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Girls Who Code
Reshma Saujani is the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, an organization working toward closing the gender gap in technology, changing the image of what a programmer looks like and does. | Photo by Carey Wagner

Building a sisterhood: A Q&A with Reshma Saujani

The founder of Girls Who Code on how programming can teach girls to be brave and take risks.

The Risk Optimistic

Keith Mays: We’re going with a definition of risk as taking action in the face of an uncertain outcome. Given that we know for sure that there’s a market for people with computer skills, it wouldn’t seem like a risk to pursue programming as a career. What is the uncertainty that girls are facing that inhibits them from pursuing STEM careers?

Reshma Saujani: Imagine walking into a computer science classroom, or an office, and realizing that nobody looks like you? That’s what happens to nearly all of our girls, to girls across the country. It’s intimidating! They feel like they don’t belong in tech, and may even be told as much. And there’s enormous risk in that.

These girls don’t have many mentors or role models who are showing them a path forward in tech or even showing them that someone who looks like them can succeed.

Reshma Saujani
Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code.

That’s why at Girls Who Code, we’re building a sisterhood. We want our girls to have a support system, to have mentors, to have someone to turn to for encouragement when they feel like they don’t belong.

Mays: Coding takes a logical, calculated mindset. Do you think learning to code can help girls in decision-making in other walks of life?

Saujani: Definitely! Coding requires so much trial and error. Programmers spend hours working and it can all be derailed by just one misplaced semicolon.

Coding teaches girls that failure is okay. Coding teaches them to take risks. Coding teaches girls to be brave, not perfect.

And, yes, my hope is that coding helps girls with decision-making in other parts of their life – whether they are thinking about a career change, taking up a new hobby, or running for office.

Mays: How does programming teach creative risk-taking, or does it discourage risk-taking?

Saujani: I always say teaching girls how to code is teaching them how to be brave – because programming is all about risk-taking. It’s about tinkering and trying new things! 

Our fear of risk-taking really comes from a fear of failure. For instance, I’ve heard the same story from so many of our instructors at Girls Who Code – their girls will raise their hands and say they don’t know what to do, and the instructors will see blank screens. But when they hit the “undo” button, they see that these girls tried, came close to solving the problem, but then deleted all their work when they weren’t successful.

They would rather show nothing at all than something that was less than perfect. That’s the kind of mindset we’re trying to change at Girls Who Code. We believe in taking risks, failing, bravery. And I think our girls can learn that through programming. 

Mays: You’ve talked about teaching girls to be brave. How does Girls Who Code help them overcome the ways in which we socialize girls to be cautious?

Saujani: Too often, we raise our girls to be perfect and our boys to be brave. As a result, our girls grow up with a huge fear of imperfection, of failure. At Girls Who Code, we teach girls to embrace risk-taking when coding. It’s our hope that ultimately, these skills will help them be brave in other parts of their life and realize how truly powerful they are. I firmly believe that girls are going to change the world. We just need to give them the skills and the sisterhood to help them do it.

Mays: Why is it important for our society that more females be encouraged to take risks?

Saujani: When we socialize women and girls this way, we’re really holding them back from reaching their full potential. Women won’t apply for a job or put themselves up for a promotion unless they are overqualified, while men have been raised to just go for it. Our culture is keeping women from positions of power – when women are encouraged to take more risks, we’ll see more women in tech, politics, executive leadership. We all are better off when we have diverse leaders and teaching women to be brave risk-takers can help us get there.

Mays: You said in your TED Talk that running for Congress was the first time you did something truly brave. What inspired you to take that first big risk?

Saujani: I woke up one morning in my early 30s and I was miserable – I felt so unfulfilled and I realized that I hadn’t been making decisions for myself. I was always trying to be the perfect immigrant daughter and I was really living my life based off of others’ expectations. I decided it was time for a change. So I quit my job and I ran for Congress. It was a big risk and I lost. But, it’s what led me to start Girls Who Code.

Mays: Did you feel that it was a risk to start Girls Who Code, in the face of a fairly embedded-seeming societal issue? Or, were you so moved by the imbalance you saw that you felt compelled to do something?

Saujani: It was a huge risk. I had no experience with coding and no experience as a nonprofit CEO. But when I visited computer science classrooms during my campaign, I would only see boys. Instinctively, I knew that was a problem and I didn’t understand why no one was talking about it. Tech jobs are the fastest growing, highest paying jobs in the country. These are jobs that could lift entire families up into the middle class, and our girls weren’t being prepared for them. It wasn’t long before I bought the URL, filed the paperwork, and found 20 girls to host our first ever Summer Immersion Program in New York. Today, we’ve reached 185,000 girls in communities across the U.S and we’ve expanded into Canada, India, and the U.K.

“The Risk Optimistic” is about belief: the assurance that taking a chance is worthwhile, even without knowing the outcome. It’s also the belief that if we value and support risk – in policy, community, and culture – we benefit from each person’s ability to make choices to achieve success. With this initiative, Kauffman kicks off 2020 with insights, stories, and opportunities to explore what it means to take risks, and own your own success, however you choose to define it.


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