When Reshma Saujani was introduced at an event recently, the CEO and Founder of Girls Who Code, former Deputy Public Advocate of New York City, and 2010 candidate for U.S. Congress, was given the mantle of a “poster child for persistence.”
Saujani, however, credits that diligence and desire to serve the public to the courage of her parents, who departed from Idi Amin’s reign in Uganda, and to the insistence of the politicians who advocated for the refugees’ asylum. “I always wanted to be a lawyer,” she reflected. “Even when I was ten, I had that as a goal on our fridge door: that I would go to Yale Law School, and only Yale Law.”
“I think, toward the end, that my family began to wonder if I was too dedicated to that dream. But I spoke to the dean directly—after two prior rejections and taking the train and walking straight up to his office—and he said, ‘if you go elsewhere for a year and make the top 10% of your class, you can come here’.”
Seeing the Need for Change
During her 2010 campaign, though, Saujani became starkly aware of the disparities between the various public schools and the degree to which the students received skill-based training. “It was over a couple days of meetings,” Saujani remarked, “that I saw how little the girls in our schools were engaged with technology as a means of building toward their future careers.”
“And I knew then,” she continued, “that Girls Who Code would have to exist; that we needed to give these young women and potential industry leaders the right access to the right people, to the role models and thought leaders who were contributing to the rise of New York as the next Silicon Valley.”
While the tech industry and supporting regions themselves have flourished, the number of women who receive a Bachelor’s degree in computer science has declined from 29.6% in 1991 to 18.2% as of 2013 (master’s degrees, by contrast, have remained fairly static, with doctorates showing a 7.9% increase over the same period).
One of the most immediate causes, according to Saujani, is the absence of sufficiently positive role models and detailed career paths, as well a lack of industry focus on the issues that women want to address. “We need film and television companies like Disney,” she explained, “to think about the images they put on the screen; we need technology companies to be educators and advocates, to encourage the application of computer science skills in the classroom.”
“This is the literacy of the future,” Saujani affirmed, “and the ability to create something using science, to engineer solutions, to innovate ideas through new and emerging technologies, is what keeps you in the workforce and relevant.”
Making Your Vision a Reality
Though Saujani admitted that the initial summer immersion class in 2012 was “a bit bootstrapped,” with friends and business contacts providing workrooms, computers, and fresh lunches for the twenty young women who attended, she noticed a marked increase in both their technical skills and the confidence they expressed midway through the program.
By August 2012, when Saujani was invited to speak at the United Nation’s 11th Youth Assembly, the newly minted alumni were receiving requests from local and community leaders to build websites, applications, and databases for their businesses.
The most important quality Saujani demonstrates to her students and her team is the willingness to embrace uncertainty, risk, and rejection and to understand the lessons they can teach. “Sure, I lost my Public Advocate race with only 82,000 votes,” she said. “But those were still 82,000 people I’d never met before the campaign, who believed enough in me to say I should be the first South Asian woman elected in the entire city or state of New York, and that I should represent what they need.”
“Too often,” Saujani continued, “women tend to think that they have to ‘do’ the job before they can get it. The good news is, when you teach these girls how to design an app to confront obesity, poverty or the bullying that they witness at school, they’ll invite three or four of their friends to learn along with them and work together with other girls—sometimes from incredibly diverse backgrounds—to create solutions for the world they want.”
Speaking proudly, she stated: “We started in 2012 and we’ll train 3,000 girls this year, and I’m confident that by 2020, we’ll reach a million.”