By Lily Wolfson ’21 and Ryan Pelosky ’21
Reshma Saujani, the daughter of Indian immigrants from Uganda, launched her career as an attorney and activist. In 2010, she became the first Indian-American woman to run for United States Congress. She is also the author of two bestsellers: New York Times bestseller Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World and international bestseller Brave, Not Perfect. Her 2016 TED Talk, “Teach girls bravery, not perfection,” has over four million views and has piqued international dialogue about how the world raises young women, and she is the host of the podcast “Brave, Not Perfect.”
Saujani is a graduate of the University of Illinois, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Yale Law School. She is recognized on lists including Fortune 40 Under 40, Fortune World’s Greatest Leader, the WSJ Magazine Innovator, Fast Company 100 Most Creative People, and Forbes Most Powerful Women Changing the World. In 2018, she received the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education.
In 2012, Saujani founded Girls Who Code, a nonprofit tech organization that seeks to increase the number of women in computer science by teaching them the necessary technology skills to pursue careers in the 21st century. In 2019, Girls Who Code was named Most Innovative Non-Profit by Fast Company. Recently, as part of the Girls Who Code summer speaker series, she has spoken with Dr. Jill Biden. Hillary Clinton, and others.
The Iris: In your now-famous TED Talk, you discuss the importance of changing the way we raise our children, and girls in particular. Did your own upbringing and career path influence your perspective on the complex relationship between bravery and perfection in girls and young women?
Reshma Saujani: Yes. As a daughter of immigrants, I feel like I was raised to always play it safe. I was taught to be a good girl, get straight As. My dad always says, “You have three choices: you can either be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer.” So, when I got into politics, they were not excited about that at all. I was definitely raised to be a perfectionist, and certainly, a lot of it was getting another notch in your belt—going to an Ivy League school, working in finance, you know. I remember getting my first paycheck at Davis Polk; my parents framed it because they hadn’t seen so much money before. So, a lot of it was doing things I thought would make them feel happy and that their sacrifice was worth it. I finally found the courage to quit my job in my early 30s to run for office, and the biggest fear I had was calling my dad and telling him. I remember when I finally got the courage to tell him that I was quitting to run for office, he literally said to me, “Finally.” So I had put all of this expectation on what I thought that they wanted me to do, and it was killing me, but they realized how unhappy I was and that I wasn’t living out my destiny. And then, in some ways, what I say is they became an excuse for me not to be brave, and not to chase my dream, not to do the hard thing. Right?
Because oftentimes when you’re chasing your dream, that’s the harder choice, that’s the riskier choice—it’s easier to go to the schools you’re supposed to go to and do the sports you’re supposed to play and work at the places where you’re supposed to work, but it’s harder to do the risky thing.
TI: What was your experience in running for Congress? How did this lead you to start Girls Who Code? What else influenced you and pushed you to start Girls Who Code?
RS: When I ran, you know I always joke, “I did what Ocasio did, except she did it ten years later and won and I lost,” but when I ran in 2010, I was the only Democrat to primary another Democrat. Like, it was unheard of—not done. But I just didn’t know any better, meaning I was like, “I can’t believe the average age in Congress is 69, we need new blood, new, fresh thinking.” And I thought I’d meet literally every voter and shake every hand. I could not get any consultant to work for me—we had this hodge-podge team of folks that wanted to work on our campaign—I always joke that we raised $50,000 from Indian aunties that were just so happy an Indian girl was running because I was the first South Asian woman to run for office. I was just euphorically, blissfully ignorant of what I was doing. And, on election day, I swore I was going to win. I. Got. Crushed. I got, like, nineteen percent of the vote, I’d raised $1.4 million, I got John Legend to do not one, but two concerts for me. The next day, I knew that everybody was laughing at me. I was just humiliated.
But, the big thing I learned was that I wasn’t broken. Because I think that a lot of us think that if we try and we fail at something, that it will literally break us, and it’s that fear of not being able to pick yourself back up again that often encourages us to give up before we even try.
So, that revelation that, “Oh! I just did this really public thing, and I lost very spectacularly and very publicly, and I’m okay.” It was like a “Wow—what are the other things that I have convinced myself that I can’t do that I should go try and do.” It was the beginning of me living my life very differently, and one of those things was Girls Who Code. So, when I lost my race, I was like, “Okay, I loved that experience. I want to work in the public sector. I’m not going back to the private sector, so I’m going to have to suck it up and take the debt and be poor and just find my way.” The second thing I said was, “Of all the things I saw on the campaign trail, what’s the problem I want to solve?” And it was really about girls in technology because in 2010, Twitter was just starting to get hot, Facebook was picking up—this technology boom was happening in New York City, and it was a lot of guys, but not a lot of women and not a lot of girls in these computer science classes. So, I started off with Girls Who Code by just being really curious about that problem, like “Where are the girls in technology? Where are the women in technology? What could intervention look like?” I’m a big believer in having a side hustle, so for most of my life, I had a job and then a thing I was doing on the side. So, at every lunch and every dinner, I would meet with somebody—a computer science teacher or a policymaker or a student—and designed, basically, an intervention which became Girls Who Code, which was to have twenty young women in high school, put them in a classroom at a technology company and teach them how to code with the hopes that this would basically shift what they wanted to do in college and go on to major or minor in computer science. I always say, because I learned to be brave, not perfect, I didn’t bother to even learn how to code—I was just intellectually curious about this problem, and I had a passion for equity. And those were the two things that really drove me to start Girls Who Code.
TI: Within Girls Who Code, do you address race-related issues and socioeconomic disparities? If so, how?
RS: Very early on, I decided that half the girls we were going to teach were going to be under the poverty line, and half the girls we were going to teach were going to be Black and Latina. So, my theory of change is like, in a moment when we are so segregated as a country, that if you’re Black, you may have never met anybody who was South Asian before. If you’re rich, you may have never met anybody who was middle-class before, you know? We are not coming together. So I wanted to create these classrooms that brought together Black girls, brown girls, Asian girls, white girls, poor girls, rich girls, trans, gay, straight, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, all together because I believed—and still believe—that girls will change the world. We basically cultivated and crafted these classrooms that brought together girls from all walks of life. And, the magic that happens in that summer, and the sisterhood that’s built—that’s deeper than just learning how to code. Girls learn about bravery, and, quite frankly, I think that there’s just a lot of healing that happens in our classrooms. Since then, we’ve taught more than 300,000 girls—half were below the poverty line, half were Black and Latina. And, racial equity, social equity have been at the core of what we do. You know, for a lot of nonprofits, they’re either agnostic to race and socioeconomic status, or they’re just focused on a certain demographic. We just wanted to do things differently. We literally wanted to bring together girls from all walks of life but put the racial justice and social justice piece at the forefront. So, as we’re building a new program, as we’re thinking about solving problems, that’s the first question that we ask. Most of our energy and effort from a recruitment perspective is going and finding girls from title 1 schools and girls that are Black and brown and constantly thinking about how we build and serve programs that are built for them. So, for example, when COVID-19 happened, we had programs in 80 different companies—Facebook, Twitter, Sephora, Adobe, et cetera. And when technology companies shut down, we had to very quickly develop a virtual program. Right then, we said, “We’re going to do this.” We normally teach about 1,300 girls every summer. We said, “We’re going to teach 5,000 in our summer program, and we’re going to make sure half of them are under the poverty line and half of them are Black and Latina.” And we literally designed a program for many underserved girls who were getting WiFi in a Burger King parking lot, whose parents were essential workers, who were spending time taking care of another sibling, so they had very different environments. So, we had to develop a program that was going to be synchronous learning and asynchronous learning that was suited for them and was going to help them succeed. Because we saw what was happening during COVID-19—kids who didn’t have the ideal remote learning environment were simply just logging off. Many kids in our country were not thriving; they were just surviving. So we wanted to create an experience where the girls walked away and thrived.
TI: What are your hopes for the young women of Girls Who Code? What do you hope they take away from that sort of experience and community?
RS: I hope they change the world.
If you think about every big moment where we have been forced to look ourselves in the face—whether it’s climate change, whether it’s gun violence, whether it’s Black Lives Matter—they have been led by young people, and they have been led by many young women. I have no doubt that, with this generation, we are in good hands, and that girls are literally going to heal us and save us.
And so, my job is simply to give girls the tools to solve any problem that they want to solve, to give them the tools so that if they have an idea—if they want to find a cure to the Coronavirus, if they want to do something about climate change, if they want to build a game to teach people about slavery and the injustice of racism and police brutality—they have the tools to do that.
TI: Knowing all that you know now about our society and our world, what advice would you give to your seventeen-year-old self?
RS: Two things: obviously one, I would have told myself to be brave, not perfect. Basically, if I sucked at something, I would’ve leaned into it. I would have stopped trying to collect every single accolade. I would’ve done the hard things and loved doing them. I would’ve told that voice in my head that told me I wasn’t good enough or smart enough to just be quiet. I would’ve just tried to do that earlier in my life. But in this world—I’ve been talking to young people a lot about what my advice is for them, and Arundhati Roy had this amazing article about how the pandemic is simply a portal from the old world to the new world.
The new world, I believe, is going to be oriented toward justice and equity, and for the young people asking right now, “What should I do in this moment?” I feel like your calling is very clear: the adults in the room have left you a broken and divided country, and your mandate is to heal it—to literally save it.
So everything you’re doing, everything you’re thinking about,“Should I march? Should I not march?” should be about “What is my job, what is my obligation, what is my role to heal this country?”
Responses have been edited for clarity and concision.