When Reshma Saujani looks at the US Capitol from a building across the street, it reminds her of a story she cites often, about how she ran a primary bid for Congress in 2010 against a Democratic incumbent in New York City and lost. The Girls Who Code founder and CEO recounts the defeat in her 2019 book Brave, Not Perfect in the speech I’ve just heard her give, in her 2016 TED Talk, in casual conversation. It’s no wonder, because Saujani traces so much of what she’s done in the years since to the moment when, at the age of 33, she walked away from a career in finance law to enter politics and try to do something she cared about.
“After I ran my race and I lost, I really started living my life like Cardi B — no fucks given,” Saujani says.
A decade after her political defeat, Saujani, now 43, is back in Washington — but not for another run at the House. She’s at the Library of Congress hosting about 60 high school girls and several congresswomen for an event sponsored by Girls Who Code, which she founded in 2012 as a way to help close the gender gap in technology. The nonprofit runs programs like after school clubs (there are about 6,000 nationwide) and immersion programs for girls in middle school and high school, focusing on them at a time that research shows they’re likely to lose interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The program has taught about 185,000 girls to code since its founding.
Saujani knew that she could make a difference with Girls Who Code given tech’s huge diversity problem. In 2014, when major technology companies started releasing diversity reports, the industry and the wider world got confirmation of something pretty much everyone already knew — the tech sector is dominated by white guys. None of the biggest names — Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft — have cracked 30% women in their technical workforces. Overall, the percentage of women employed in computing and mathematics stands at about 25 percent, according to the National Center for Women in Information & Technology. And if you want a breakdown of how many women of color are in that already low number, that stat’s not even guaranteed in those reports.
What’s more, the slow rate at which the percentage of women grows (perhaps a percentage point a year) troubles diversity advocates because jobs in computer science are some of the fastest growing and highest paying jobs in the US, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2015, the Obama administration reported that there were a half million open jobs in the US in that field. Meanwhile, there’s not enough computer science graduates (only about 18% of which are women) every year to fill them.
And as technologies like artificial intelligence burgeon, promising to change the way we live and work in the future, there’s a lack of diverse folks in the room helping shape them.
“If you have an inclusive, diverse workforce, [what you make] is going to reflect the needs of the people in the communities that we’re developing solutions for,” says Paul Daugherty, chief technology and information officer for IT consultancy Accenture and a Girls Who Code board member.
For Saujani, though, this effort isn’t just about putting bodies into chairs that happen to be female. She wants to fix something she thinks is fundamental to the way boys and girls are raised that contributes, at least in part, to why this disparity exists in the first place.
That’s why, when a Q&A portion of the morning’s event at the Library of Congress rolls around, and not a single girl in the room raises her hand to ask a question, Saujani, in her purple dress and red heels, calls them out. She says if there were boys there, their hands would have shot up.
“They don’t care about sounding stupid,” she tells them. “They demand their voice in the room.”
Finding a voice
Saujani learned to find her voice early. In August 1972, Idi Amin, the brutal dictator of Uganda, told the country’s approximately 60,000 Asian residents to get out in the next 90 days or be shot.
Ugandan Asians trace their origins to India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, with the British bringing people to Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century to work on projects including the railroads. But Amin ginned up bigotry, accusing them of “milking Uganda’s money.” (Nevermind that, according to the BBC, Ugandan Asians accounted for about 90% of tax revenue and the country’s economy took a major hit after the expulsion.)
The order to leave the country meant that Saujani’s parents, both engineers, had to find a new place to live. At the time, her mother was three-months pregnant with her older sister, Keshma.
Saujani’s family ended up in Schaumburg, Illinois, and were one of the only Indian families around. In 1975, the Saujanis had Reshma.
“When my dad would tell the story, I kept thinking, ‘Where were your voices?”http://www.cnet.com/” she says.
Her parents’ experience of being kicked out of their home, combined with living in a mostly white area where their home was TP’ed and egged more than a few times, turned her to activism.
When she was 13 in 1988, a group of girls at school beat her up, giving her a black eye the day before 8th-grade graduation. In her book, she describes feeling as though she’d somehow failed to assimilate. And yet, she was proud she’d stood up to those girls and been prepared to fight back. The incident prompted her to start an organization at her high school called PRISM, or Prejudice Reduction Interested Students Movement.
“I got better at naming organizations later,” she laughs.
Saujani and a handful of other students from different backgrounds essentially hosted a town hall at school where students could ask whatever they wanted. That included a question about whether her mother had been born with a dot on her forehead. In addition, the group, which was maybe five-strong, marched in a local parade with their banner.
She hasn’t stopped marching since.
The girls who code
It’s hard to tell Saujani’s story without getting into the stories of “her girls.”
Take Diana Navarro, now 23 and a software engineer at Tumblr in New York City.
Navarro was in the first group of girls who completed a Girls Who Code summer immersion program in 2012 when she was 16. GWC’s summer programs are free, seven-week computer science programs for 10th- and 11th-grade girls, where they not only work on projects but get career advice and mentorship from partnering companies. Students apply by filling out an application that takes about half an hour, asks for information including demographic and education information, and requires they answer a short written question, like how they incorporate GWC’s values of bravery, leadership and sisterhood into their daily lives.
Up until that camp, Navarro had taken an AP computer science class in high school and had a miserable time. Not only was she the sole girl in the class, but on one occasion, when she’d gotten help from a family friend on a project, her teacher called her out in front of her classmates, saying there was no way she could have done it herself. (The female teacher later apologized.)
Going into Girls Who Code, Navarro was nervous. What she remembers, though, is Saujani walking in on the first day with a box of doughnuts and the declaration that the girls in that room were going to change the world.
After Girls Who Code, Navarro got internships every summer using her coding skills. Saujani even helped her get her first one at online shopping company Gilt Groupe in New York. She attributes GWC’s support and Saujani’s honesty about her failures to buoying her through all the usual job-hunting rejections and microaggressions she’s experienced in the workplace.
“Every time I see her, she [says] ‘What are you doing now? How can I help you?”http://www.cnet.com/” Navarro says. “It’s amazing to have someone who believes in you.”
Across the country, Devika Chipalkatti, 19, is about to declare computer science as her major at Scripps College in Claremont, California. But her choice wasn’t always certain.
Chipalkatti, too, had taken a computer science class, one where she was just one of four girls. She felt like an imposter who didn’t belong there — a classmate told her he’d been using computers since he was three. Having grown up in Seattle, with friends whose parents worked for technology companies like Microsoft, her perception of a programmer was “really rich guys in Redmond or Bellevue.”
When she signed up for Girls Who Code, she didn’t even think they would want her. But after completing the summer immersion program in 2016, she landed her first job ever at Expedia, the program’s sponsor.
“I’m not the best at [coding] but I can still do it if I have a community of women who support me, who always encourage me,” Chipalkatti says. “I have that support system.”
Perfect or bust
After the event at the Library of Congress, I join Saujani and a small squad of GWC employees at Busboys and Poets, a Washington bookstore and restaurant. She changes from a pair of athletic slide-on sandals back into her heels as she prepares to host a fireside chat with a journalist about her book, Brave, Not Perfect. But first, we eat dinner.
Amid discussions of vegan nachos and burgers versus salads, Saujani talks about the big idea that’s been underpinning all her work — that lesson she’s been trying to get across to women and girls like Navarro and Chipalkatti.
The premise of the book is that boys are raised to be daring, get dirty and take risks. Girls, meanwhile, are socialized to seek perfection, to feel as though any given thing isn’t worth doing if they can’t do it perfectly. The upshot, Saujani describes, is a world of women worried about being liked, littering emails with smiley faces, overcommitting because they don’t want to say no, and cheating themselves out of opportunities for fear of failure.
One way to break that mentality at an early age, she says, is coding.
“[Girls] walk into these classrooms and they feel like they will never be good at it, and when they learn how to create something, whether it’s a website or app, it changes their mindset and they stop giving up before they even try,” Saujani says.
Anyone who’s ever coded anything knows there’re a thousand things that can go wrong, even if it’s just an errant semicolon. Mistakes happen, and in the process, girls get used to making them without condemning themselves as incompetent.
That matters because of the oft-cited confidence gap between men and women in STEM. One report titled Class Size and Confidence Levels Among Female STEM Students from IEEE in March 2016, a professional organization, discusses how between men and women in science of equal competence, women were more likely to underestimate both their abilities and performance.
That lack of confidence can be a contributing factor to young women even dropping their computer science major. The Duke Chronicle in 2017 found that the number of women who made it from a CS 101 class to CS 201 fell by more than 11%, while the percentage of men rose.
Beyond computer science, abandoning perfection is a lifestyle choice that could cut down on the constant striving toward the unattainable. “Every woman I know is exhausted,” she writes. It’s a message that’s resonated. On a trip to Las Vegas earlier over the summer, a woman stopped Saujani to show her how she’d gotten “Brave, not perfect.” tattooed on her arm.
After an eight-year struggle with infertility (Saujani now has a 4-year-old named Shaan), she’s been challenging herself to do physical activities like going to trapeze school despite being afraid of heights. On Twitter, you might catch a video of her trying to do a cartwheel.
“I have been telling myself that my body can’t do certain things,” she says. “You have to confront that narrative and take it on.”
It would be easy for this all to sound as though it’s up to women and girls to change themselves to find some success and fulfillment in life. No matter how brave a woman might be, Saujani acknowledges she’s still got to live in the world that doesn’t always reward that attribute in women.
After all, GWC couldn’t stop a male colleague from one of Navarro’s first internships from telling her she could get hired anywhere just because she was a girl.
Patty Donohue, senior vice president for GT Corporate Systems at MetLife (one of GWC’s corporate partners), started in computer science in the 1980s. Back then, more than 35% of CS graduates were women. These days she looks around and wonders where the women went.
“That gap is going to continue to grow unless we take some specific action,” she tells me.
A 2016 report that GWC released in partnership with Accenture found that women stood to lose $299 billion in economic opportunity by 2025, and that the share of women in computing would only shrink without significant change.
Preaching resilience is important, but it’s not an answer in and of itself.
“I had naively thought that if I taught them, that they would get hired,” Saujani says. “We’re realizing that we’re still up against a lot of racism, a lot of sexism that still occurs in technology companies that purport to be fair and just and libertarian.”
Girls Who Code has also been getting involved in politics, writing legislation in states like Colorado and Washington for grants to actively bring more girls, particularly underrepresented groups, into K-12 computer science education. They’re also asking to require public school districts to report how many computer science courses they offer and the demographics of students by gender, race, ethnicity, special needs and more.
Girls Who Code wants there to be no question about the amount of qualified talent available.
Leyla Seka, another board member who was an executive vice president at Salesforce for 11 years, tells me she still hears companies say they just can’t find diverse candidates.
Seka thinks that’s a cop out. But even so, “[GWC] is making it impossible for people to hide behind that excuse as more qualified female candidates with computer science technical degrees enter the workforce,” she says.
Running the table
Shortly after our table orders, a father and his 14-year-old daughter walk up and sit at the table next to us. Before taking a seat, the dad has turned into Saujani. It’s clear he knows who she is.
“Reshma?” he asks. “My daughter and I are big fans.” Saujani offers that she’s finishing an interview but wants to say hello.
During the fireside chat, Saujani talks about everything from writing the book to why she turned down a meeting request from Ivanka Trump (Saujani disagreed with President Donald Trump’s policies, including barring Syrian refugees from entering the US). And yeah, she’s still chaffing a bit at how none of the girls that morning raised their hands. The faces of Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Bob Marley are plastered on the walls. Afterward, I catch up with the father and daughter, sitting in the front row. Abhay Chaudhari tells me that his wife, Manisha, read Brave, Not Perfect.
“I first saw the TED Talk about Girls Who Code and thought it was amazing,” he says.
His daughter, Isha, tells me her mother, who is in India on a trip, “used to always care about what other people thought of her. She read the book and it changed how she thought.”
For Chaudhari, it was important to bring Isha to Saujani’s talk, and as someone with a background in electrical engineering and computer science in the IT field himself, he wants to help start a Girls Who Code chapter.
If anyone asks Saujani what’s next for Girls Who Code, she will almost without fail, and without missing a beat, say world domination. “We’re going to have all the seats at the table,” she tells me.
We’re still in Washington, though. So, I ask her if she’ll ever campaign for office again.
Saujani has a fluidity in the way she navigates every answer to support the thesis behind Girls Who Code and Brave, Not Perfect. She underlines that she’s always making herself exercise her bravery muscle and question the stories she tells herself about the decisions she makes.
“Sometimes I have to ask myself, are you afraid to run again?” she says. “You tell yourself these narratives, even as you’re standing there staring at the Capitol building because you need to tell yourself that to make yourself feel better about the losses. I have constant conversations with myself.”
Spend any amount of time with Saujani, and you would bet on the odds that she will run, because as she puts it: “I know how to use my voice.”