"I Was Broke and I Had No Plan"— Now She's the CEO of a Tech Company
What does it take to be the first? From the numerous interviews we’ve conducted with successful disrupters, there seems to be a formula of key attributes, personality traits, and, yes, failures that pave the way for female pioneers, or as we like to call them, Womaneers. By definition, she’s a woman who defies societal norms with heroism and tenacity to become a pioneering voice in her field. Each month, we will share a new womaneer’s story to uncover their vision, grit, persistence, grace, and drive to keep going despite the odds. The time of the womaneer is now.
Failure isn't something many of us are used to. In fact, accepting defeat is definitely a sentiment I personally struggle with. However, despite that innate feeling to resist it, deep down, I know there's always a teachable moment that could only be delivered through that mishap. It's not always easy, but if there's one resounding piece of advice we've learned through the myriad of interviews we've covered on inspiring women, it's that making mistakes is crucial to success. Reshma Saujani can attest to that.
The founder and CEO of Girls Who Code—the nonprofit that is closing the gender gap in technology—tells me she "fell into this work by accident" after she ran for Congress in 2010 and "lost, miserably." And while the sting of that loss was deeply felt, it ended up being the catalyst that propelled Saujani to embark on her mission to achieve gender parity in entry-level tech jobs by 2027. And she's well on her way.
"I'm not the person you'd expect to start an organisation about coding," she says. "Even though I lost the election, I realised that I could do things that scared me, so I started thinking about how I could make a difference. I thought about all of the classrooms I had visited on the campaign trail and realised that something was missing from the computer classes: the girls."
After some extensive research and talking to people about the problem, Saujani realised "nobody was doing anything about it," so she started Girls Who Code with a class of 20 girls in a borrowed conference room. Now the organisation has helped 90,000 girls across the U.S. to code. Read on to discover more about this womaneer's nontraditional path to success and why Saujani celebrates her failures every Friday with the hashtag #FailureFriday.
Can you recall that "lightbulb" moment or the trigger that motivated you to pursue your current path?
In 2008, I was working at a Wall Street firm and hating every minute. Hillary Clinton had just lost the primary and was giving a concession speech, and something she said struck me: Just because she had failed didn't mean that I shouldn't try. I kept thinking about that speech and about how I'd always wanted to make a difference in the world. I knew I wasn't where I was supposed to be, so I finally did something that scared me: I quit my job and threw all of my savings into running for Congress.
Did you face any immediate challenges? What was the biggest barrier you had to overcome?
After I lost the race, I was broke and I had no plan. But putting together the concept for Girls Who Code gave me a purpose again. I kept running into people who would tell me that women were just built differently, that their brains weren't meant to be working on code. But I kept pushing through. I knew that a gender gap in technology this wide was a huge problem. If we don't have diverse minds at the table, the products and ideas won't serve a diverse audience.
What are some of the earlier jobs that helped to shape your career path?
When I was 12, I organised my first march. In high school, I scooped ice cream at Baskin-Robbins and built sandwiches at Subway. All of that taught me the value of hard work and perseverance, and all that before I even had my first diploma. I’ve always known I wanted to make a difference, but for nearly a decade I was working in jobs that weren't doing anything for the world. I finally had the wake-up call I needed to drop everything and run for office. Running a campaign taught me how to lead a team and how to be scrappy, to do whatever it takes to make things work. Without that experience, I don't think I'd be able to do what I do today.
Now, tell us about your Girls Who Code movement. What was that pioneering moment like for you?
Girls Who Code is a movement to close the gender gap in tech. We've reached over 90,000 girls across the U.S. with our coding education programs and more with our book series, which is aimed at showing kids what a girl who codes looks like to combat negative stereotypes. We've always been an organisation that favours bold moves and big goals, and we're well on our way to the next big one: gender parity in entry-level tech jobs by 2027.
How did you turn this initial concept into a successful company?
We started out small. We ran a pilot program in my friend's office building with 20 girls. And when it worked, we kept it going and started more summer programs in other company office buildings. Then our alumni were coming back to us and asking how they could pass on their coding knowledge, and some were even starting clubs at their schools to teach their friends. So the idea of our clubs program grew really organically from the girls themselves, and we've continued to develop and adjust our curriculum to make it even more accessible and to bring it to every state in the country.
Now, we've reached over 90,000 girls across the country, and we're just getting started. The idea works because there is a huge need for this. And we're focusing on what girls want. Girls are excited about coding and computer science when they learn that they can use it to build apps and websites and algorithms that can help their communities.
How do you shake off the fear and doubt to pursue your innovation/dream?
For me, sometimes the first step is just starting. l'll dip my toe in the water and keep wading in until at some point, I'm too far in to turn back. If you do enough work toward the goal, then the goal won't be as scary anymore.
If you could go back and change anything about your career trajectory, what would it be, and why?
I wouldn’t change anything. I think I've been able to learn and grow from all of my mistakes, and I wouldn't be the same person or Girls Who Code wouldn't be the same organisation if I had done anything differently.
What mistakes have you learned from and even benefited from in your career?
I'm proud of my failures; in fact, I celebrate them every week on social media with #FailureFriday. I'm not perfect—and no one is. That’s part of the problem we see with women and girls in our society. We teach our boys to be brave and our girls to be perfect. Part of my life's work is showing women that it's okay to fail, that it's better to celebrate our imperfections and try the things that scare us.
I ran for Congress and lost, miserably. But now I run an organisation that has helped over 90,000 girls learn how to code and feel like they have the power to make a difference in their communities. We need to step up and make brave decisions instead of holding back out of fear of failure.
If there was one lady boss you could power brunch with, who would it be?
Honestly, Cardi B. I love how loud and bold and unapologetic she is. She's someone I'd love to sit down and talk with about anything and everything.
What’s next for you in 2018/19?
In June, Girls Who Code announced the first-ever comprehensive agenda outlining policy recommendations designed specifically to bring K–12 girls and keep them in computer science. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are interested in using policy to solve for the gender gap in tech. Many already are. We're thrilled to be able to share what we've learned and to offer a path forward on an issue that (by working together) we can solve within a generation.
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