Reshma Saujani, 45, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code — an international nonprofit organization working to close to the gender gap in technology — is on a mission to push herself and other young women to be brave, not perfect.
Saujani, who is also an author, wanted a career where she was giving back ever since she was a little girl. Her parents came to the United States as refugees from Uganda. Saujani grew up seeing how much her parents loved this country, and so she first pursued a career as an attorney and activist. She became the first Indian American woman to run for Congress in 2010. She later also ran for New York City public advocate in 2013. While she didn’t win election in these races, they inspired her to continue fighting for what is right and led her to form Girls Who Code.
“I wanted to build a movement,” said Saujani in an interview with The Indian Scene about how these moments which could be perceived as “failures” inspired her to do more. “Go big or go home.”
When Saujani first started, she was in completely new territory. She had never run a nonprofit or raised money in this way before. She also wasn’t independently wealthy and didn’t have famous friends. And, she wasn’t a coder.
“We think we have to be experts in something before we try,” said Saujani with regards to a trend she has noticed in women. She’s hoping to push those with big dreams — like her — to take that first step even if they don’t know how it’ll turn out.
“The antidote to perfectionism is bravery,” said Saujani who saw the gender divide, especially in technology, while she was on the campaign trail. It moved her and became the way she wanted to create change.
Through Girls Who Code, she focused on big ambitions — to teach one million girls by 2020. Now, while she has reached several million girls, she said that they have taught about three hundred thousand and that’s okay.
“It’s okay to set big goals, big visions… and to march toward it,” said Saujani.
Growing up Saujani said that she was ashamed of being Indian. She remembers life in a mostly white neighborhood, where she hated that her name stuck out. It took a schoolyard fight for her to start accepting her identity and embracing who she was. And now for almost two decades she has been orienting herself to “bravery at every turn.”
She makes an effort to talk about her own failures, insecurities, and imposter syndrome. She encourages young girls to take up more space, to learn to say no, to raise their hand before they know exactly what to say.
“I started a movement I didn’t know anything about… it’s a very male characteristic,” said Saujani who had to get up to speed on tech and running an organization of this scope when she started Girls Who Code. “I’ve been on a mission to teach some of those strategies.”
The pandemic has shifted her work a bit, but it has also shown her how large the digital divide is.
“It’s a shame on us that, you know, we have kids getting Wi-fi in a Burger King parking lot,” said Saujani and that “millions of kids don’t have devices after all this time.” In addition to technological difficulties — like lack of access to high speed internet — she has seen how burdened moms have been during the pandemic, with almost two million moms having left the job market.
“They’re the ones who have to log on their kids, they’re the ones who have to make sure they learn how to read and write, and so all of this has fallen on mothers who are the chefs, who are the cleaners, the cooks, the teachers… the mental health counselors, and no one has thought about us,” said Saujani.
Saujani has called for a Marshall Plan for moms, a basic income payout. “Because,” she said, “you don’t value what you don’t pay for.” She reiterated that once the vaccine is out, we have to plan for remediation — how to get women on the same track as they were before COVID-19.
During the coronavirus pandemic, she has especially seen a huge exodus of women in senior ranks and leadership positions within organizations. She’s worried this will have ripple effects for young girls.
“You cannot be what you cannot see,” said Saujani.
Saujani, who currently lives in New York City, makes it a point to take her kids along to interviews and events when she can. When she spoke at the women’s march in 2016, her son Shaan was on her hip.
“He marched with me and made a sign,” said Saujani. As a parent, she is trying to show him what it means to protest and fight for change from a young age. “This is a home of resistance.”
She also wants others to see that balancing life, family, kids, and career is messy, but possible. When she was interviewed on Trevor Noah’s show, she took both her children, including her youngest, Sai, who was 10 months old at the time. She said that part of it was for her children, and part of it was so young women could see that they don’t have to choose between career and family, but that it is okay for it to be messy.
When Saujani thinks about her guiding force, or dharma, she said she’s always known she’s wanted to do something to make the world a better place. Looking back, she has some advice for a younger version of herself.
“I thought I had to credentialize,” said Saujani about the time she spent trying to build up notches and credibility, instead of listening to her heart. “I would say to not give up before you try and to fail fast.”