The reinvention of Reshma Saujani

Reshma Saujani, standing, founder and chief executive of Girls Who Code, which aims to close the gender gap in technology by teaching girls to program.

NEW YORK — A few weeks ago, Reshma Saujani went surfing. Saujani is afraid of water. “Especially cold water,” she confesses. To someone who can’t swim, balancing your body deftly on a thin board over rapid waves looks terrifying. On her Instagram page is a picture of Saujani, 41, grinning widely against the waves, next to her surfboard with the caption “...I can't swim and I'm a little afraid of water but I have always wanted to surf. So today I took my first surfing lesson. It was amazing. I wiped out 100 times and was petrified. Best experience ever.” The photo also carries a hashtag, one of Saujani’s famous maxims: “brave, not perfect.”

The motto, elucidated in Saujani’s inspiring TED Talk delivered last year, is one of the best pieces of advice to young girls and their parents. For more than five years, Saujani has been at the helm of closing the gender gap in technology through her nonprofit, Girls Who Code. This year she spreads her organization’s message wider by releasing three books from her 13-part series, published by Penguin Random House.

The reinvention of Reshma Saujani

Reshma Saujani, right, founder of the nonprofit Girls Who Code, works with Abbey Ahamed, left, and Kimberlee Innis at the Summer Immersion Program in New York, Aug. 4, 2017.

The first book “Girls Who Code” is an illustrated guide of some of the basics of coding principles, a workbook of computational ideas, along with stories of girls and women working at places such as NASA and Pixar Animation Studios. The second is a fiction book for young adults about a group of girls who are in a coding club together in school. Along with gossiping about their crushes, the girls dive into computer science and their world is filled with the excitement of discovering loops and variables and competing in hackathons.

The cover of the book shows five girls sitting propped up on their beds, their laptops open. As a child, Saujani loved reading “Sweet Valley High,” the novel series created by Francine Pascal. But for her books, she’s broken away from tradition. “At the center of our story we have five girls from all walks of life,” Saujani says. “They look like American girls, so every girl in the country is going to find themselves in these characters. Literary representation matters, books matter.”

Saujani didn’t grow up as a typical American teenage girl. In the 1970s, her parents were driven out from Uganda by President Idi Amin who carried out a mass deportation of Asians. Her parents, Gujarati immigrants, sought asylum in the U.S., settling in Chicago.

The reinvention of Reshma Saujani

Saujani, left, with one of her personal heroes, Hillary Clinton.

“They came to this country, not knowing the language, not knowing the culture,” Saujani says. “My father had to change his name from Mukund to Mike just to get a job. I think about what they sacrificed for us, how much they struggled to give us a better life. If you think about it, it was a very social justice orientation that I learned from.” Saujani grew conscious of her skin, gender, and status as an immigrant. She grew up fierce and proud. In a November 2014 story for the Wall Street Journal, she recalls hurling herself at two girls after they made fun of her skin color. She went home bloody and bedraggled.

Just like any child of immigration, Saujani grew up under high expectations. “A part of being an immigrant kid is that we’re always trying to build our resumes. We need to go to the best schools and work at the best firms,” she says. She didn’t disappoint: After graduating from the University of Illinois, she went to Harvard University for a master’s in public policy, and then — after three failed attempts — to Yale Law School for her juris doctor. For a while, Saujani’s passion for social justice took a back seat. Her impressive resume that had taken long years to build, landed her some of the most high-powered jobs at law firms and took her to Wall Street.

But Saujani remembers it as one of the most trying phases of her life. “I was miserable. I wanted to quit, but I just could not. A part of the reason was the money I was making, which allowed me to pay off my student loans, allowed me to help my family,” she says. Apart from personal unhappiness, Saujani’s employer Carret Asset Management LLC was caught in a financial scandal, putting a strain on Saujani’s career.

The reinvention of Reshma Saujani

 Saujani with The Daily Show host Trevor Noah, Feb. 1, 2016.

When she was 18, Saujani worked as an intern at the White House. There she met one of her personal heroes, Hillary Clinton. Years later, while still working on Wall Street, Saujani heard Clinton’s concession speech when she lost to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary. Clinton said to those who had worked for her, “…it would break my heart if, in falling short of my goal, I in any way discouraged any of you from pursuing yours.” It was as though Clinton was speaking personally to Saujani. The speech was the final push Saujani needed to return to her original passion of service.

This is when Saujani made her first brave decision.

“I called my father, and said I’m going to quit and run for office,” Saujani says. “And he said, “Finally, beta.” And I was like, ‘Wow, why didn’t I say that to him ten years earlier?’ But I was so afraid of his disapproval and of letting him down. Because I felt like the American Dream was about making a paycheck that they could never make. But really it was about finding purpose in your life.”

Saujani is deeply religious, and drew strength from her faith. She explains, “In Hinduism, you say, what’s your dharma? What were you put on this earth to do? I always knew that my dharma was about service. Post law school, up until 33, I wasn’t serving anyone. And that was painful. It’s not that I regret my time in finance, because I feel like I had to go through that experience to end up where I am right now, but I wasn’t living a life that I was meant to live. I knew that. So now, I live a very authentic life because I’m doing what makes me happy.”

Now, Saujani says she bounds out of bed Monday morning, and works harder than anyone in her office. “Because it’s not work, it’s service. So now, whenever I meet someone who says, I hate my job, I want to be an artist, or I want to be a comedian, I’m like, ‘Just do it.’ Your parents are going to be happier that you’re happy, and you’re going to find success when you find the thing that you love. If you do the thing that you hate, just because you think that that’s your family obligation, you’re never going to find success or happiness.”

Saujani’s second brave decision was to run for Congress. She challenged Rep. Carolyn Maloney for her New York District. Maloney had never lost a race and had been in Congress since 1992.

Saujani raised about $1 million in funding from the tech world, Wall Street and political leaders and became the first Indian-American woman to have run for a seat in Congress. The polls told her she’d never win, and they were right. Saujani lost the race spectacularly. She was shaken, but not deterred. Like any tough south Asian parent, Saujani’s father saw no reason for her to wallow. “He sent me a note saying, ‘Here’s the 12 things you should’ve done different,” she laughs. “He was tough on me. But I learned how to accept rejection and failure. I learnt how to build a thick skin. It’s a tremendous gift that my father has given me. I fail all the time, but I exercise my bravery muscles like it is a muscle. When I lost that campaign for Congress, the thing was, I didn’t die. [It was] the worst thing had happened to me, and I got up to fight another day.”

Early this year, Saujani suffered another heavy political loss too, when her hero and mentor, Hillary Clinton bowed down after a tough election, losing the presidency in a historic election to

President Donald Trump. Saujani was cheering for Clinton from the sidelines, acting as a surrogate for her by campaigning. “I was at the Javits Center on election night, and it was devastating. Not just for our country, but personally. She’s someone who I have watched and admired for so many years. I’ve seen her dust that pantsuit off and keep moving. I didn’t know what to tell my girls. I thought I’m never going to see a female president in my lifetime, because there’s no-one who’s more qualified than her, male or female. But listen, I think she (Hillary Clinton) inspired the Women’s March, she inspired so many women who are now running for office. It will be ultimately because of her that we’ll finally crack that glass ceiling.”

Clinton still remains Saujani’s heroes, and is generous with her support for Girls Who Code, and Saujani’s loyalty to her is unbreakable. After first daughter Ivanka Trump’s book “Women Who Work” used her success story, Saujani struck back on Twitter, asking Trump not to use her story unless she wanted to stop being complicit. Saujani is an unabashed advocate for women. “I’m unafraid to say that the policies I’m fighting for: equal pay, equal leave, gender gap, are all for women.”

The five-year rise of Girls Who Code has been meteoric. It began during Saujani’s many campaign runs in the country’s schools, and her work as the New York City Public Advocate when she spent a year and a half looking into the school system. By looking at math clubs and computer science classes, Saujani noticed the low girls-to-boys ratio. The biggest dropouts of girls from computer science occurred between the ages of 13 and 17, and Saujani decided to focus on that age bracket. She filled a class of 20 girls for a summer program at a tech company. But the classes started to fill, the girls came in large numbers. When Saujani started Girls Who Code, she wasn’t an expert on the subject, and couldn’t code herself either. But Saujani was unafraid to learn, unafraid to fail. Saujani’s foresight helped her form her philosophy for Girls Who Code. “I think that technology is at the core of the future of work. Technology has changed everything about the way we live and work. And we have to make sure that women are not left behind. I think we’ve been able to build a movement and ignite a conversation about technology and women.”

Now Girls Who Code runs after-school programs in 50 states with 40,000 girls invested in the program. “Now when I speak to my girls, I hear things such as, ‘I made new friends,’ ‘I wasn’t confident in public speaking but now I am,’ ‘I thought I was bad at math but I just built an app.” Two of Saujani’s girls built an app called Tampon Run, a Syrian refugee created one to help Americans get to the polls and a young girl wrote a code to detect whether a cancer is malignant or benign. “All week long I’ve been getting letters from parents and photos of their daughters reading the books. I think so many parents have said, ‘Oh I now understand what an algorithm is or what a variable or a conditional is. Now I too know that Ada Lovelace was the world’s first programmer.” Saujani’s organization aims to reach 1 million girls by 2020.

Saujani allows her personal and professional lives to intersect and drive inspiration from each other. She is married to Iowa-born tech entrepreneur Nihal Mehta and the couple live in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood with their son, Shaan, and their dog Stanley (all four occupants of the house hold popular Twitter accounts.) Several times during this interview, Saujani circled back to her message about girls brave, and not. She believes the differences begins in contrasting way we raise our girls and boys.

“I have two-and-a half year old son. He’s got a booger in his nose, and his shirt’s a mess, and I look at his friends who are girls and their bows are straight, dresses are fixed. If you’re fixed by 16 months, by the time you’re 16 years old you are marred by perfectionism and accolades,” she says.

Saujani’s books are for children but also for parents. “We think that our minds are fixed: either we’re good at math, or we’re good at reading. We’re good at soccer, and we’re bad at gymnastics. We start gravitating towards things that we’re good at. And our parents do that too, they coddle or protect us. They don’t want us to feel failure or rejection.

“We’re doing a disservice to our girls by raising them that way. I really want to change that mentality in parents to get our girls to take things apart, and to get dirty, and get them a drill in their hands by the time they’re 13, if the toilet is broken, give them the idea to fix it.” Her mission of gender equality in tech has won her the support of leaders such as Hillary Clinton, Malala Yousafzai, and Sheryl Sandberg.

Computer science education for women is perhaps just the beginning for Saujani. Her next big idea is to demand a fairer working environment for mothers. “I live in Chelsea, and if I go out to dinner after a busy day with my son, invariably someone will turn and give us a dirty look. Like I should feel bad that I’m having dinner with my child outside on Fifth Avenue,” she said. “We’re not always nice to parents: whether it’s on an airplane, whether it’s on a bus, in a restaurant, whether it’s opening a door — as we used to be. So I feel like what happens is that women feel like they should just go home lock themselves up with their children and not be seen. And that’s just wrong.”

According to Saujani, the reason we don’t have enough leaders at work is because places of work don’t give women the flexibility to work. “Having a child was eye-opening for me. I always felt like I was either never getting enough time with my child, or not spending enough time at work. I was still lucky because I was an entrepreneur, and I could set my own hours. For me, doing a phone call from home, and having Shaan playing at my feet just releases some of that push and pull. So our companies need to offer paid leaves, offer support to new mothers and parents. I mean, the fact that we don’t offer 6 months of paid leave is just wrong.”

Saujani says although she undertakes regular personal challenges, she is ready for another big professional challenge. The daughter of Gujarati Indian immigrants from Uganda has fought the comfort zone at every step of the way, making it to the top schools in the country, surviving on Wall Street, and running for office.

Soon, it’ll be time for another reinvention. Soon it’ll be time for Saujani to take a deep breath, and take another deep plunge into the cold water.

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