Reshma Saujani, Founder, Girls Who Code
Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, talks about her parents' inspiration, her unexpected career change, and what it was about risk and failure that made her want to start Girls Who Code.
- I realized that as First Lady you can bring so much attention and marshal so many resources to really help on whatever issue that you're focused on so I have always taken that responsibility very seriously. I'm a Chicago native, I grew up on the South Side in a really small apartment with my parents and my older brother Craig. My dad worked as a pump operator at the city water plant. My mom stayed at home and so we didn't have a lot of money but my brother and I were blessed with something far more valuable because our parents truly gave us unconditional love and encouragement to go places they never imagined for themselves. Neither of them had a college degree but they made it very clear that they expected me and my brother to get the best education possible so school was always, always the center of our lives. So I made it my point to give it 120%. The early part of my life was focused on sort of reaching those traditional markers of success. I focused on getting the right degrees, going to the right schools. So by the time I was in my mid 20s and working at a firm I had everything that I was told I should want but I could still feel that there was something missing. I started to ask myself some more important questions like what do I really care about and how do I give something back? I wanted to be in a position to help folks from neighborhoods like mine, especially young people, have the opportunities that I had. So I quit my job at the law firm and found myself working in careers where I could spend my time lifting up the kinds of communities that I grew up in. The inauguration was one of the coldest Januaries that I've spent here in Washington D.C. It was freezing. I really remember what it felt like to walk out the steps of the Capitol and stand there with Barack as he took the oath of office and look out at what felt like endless amounts of people standing as far as the eye could see from every race, age, background you could imagine would come from every corner of the country just to witness this historic moment. It was probably one of the most profoundly moving experiences that I've ever had. And to have our girls there with us, those two little bitty girls standing on that stage is a moment I'll never forget. This role, it's a real gift because it brings with it this big bright spotlight and that's why I've worked hard to choose work on issues that I care deeply about, that I feel really defines me or that I'm connected with, that will really make a difference in peoples' lives. We've really worked to raise the profile of this issue. I've had the opportunity to travel the world and everywhere I go I meet these amazing young women and they impress me with how bright and how hungry they are no matter what their circumstances are, they'd risk their lives for an education. And they have so much promise that we can't afford to waste. I see myself in these girls so I want Let Girls Learn to be part of my life's work for decades to come because for me this issue is personal. I hoped that I've used my big spotlight to move the needle on a whole range of issues but I feel honored and blessed to have served this role for my country.
RESHMA SAUJANI: Things don't come easily to me. I never get things on the first time or the second time, more like the third or the fourth time.
My parents came here as political refugees from Uganda. My father was watching television, and Idi Amin, who was the dictator there in Uganda, came on and said that all of the Indians in the country had 90 days to leave the country. The United States was the only country that let them in. So my parents are probably the two most patriotic people that you will ever meet.
No matter how tired my father was, every day he would come home, take out a book, put me on his lap, and read to me, books that were about people who were doing good things, Dr. King or Mahatma Gandhi or Eleanor Roosevelt, and so these incredible change agents, and I think that that always really stayed with me.
I always wanted to serve.
I was a young woman who always knew what she wanted to do. I always wanted to serve and hopefully run for office. And then I woke up when I was 32 years old and realized that I was on the wrong path. I was really engaged in the 2008 presidential election. And I remember watching Hillary's concession speech, and I felt like she was looking right at me, and she said, just because I failed doesn't mean that you shouldn't try, too. And I just kind of took a really deep look in and said, what am I afraid of?
And it was the best year of my life. Everything was like jumping off a cliff. I remember my first television interview was with Chris Matthews.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Her name is Reshma Saujani. She's a lawyer and activist.
RESHMA SAUJANI: I had never been media trained before. I was terrified, but it was incredible.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: What would you cut?
RESHMA SAUJANI: I want to give you an idea. We're proposing what we call a national innovation bank. I believe that New York City has the capacity to become the city of innovation.
And I lost, and lost big. Put myself in debt and maxed out everybody in my life. I felt like I had just let down so many people, and started really thinking about, as women, how do we feel about risk and failure, right? We live in a society that's so ashamed of failure. And so I immediately started talking about how I felt, and that I was going to pick myself right back up and get back out there and meet those commitments that I had made to those constituents.
We focused on teenage girls and girls who didn't have access to technology. That was really important for us. There's going to be 1.4 million jobs that are open in the next 20 years in science, technology, engineering, and math. But right now, only one out of seven engineers is a woman. And Girls Who Code wants to change that.
With girls, there's not an aptitude issue. But when you ask a girl what she wants to do with her life, she says, I want to change the world. And when she closes her eyes and she thinks about what a computer scientist looks like, she sees a guy just kind of at a computer typing away.
So what we do at Girls Who Code is we not only teach them the hard skills, but we expose them to technologists who are changing the world. And when they get exposed to it, they're passionate about it and they're good at it.
One of my young girls, Cora, her father got diagnosed with cancer. So she developed an algorithm that would help detect whether a cancer was benign or malignant. She's 15 years old.
We don't even know what the world would look like if we gave girls the leverage and the power of technology. The ideas that they come up with are so different than if I was teaching a group of 20 boys, right? And all of their ideas are centered around changing the world. We'll do it. I have no doubt.
I have a lot of resilience. Part of it, it's like if you haven't failed yet, you haven't tried anything.
- As I talk to women in
the developing world, and I would see this
amazing ingenuity in them, and the lengths they would
go to lift their families up, I thought, "My gosh, if
I'm in this position, "I need to use my voice
on behalf of them." And that's what being a leader is. I went to an all-girls high school, and what that does for your self-esteem, I could be good at anything. I wasn't competing against boys. So, I learned to use my
voice as a young woman, and that was very powerful. One of the messages we all
got from my parents is, we would be college-going. It wasn't an option, we
were going to college, because college was your
ticket to getting a great job and being able to sustain yourself. To get to the colleges I wanted to go to, to study computer science,
I had to be valedictorian. I was definitely nervous. I went home in tears,
and saying to my mom, "Oh my gosh, now I have
to write this speech." And then when it came time
to rehearse the speech, she said, "Go back to your drama teacher "who believed in you." And so, I did, and my drama teacher was in tears over the
speech and I thought, "I think I have it." So, these are the words I wrote: If you are successful, it is
because somewhere, sometime, someone gave you a life or an idea that started you in the right direction. Remember also that you
are indebted to life until you help some less fortunate person just as you were helped. I met with my hiring manager at IBM. She said, "Are you ready to accept?" And I said, "I have this one last company "I'm going from here to interview with, "and then I'll let you know." And she said, "Well, would
you mind me asking who it is?" And I said, "No, it's
this company, Microsoft." And she stopped me dead in
my tracks, and she said, "If you get a job offer from that company, "you should take it." They were just so excited and passionate about what they were doing. And they so believed in
what they were doing, and I saw the difference
good software can make, and I was excited about
being part of that change. Several months later, he said,
"You know, I was thinking "maybe we could go out if you'd
give me your phone number, "you know, two weeks from tonight." And I said to him, "Two
weeks from tonight?" I said, "I have no idea what I'm doing "two weeks from tonight." And I said, "You aren't
spontaneous enough for me." And so, it was really sweet, he called me about an hour later, and he said, "Is this spontaneous enough for you?" And I said, "Okay, well
that's pretty spontaneous. "I guess we can try." Late in the dating stages,
we talked about the wealth. And, it was our first trip to Africa, and it was the end that
trip on a beach walk that we said, "Absolutely,
the vast majority "of these resources will
go back to society." We just committed to it. It was just a natural,
easy decision for us. (soft, uplifting piano music) My children were getting
just a little bit older, and I kept thinking, "If I'm
telling my girls at home, "especially my oldest
daughter, that she should "step out as a woman and
use her voice in the world," I thought, "Am I
role-modeling that for her?" (inspiring music) We have a moral imperative to lift up everybody in the world, but we haven't really done a
lot of big things for women. And yet, if you get the other
half of society working, there's this unbelievable opportunity. So, you lift a woman up, and
she lifts up her whole family, and that lifts up a community. I learned that there
were 220 million women that want access to contraceptives. And, the women were so vociferous. They would say to me, "I
can't have another child, "I have three, if I have another one, "I can't feed that child." And we weren't giving them access because of things that had happened in the Family Planning community. And because of the controversy, particularly in the United States. I'm a practicing Catholic,
and I'm also very outspoken about the fact that I use contraceptives. With the Catholic Church, we share a really close
mission around the poor. So with the church, I focus
on our common mission. In the last 15 years, we've
made huge progress as a world. We've really brought down
poverty, we've cut it in half. We've almost cut maternal
mortality in half. I wanna see us half
those numbers yet again in the next 15 years. I wanna be remembered for
lifting up women and girls. I want us to know that not just one life has breathed easier, but I wanna know that millions of women's lives
have been breathed easier and that their families have done better. When you get to the point where women are lifting themselves up, then you know you've gotten there, and I wanna be part of that.