I think it was the right idea at the right time and it just made sense to people.”

 

ON HOW GIRLS WHO CODE IS CHANGING CURRENT CULTURE IN THE TECH SPHERE:


“I think it’s very deeply cultural; since the '80s, we’ve really marketed the personal computer to boys, we’ve created this myth that you have to be wearing a hoodie, not shower and drink Redbull. Girls are like ‘I don’t want to do that.’ There are also no role models for girls on television or the media and a lot of girls just don’t know what a computer scientist is or what he or she could do. I think that for years we’ve just been pushing girls towards the liberal arts and pushing them away from the sciences, so we’re turning that on it’s head. Our contribution to solving the problem is we are literally producing the next generation of software professional. 90% of our graduates, about 10,000 girls in over 34 states, by the end of this year, are intending to major or minor in computer science. In the next 10 years or so, we alone could create parity amongst men and women in the computer science and engineering fields.”

 

ON THE BIGGEST PERK OF THE JOB:


“That I get to hang around with teenage girls. I’m incredibly blessed and I tell them that all the time. I mean, they’re amazing! They’re fearless and resilient and smart and beautiful. I was just sitting with one of the girls right now and she’s built a game called Harriet Tubman 2.0—it’s a game to teach people about slavery. Like that’s unreal. Every summer I go visit all our summer programs—I’ve gone to Seattle, LA, San Francisco, New York, Newark and DC and they’re just incredible. I always say our future is in good hands; these girls are change agents, they’re building a sisterhood and they’re literally going take over tech. I feel like girl domination is in our future.”

 

ON HER TYPICAL DAY:


“I don’t think I have a typical day but I just had a baby, so my day starts really early, probably around 5:30 when he wakes up. I spend the first hour and a half of my day with him. I try to run to the gym when I can and then I’m basically in meetings and calls. I’m probably giving a talk or two every week, raising money. I spend a lot of time with my team, I’m very much in the weave of running Girls Who Code on a day to day basis.”

 

ON NEVER REALLY FINDING THE PERFECT WORK/LIFE BALANCE (AND BEING OKAY WITH IT):


“I don’t think it exists—I definitely don’t have it right now. I think that that’s a myth. Right now I’m leaning in hard to work and to motherhood. I think the sacrifice is my own personal sanity. I’m not getting to exercise as much as I want, I’m not getting to meditate as much as I want, I’m not getting enough sleep, I’m not spending enough time with my girlfriends. I think at any given time something is going to give and that’s okay, because next week I’m taking a week off. You’re never going to have full balance at any one time, something’s always going to give.”

 

ON THE BEST ADVICE SHE EVER RECEIVED:

“Fail and fail hard, fail often, fail bad. I’m a big believer in failure and rejection and risk taking. That’s the advice I give to girls, too, who want to change the world. I was a girl who didn’t code, who started an organization called Girls Who Code—I have to be someone who could take a big risk to do something like that.”

 

ON THE BEST ADVICE SHE CAN PASS ON:


“I love Mondays because I love my job. I often say to girls, think about how you want to spend your day and then figure out what you're truly passionate about and then you’ll find the right gig. It’s really important to have a thick skin. I had a lot of challenges in my personal life and in my professional life. I think from a really young age—my parents came as refugees, I grew up as one of the few immigrant girls—I had a lot of strife but it made me really strong. Now nothing can break me. Sometimes with young women, they’re not used to that and so they don’t get into college or maybe something bad happens, and it breaks them. If you build a thick skin and you build a ton of resilience, anything is possible.”

 

ON WHAT INSPIRES HER:


“The girls, they really do. I mean, that generation, they’re amazing! I just think that the world is going to look radically different in the next 10-15 years because of them, because of young women all across the world and all across the globe.”

 

ON WHAT’S NEXT:


“World domination. We’re just going to scale and grow and grow and really start building our network, which is really important to me. Making sure that we’re teaching girls not only to help them start their companies and help them get internships at places like Facebook and Twitter, to help them think about their next business idea, to get them ready and prepared to be technologists and change agents.”

 

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