The founder of Girls Who Code: “When you get a taste for being brave, it’s hard to stop”

The founder of Girls Who Code: “When you get a taste for being brave, it’s hard to stop”
Image: Adrian Kinloch
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If there’s any career advice that’s become more than a little trite, it’s telling young people to “embrace failure.” However, the polished Silicon Valley types who tout this wisdom usually have a strong safety net and a deep network to rely on.

That’s what makes Reshma Saujani so refreshing. As the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, Saujani has given free computer-science education to over 40,000 young women in all 50 US states. She’s delivered speeches at the White House, is a mentee of Hilary Clinton, and can text Sheryl Sandberg on a whim. Hers sounds like another out-of-touch success story.

Not so. The story of Saujani’s career is largely riddled with anxiety and unfulfilled dreams. She spent years obsessing over her desire to go to Yale Law School, applying and getting rejected three times in a row. She was the first Indian-American woman to run for Congress, and she lost miserably. She ran again, and lost again. Amidst these failures, she noticed something: While campaigning for New York City public advocate, she saw public-school computer rooms packed with boys, not girls. Despite having no tech experience, she ditched law and started teaching girls to code.

In an interview with Quartz, Saujani lets us in on the incidents that taught her to prioritize bravery over accolades, the concession speech that altered her career, and the merit of team dinners.

1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?

We need to start focusing on bravery over perfection. We’re raising our girls to be perfect, and we’re raising our boys to be brave. Most girls are taught to avoid failure and risk. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to play rough and swing high. By the time boys are adults, whether they’re negotiating a raise or even asking someone out on a date, they’ve been habituated to take risk after risk. And they’re rewarded for it. It’s often said in Silicon Valley that no one even takes you seriously unless you’ve had two failed startups. Our economy—our society—is losing out because we’re not raising our girls to be brave. The bravery deficit is the reason why women are underrepresented in STEM, in C­-suites, in boardrooms, in Congress, and pretty much everywhere else you look.

2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?

I’m the daughter of refugees. The immigrant mentality is to work hard, be brave, and never give up in your pursuit of achieving the American dream. Being brave is what led to three rejections from Yale Law School before being accepted. It led to losing my 2010 race for US Congress, and another failed bid for public office in 2013, this time for public advocate of New York City. Being brave, regardless of the outcome, is what ultimately led me to start Girls Who Code and what allowed me to do a TED talk on the topic.

3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?

Tech jobs are the future of work, and we know that women are filling fewer of those jobs than ever before. This is a huge problem for our economy, but also for our families. Forty percent of women are the primary breadwinners for their families, and leaving women out of tech jobs means leaving families out of the middle class. We need policymakers to keep an eye on gender and write policies that are explicitly designed to include underserved populations like girls in computer-science courses.

4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?

I would tell myself to be braver and to worry less about perfection. For years I had one obsession: get into Yale Law School. I finished college in three years, took the LSAT, and applied to my dream school. And… I didn’t get in. So I went to Harvard to study public policy, and the next year I applied to Yale again. And I didn’t get in… again. That should have been it. I should have just gone out to change the world, but I couldn’t shake the idea of needing that one perfect credential: a degree from Yale Law. I accepted admission to Georgetown, and I crushed it. And that fall, I transferred to Yale. But when I graduated, I didn’t end up doing the work I always wanted to do. I couldn’t resist the pull of the next perfect credential. I didn’t realize then that having that perfect résumé wasn’t what I needed—that I had to just get out there and do it. All that time I spent chasing Yale was time I could have been using to actually make a difference in the world. Bravery, not perfection, was the key that unlocked all the doors I’ve walked through since.

5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?

In 2010, I quit my job and I decided to run for Congress. And then I lost. Badly. Three years later, I ran for New York City public advocate and lost again. Less badly. But still… pretty badly. I won’t lie­­, it hurt. But it was also amazing. Not being perfect was liberating. And chasing my dream, not a credential, was the best decision I ever made.

It turns out when you get a taste for being brave, it’s hard to stop. It’s kind of a rush. And that’s how I started Girls Who Code. During my first campaign, I visited a lot of New York City public schools where I saw computer labs full of boys learning to code. No girls in sight. That pissed me off, and I wanted to do something about it. But this time, I didn’t ask anyone for permission. I didn’t wait until I had the perfect credential. I didn’t even bother to learn how to code. I just went for it. I called up a friend who leant me some office space, and that summer we brought 20 girls from New York City together for seven weeks and taught them how to code. Five years later, we’ve taught 40,000 girls in all 50 states—effectively quadrupling the talent pipeline.

6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?

I try to make sure to always stay in touch with my team with things like monthly dinners, text check-ins for updates, and asking how it’s going.

7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

In 2008, when I watched Hillary Clinton give her first concession speech, she said something that resonated with me: She said just because she had come up short, that didn’t mean women should be discouraged from aiming high. That’s when it all clicked. All those years of working and waiting for a credential—that wasn’t aiming high. That was aiming low.

8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…

Be an ally! One time I walked into a Girls Who Code club and saw something I didn’t expect: men. So I asked them what they were doing, and they told me that they were the male allies group! Every time they noticed that the women were being ignored or put down, they made it their job to stand up for them. And that’s what men can do for women in the workplace: They can support them, and they can make sure that their voices and ideas are heard.

Bonus Questions:

The mountain I’m willing to die on… is that we can close the gender gap in tech.

I wish people would stop telling me… that I’m too ambitious.

Everyone should own… a pair of Adidas slides (preferably gold)!

This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.