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Reshma Saujani on Getting Girls to Code and Why its Good for Business

With 1.4 million jobs in the computing fields by 2020, Saujani knew she had to do something to close the gender gap.

What sparked the idea to start Girls Who Code?

The idea for Girls Who Code came about when I was running for office in 2010 in New York City. I’ve always been a policy junky, but when you’re actually on the campaign trail you get to see issues in a much more immediate way. I was visiting schools and talking to teachers and parents across the district and I saw that our kids weren’t learning computer science, and that the gender and socioeconomic divide in tech access was just enormous. With 1.4 million jobs in the computing fields by 2020, I knew we had to do something to close that gap.


How has your background in public advocacy helped shape, define, and drive your organization?

I view Girls Who Code as a movement. We’re really a grassroots effort and I definitely bring that mentality from my advocacy and public service background. When we recruit girls for our clubs and summer immersion programs, we function like field organizers.

Why is it important to society to encourage girls to get involved in computer science and coding? Why should businesses care about diversity among their programmers and engineers?

Women make 85% of consumer purchases. When you have women on your team you will build better, more innovative products that people actually want to buy. It’s a no-brainer for businesses.

Girls Who Code not only teaches tangible skills, but it also inspires students to think big. What are a few of the most ambitious concepts girls in the program have dreamed up?

So many! In our first year, we had a student design an algorithm to detect false positives in breast cancer screenings–that was really powerful. My favorite idea lately was an applicant who wanted to build an app to stop bullying before it happened.


How would you describe your brand’s “personality”?

Empowering. We want to inspire girls to be fearless, bold, and, most of all, supportive of one another. There’s too much negativity in the tech world–we are all about building the sisterhood.

How does your personality find its way into Girls Who Code?

My energy! I don’t do anything small, and I encourage others to take big leaps as well. At Girls Who Code, we’ve gone from one program teaching 20 girls to reaching 3,000 by the end of 2014 through Summer Immersion Programs and Girls Who Code Clubs. This summer alone we are in NYC, Boston, Miami, Seattle, and all over the Bay Area with programs at Adobe, Amazon, AppNexus, AT&T, eBay, Facebook, GE, Goldman Sachs, Google, Knight Foundation, IAC, Intel, Intuit, Microsoft, Square, Twitter, and Verizon.

At its core, Girls Who Code is a summer camp, which sounds like a very casual environment. On the flip side, as the face of your brand, you must spend a lot of time in more traditional business settings seeking funding and recruiting supporters. What does “looking the part” mean to you in these very different parts of your role?

I am a huge believer in authenticity so I try to dress like myself wherever I am, whether it’s a speech in front of 500 people or in a Girls Who Code classroom. Some people would probably say I shouldn’t wear the hot-pink blazer to a meeting at a financial services company, but when I feel like myself I perform best.


As you prepare young girls for a future in the computing field, do you think it is important/relevant to teach them how to present themselves and their ideas professionally as well?

Girls Who Code definitely focuses on soft skills in addition to the technical material. The girls learn to pitch their products, present themselves professionally, and interact with everyone from a junior engineer to a CEO.

Tell us what a day in the life of running Girls Who Code looks like.

Every day is different, but it’s a mix of meetings with my programs and operations teams, speaking engagements evangelizing about Girls Who Code, and visits to our programs. I get so much of my inspiration from the girls we serve that I have to be on the ground. This summer I’m visiting every program, and I can’t wait.

What are the most challenging and interesting moments as a female leader championing young girls in a space traditionally dominated by men?

The most interesting (and inspiring!) part of championing young women in tech is that they really become our ambassadors in the movement. When they graduate from our summer immersion program, they know they’ve learned something special and they go on and teach other girls and start clubs at their schools and libraries.


As far as challenges, I think people just don’t realize how bad the problem is. Jaws drop when I tell people that in 1984, 37% of CS majors were women, and now that number is 12%.

If you could share one piece of business advice with your younger self, what would it be?

Live your passion. As much as I learned during my time in the private sector, I wish I had taken the leap and pursued my dream of public service full time sooner.


Where do you find inspiration?

From our Girls Who Code.


Are you a rule follower or rule breaker?

Rule breaker.

Failure in business is ____________ .

A sign that you’re doing something right. If you haven’t failed yet it’s time to start taking bigger risks.

Most surprising project built by a Girls Who Code camper?

We had a girl design an algorithm to detect false positives in breast cancer screenings. I was blown away.


What mantra do you live by?

Fail fast, fail hard, fail often.

For Reshma Saujani, constantly recruiting supporters, instructors, and students is essential to growing her organization. NET-A-PORTER invited the super connector to select some of her favorite looks for fall. Check out her casual yet polished and professional looks here.