She Ran for Congress and Lost. Now, She's Teaching Girls How to Be Brave

She Ran for Congress and Lost. Now, She's Teaching Girls How to Be Brave

Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, accepts the Diversity Advocate Award at the 34th annual Walter Kaitz Foundation Fundraising Dinner on Sept. 27, 2017, in New York City.

SourceLarry Busacca/Getty
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Why you should care

Because failure is a steppingstone to great success (and more girls need to learn that).

The 2018 RBC GranFondo Silicon Valley is a new long-distance cycling event in the heart of the Bay Area. It’s not too late to register for the event, which takes place on June 23.

“I worry about our bravery deficit,” Reshma Saujani, founder of the nonprofit Girls Who Code, told an audience in a 2016 TED Talk that has been watched nearly 4 million times since. “We’re raising our girls to be perfect, and we’re raising our boys to be brave.”

Saujani is courageous herself. At 33, she quit her job and used up her savings to run against a long-standing Democrat in New York’s 12th Congressional District in 2010. She was the first Indian-American woman to run for U.S. Congress. After a grueling campaign, she lost. “It lit a fire in me,” she recalls. “I realized that learning to be brave was about doing things that scare you, and leaving perfect behind.”

After the campaign, she did another brave thing: In 2012, she launched Girls Who Code, to close the gender gap in tech. The idea came while Saujani was on the campaign trail. When she visited schools, she noticed how few girls were in the computer science classrooms. Though she didn’t have coding experience herself, the realization stuck with her. Her research showed that fewer than 20 percent of computer science graduates are women. “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,” she says.

She’s never wavered in her belief that we can actually close the gender gap. She’s rabid about stamping out inequity.

Tarika Barrett, vice president of programs, Girls Who Code

Today, Girls Who Code has reached approximately 90,000 girls in the U.S. and beyond, and its alumni are choosing to major in computer science or related fields at 15 times the national rate. In 2016, Saujani was named one of the “world’s greatest leaders” by Fortune. “I encourage everyone on my team to set goals they might not reach, to try new things that might not work, to stop worrying about perfection,” she says. “Learning to code involves a whole lot of failure — and through that, [you] learn how to be brave.”

The daughter of refugees, Saujani grew up in Chicago. Her Indian parents, who were born and raised in Africa, worked as engineers in Uganda during dictator Idi Amin’s reign. In the early 1970s, Amin expelled all Indians from Uganda. Saujani’s parents had 90 days to pack up everything and leave. They ended up settling in Chicago, where her mother worked as a cosmetics saleswoman and her father as a factory machinist. Saujani graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in political science, earned her master’s in public policy at Harvard and then attended Yale Law School. After law school, she worked at the firm Davis Polk & Wardwell, often handling asylum cases pro bono. She then worked at a number of financial firms on Wall Street before her run for Congress.

At Girls Who Code, Saujani is always looking for new ways to reach girls. The organization offers after-school clubs, a summer immersion program and a two-week campus program. Saujani spearheaded a book series about a group of girls who code that’s been on The New York Times best-seller list. She’s writing a book titled Brave, Not Perfect and hosts a podcast where she interviews change-makers. Staff members work on policy agendas and new curricula for schools.

Another way she’s trying to spread the message is through events, like through the RBC GranFondo race in Silicon Valley this June. Girls Who Code is one of the main beneficiaries of the 75-mile cycling event, which is attracting entrepreneurs and cycling enthusiasts alike. The race starts in East Palo Alto, and weaves through redwoods at Purisima Creek, the ranches of Pescadero and the rugged coastline that hugs the Pacific Ocean.

“At any given moment, she’s cooking up the next big idea for the movement,” says Tarika Barrett, vice president of programs at Girls Who Code. “She’s never wavered in her belief that we can actually close the gender gap. She’s rabid about stamping out inequity. Many times she’s the only woman or brown person in the room. And that gets her fired up, because she’s like, ‘Where are our girls? Where are our girls of color? Why are they not a bigger part of the conversation?’”

The success stories of alumna are inspiring. Lucy and Maya, two 12-year-olds from New Jersey, created a website to teach kids in Flint, Michigan, about the unsafe drinking water. High school students Andrea Gonzales and Sophie Houser created a game called Tampon Run to combat the stigma of menstruation. After it went viral, they wrote a book about the experience called Girl Code. Graduate Trisha Prabhu netted a $100,000 investment on Shark Tank for her app called ReThink, designed to protect kids against cyberbullying. Other alumna are interning at IBM or as back-end engineers at Tumblr. Girls Who Code also partners with dozens of companies like RBC, Twitter, AT&T, Lyft, IBM and Amazon.

Saujani admits that one early struggle was convincing companies that a gender gap even existed. “The biggest roadblock was that nobody knew the gender gap in tech was even there,” she says. “We had to educate the public about the problem, and we’re still spreading the message that the gap is real, and that it’s a problem.”

Last year, Girls Who Code partnered with KKR, a private equity firm. “It’s a win-win situation,” says Ted Oberwager, who works in KKR’s technology, media and telecommunications division. “We can help Girls Who Code fulfill their mission, and our companies can benefit from the employee engagement and the access to diverse talent that Girls Who Code creates.”

Though they’ve made major progress in six years, Saujani knows there’s more to do. “For decades, television and movies have painted the picture of a coder as a dude in the basement, tapping away at the keys all alone,” she says. “Girls don’t see themselves in that — so we’re changing the image of what a coder looks like and does.”

OZYProvocateurs

People shaking up their fields, old dogs doing new tricks, and those who like to bring the ruckus.