Reshma Saujani (Matt Smith)

The founder of Girls Who Code explains how to push back against patriarchy in Tech

Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, is making thousands of women upwardly mobile and challenging STEM-bros


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D. Watkins
February 8, 2019 11:06PM (UTC)

My fearless niece is the perfect combination of intelligent, curious and bold bunched into a pocket-sized three-year-old girl. When she visits me, I’m bombarded with questions, and then rationalizations for every answer I give, so that it can make sense within her little world.

I don’t mind it because her curiosity is a superpower. She is fortunate enough to come from a family that is going to constantly nurture her talents. But what about the rest of the world? What does this country, as racist and sexist as it is, have to offer a talented young woman of color?

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When I sat down to do a Salon Talk this week with Reshma Saujani, the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, she gave me some hope. In her new book, “Brave Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More and Live Bolder,” Saujani writes about how the obstacles girls face during adolescence chip away their bravery and encourage them to play it safe.

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“All you have to do is go to the playground, and you’ll see moms and dads saying ‘be careful honey,’ to girls, ‘don’t climb too high,’ or when they spill something on their dress and their mom is like running to the diaper bag to go fix it.” Saujani told me. “And with boys we are watching them climb to the top of the monkey bars and just jump.”

Saujani went on to explain how these very traits were unconsciously present in her feminist household when her son Shaan asked for a night light, because he was afraid of the dark. She’d put him to sleep and turn on the light; 10 minutes later, her husband would go in to their son’s room and turn it off, causing Shaan to scream. He wanted his son to be tough and strong, he explained when she confronted him. “If Shaan was a girl, would you let him use a night light?” Saujani asked. He paused, thought about it and said, “yes.”

Her story made me question my own bias. My youngest nephew is dating and frequently calls me up to tell me stories of nights that ended horribly, or asking me for advice on approaching older women, or to brag about his conquest with the girls who call him “funny and cute.” In response, I laugh and reminisce about my teenage years — regaling him with tales of when I started dating, way back in the Stone Age.

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I’d never encourage my nephew to be a womanizer, but I’m happy that he’s actively pursuing Miss Right. At the same time, I could never even imagine having those kinds of talks with my niece.

I dread the day when she gives me a call saying, “I met the guy who stole my heart and I want you to meet him!” I’d squeeze the phone until it cracked, praying that he isn’t a bum, pacing back and forth until she pulled up with the heart-stealer.

At that point, I’d probably pick any and every reason to not like the guy, all the way up until the day he proposed to her. It wouldn’t matter if he was a doctor curing cancer — I’d reject him until he proposed, while at the same time being perfectly fine with my nephew dating any crusty, illiterate, toothless woman with a pulse. The double standard is horrible. This makes me a part of the problem, and Saujani’s book so relevant.

Brave Not Perfect” challenges the norm and confronts toxic masculinity with bottom-up solutions that are purely rooted in empowering the most important people in this conversation–– women. Saujani believes that real changes lies in grassroots, the same energy that led to her creating Girls Who Code, which is a national nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in technology while teaching girls confidence and bravery through coding. To date, her program has trained over 185,000 girls.

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Many of her coders have experienced success; however, Saujani hears stories for her students about their inability to find employment, even though they graduated from places like Stanford with 4.0 GPAs. That gave Saujani pause; she says she originally thought nerds were nerds, and color in tech didn’t matter. Now, she’s calling out Silicon Valley, challenging them to check their privilege and the racism. She did this at a big tech conference around the time a Google employee sent out a disrespectful email about women not being able to cut it in the tech world. Saujani addressed it, the audience was unreceptive, and her Q&A was canceled. Leaving that event confirmed to her the importance of her young women creating their own companies, so that they can be in control of the culture instead of having to succumb to it.

Knowing that people like Saujani are actively working to evolve our current toxic culture that tries to oppress women makes me more comfortable about the world my niece will inherit. Dreaming of a world where women and men are treated equally is cool, but it’s not just going to happen; we have to all actively do the work like Saujani — who is creating a skill that is empowering women — and take the time to self-reflect and acknowledge those subtle biases that inhibit progression.

Read our interview below, or watch it here.

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D Watkins: Thank you for being here, and thank you for this book. It’s a beautiful cover — I was wondering if you could explain the title.

Reshma Saujani: So, “Brave: Not Perfect.” I think that we raise our girls to be perfect and we raise our boys to be brave, and I think that that toxic perfectionism is causing a lot of unhappiness amongst women. It's causing this huge leadership gap that we're seeing.

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Do you feel like we're in a movement where the culture's starting to shift?

I do, I do, but you know what, I think the thing is, you're seeing bravery like, on the biggest stage. You're seeing four women running for president, you're seeing powerful men be taken down. But what I want to see is everyday bravery, right? So when, like, you walk into the coffee shop and you get cut off. Or when women are staying in these jobs that they're like, 'eh,' but they really want to go do something else… or they're staying in toxic relationships. All of the decisions that you make in your life, that you stay with because you're too afraid to do something else — that's what I want to inspire women to change.

So let's start by talking about your big brave moment.

So my big brave movement when I was thirty-three years old. I ran for United States Congress here in New York City, I ran against a woman [Carolyn Maloney] who had been there for eighteen years. I was the first Indian-American woman to ever run, and I had no chance of winning. The whole Democratic establishment was like 'what? Wait your turn, it's not your time yet.'

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But I had been working as a lawyer in finance in this job that I hated, that I was doing because I needed to pay my student loan debt. My soul was being eaten up like every single day, and I knew, I knew I had to go but like, I was too afraid to leave.

But it was liberating.

Yes, it was liberating. I ran, I lose. Of course, I'm devastated, but I was like 'oh, I'm not dead, failure doesn't have to necessarily break you.' And I was also free — 'cause for the first time in a long time, I was happy.

Was [Maloney] mad at you, that you ran against her?

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Yes, she's still mad at me probably.

Still?

You know, I did ten years ago what [Alexandria] Ocasio[-Cortez] just did, right? Except she won and I lost. And you don't do that in the Democratic party, especially in New York City, right? You're not supposed to run against insurgents, I mean you're not against incumbents, you're not supposed to be an insurgent. It took some time.

And who was someone to tell you to wait your turn? Your turn is when you feel like it's your turn.

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Yeah.

And that's what you want to promote.

I think so many women feel and are told that, right? It's not your time yet, wait your turn, practice a little more. It's why you see women will apply for a job if they meet one hundred percent of qualifications and men will apply when they meet sixty percent of the qualifications.

Imagine how great the world would be if someone told Trump to wait his turn.

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Oh my gosh, he'd be like 'what?'

Could you talk about socialization and the different ways young women and young men are socialized?

I think all you have to do is spend time at the playground. And you'll see girls at their playgrounds and their moms and dads are like, 'oh, careful honey, don't climb too high,' or they spill something on their dress and mom's running to the diaper bag to go fix it, and with our boys, we're just letting them crawl to the top of the monkey bars and just jump. And I really didn't see how this played out until I had a son.

My son's about to turn four in a couple days, and even in my feminist household, my husband and I will get in a fight. My son [Shaan] a year ago was like 'I need a nightlight, I'm scared of the dark.' And so I went out, bought the nightlight. I walk upstairs, put him in his crib, turn on the nightlight and go to my room. Ten minutes later my husband [Nihal] will come up the stairs, right? Open the door, turn off the nightlight, Shaan would scream. Finally, after weeks I'm like 'what are you doing?' And he's like, 'I want Shaan to be tough, I want him to be strong.' And I said to him, 'you know, Nihal, if Shaan was a girl, would you let him have a nightlight?' And he thought for a moment and was like 'yeah, I would.'

So it's things like that that happen in, you know, in such benign ways — but that has huge implications, because what happens to girls when we start raising them to be perfect and raising them to be people-pleasers, they get addicted to that. And they start giving up before they even try.

I think we're just missing out a lot, society is missing out in general the way these things happen. If you have a son, and he's dating a lot of young women, you're like, 'my son's a ladies man.' But you know, the minute your daughter dates one guy, it's like 'I'll kill him.'

Yeah, and we shame [our daughters] for that. Whether it's her choices in who she chooses to sleep with, or the fact that when she stands up and she speaks out against something that she thinks is wrong.

Was it difficult for you to be vulnerable when you wrote this book?

Oh my god, so difficult.

To tell personal stories?

I grew up in a super immigrant Asian household where you don't tell people your business. You know what I mean? So even talking about my miscarriages, talking about my loss, talking about my anxiety about my weight. Really just personal things, you know? My depression, right? Things that you don't tell everybody, right? That was hard for me, but I also feel like I have, ever since I lost that congressional race, I'm really real about who I am. I don't believe in being fake or inauthentic.

I openly talk about my fertility or miscarriage struggles because I want other women to realize that they shouldn't have to feel shame. I talk about my failures so that people don't think that everything's so damn perfect when you look on my Instagram page. You've got to be real and honest about who you are and things that you're facing because people are going through a lot of pain and suffering right now, and I think I've learned a lot by being around so many girls. Teenage girls when you're going through so much of that anxiety about who you are and that voice in your head that tells you that you're not smart enough or not good enough that gets so loud sometimes. I've had to be in many ways their big sister, you know? When I'm open about who I am and what I've gone through, how much it's helped them.

One thing the book make me think about was culturally how different women are raised —  because where I come from, women run everything. When my grandma would come up the street with her groceries, it doesn't matter if you were a gangster, or whatever.

Yeah, you were helping her.

You're going to jump and help her with those bags, and she's going to say 'you do this, you do that, you get off the counter.' My sister's the same way, my mom's the same way. Do you think living in a certain environment, there's a certain privilege to being able to be protected and to be perfect whereas in other environment you'd have to be aggressive?

A thousand percent. I've been thinking a lot about this, about whether perfection is a white person's privilege. Whether [as a] woman of color, whether I had the same ability, right? The same ability to be imperfect as other people did. And I think that it's true. Everyone told me, as my father told me all the time, 'you got to be twice as [good], you can't make a mistake. You're not going to get a second chance.' Every woman of color in my life has been told the same thing, and every black and brown woman feels the same way. Are we able to be imperfect, are we able to take risks and fail? Less than twenty black women in the history of our nation have been funded over a million dollars for their business idea. You know when they walk into a room that they're taken to a different standard. So how can we inspire, how can we be brave? And I've been thinking a lot, can we? Do we have the freedom to do that?

I also thought about that when we spoke briefly before this interview when you were saying how as a young woman growing up, you didn't get to see the princess look like you.

Nope.

It's almost like two things can happen: you can develop some time of resiliency where you have to be ten times better like your dad said, or you can feel defeated before you even get started. How do we change that?

I think with role models. I mean I'm obsessed with Michelle Obama, right? But just hearing her talk about her fertility struggles, hearing her talk about the problems in her marriage, hearing her talk about her own imposter syndrome, you're like 'damn, if Michelle can feel that way and still be Michelle? Okay, maybe it's okay I feel this way. I don't judge myself as much.'

So I think that role models are really, really huge. I think having people around you who are going to continue to lift you up and tell you that you are beautiful, that you are powerful, that you are smart, that you can be everything, that you can be anything. And that's why I think sisterhood's important, I talk about that in my book.

Right, getting that accessibility, young woman being able to see other women doing amazing things, and they can say 'wait a second. If she can do it, I can do it too.' So how'd you get into tech?

I was one of those girls terrified of math and science growing up. I'm like the weirdest person to have built this Girls Who Code movement because I wasn't a techie. And I got no excuse because both my parents came here as refugees as trained engineers, but I lost my race and at that time Facebook was blowing up, and Twitter was blowing up, and I was going into these classrooms in New York City and seeing a ton of boys that were learning how to code. And I was like, what about girls like me? I mean I've had a job since I was twelve. My father always said to me 'your pathway to freedom is economic opportunity.'

So your first job was coding?

My first job was walking a dog, and then Baskin-Robbins, and then retail, and then telemarketing.

Baskin-Robbins sounds like a good job. Telemarketing doesn't sound fun.

Well I learned how to be a hustler, you know?

Selling like, door to door?

Oh my god, yes, basically. And then on the phone, because that used to be the way —  You make $7 an hour, or $6.25, whatever it was.

I think of movies like Boiler Room, or like Wall Street, just on the phone all day.

All day. But that's what I did, that's what you did. So for me, it was about the jobs and the opportunity and the fact that I didn't want girls and girls of color to be left behind. When you look at entry-level jobs for technology, there are no women. No women of color, no men of color. And so we've got to change this, and it means that we have to teach kids to code. And I felt like, we were talking about how our schools are so segregated right now. But what's interesting is like, even if you walk into the best private schools, they're not teaching their kids to code either.

Right.

So it's the first time you're [thinking], we all may be starting from the same place. And that maybe we can create equal opportunity for all, right? Regardless of your race or your socioeconomic background. So I thought that that was a huge opportunity to do something impactful.

Do you think anyone can do it?

Yes, a thousand percent I think anyone can do it. I've seen it.

Because it seems like, if so many people can pick up that skill, then maybe it could a cure for systemic poverty.

I one thousand percent believe that. I think the joke is they want you to make you think it's hard, they want to make you think you've got to be special and smart to do it.

To keep it exclusive.

To keep other people out. And that's what's happening right now, where you're seeing more people, and the pipeline's getting full. The jobs are not changing, because I think that people don't give up power easily. You know that.

Right. So talk about your Silicon Valley experience.

When I started Girls with Code I think I was a little naïve. In the sense of like, my motto was to build classrooms in technology companies. Because I thought nerds are nerds, right? So like, it doesn't matter if that nerd's a woman or brown or black, if she can code, if he can code, the doors are open. And I realized that year after year after year, I would have young woman call me and say 'I got a four-point-oh at Stanford but I can't get a job at blank company.' And I started making a list, and Reshma sits down and makes a list it's not good for anybody. I started really seeing, 'oh no, I'm not going to teach all of them and you're not going to let them in.'

And so I really wanted an opportunity to really talk about that, and to confront the Valley and say 'look at your privilege, look at your racism, look at your sexism.' Let's return back to our roots when we were just trying to create great code.

And people don't respond to that, they don't like when you hold that mirror up.

Yeah, because they think they're libertarians, right? They don't think that there's real bias. So we have started at Girls Who Code proving it. I've been [asking] my alumni, saying, 'tell me about the interview, you may or may not have gotten the job, tell me about your experience.' And the things that we found are pretty not great. I think you have to start documenting that.

And I started to realize, you know what, they don't all have to work at Google or Facebook. I want to teach them code so they can start their own companies, so they can be their own entrepreneur. You wonder, if Mark Zuckerberg was Mary Zuckerberg, or if Sergey and Brin were Sujata and Brianna, would you be seeing some of these issues that you're seeing? Would you be seeing our privacy being [compromised]? Would you be seeing, you know what I mean, sexual harassment payouts in the billions of dollars? I don't know. I think the world would look like a very different place, and I am certainly working every single day to create that world.

Can you see that? Can you see reform happening?

Yes. I mean, when I go college campuses, and I walk into their computer science departments, I see my girls everywhere. My girls are everywhere. I have a young woman—youngest patent at University of Pennsylvania, she built a microchip that you put into a gun so when it goes off in a place like a school, it alerts the police. I had a group of girls build a game about Harriet Tubman, to teach people about slavery.

How many girls have been through your program?

We are about to announce this but by the Spring of 2019 it's going to be a hundred and eighty-five thousand girls. Half of them under the poverty line. Half of the black and Latina. You can't let people tell you that they're not there, or they can't learn or we can't teach them. That's bullshit. The thing is we got to break down the door, and we're breaking down the doors one girl at a time.


D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-sellers “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir."

MORE FROM D. WatkinsFOLLOW @dwatkinsworld

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