This is the fourth of a five-part series by Team One chief strategy officer Mark Miller on long-term brand building in contemporary marketing, and balancing long-term thinking with the urgent necessity of short-term action (check out the first installment on The Ritz-Carlton, the second on Taylor Guitars, and third on It Gets Better). Here, Miller talks to Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani.
Launched in 2012, Girls Who Code is one of the leading voices on creating gender parity in the high-tech field of computer sciences. By the end of 2016, the organization will have educated 40,000 young women through its clubs and summer programs, and by 2020 it aims to have reached up to one million young women across America. While the gender gap in computer sciences is a large social issue, the success of Girls Who Code began as the personal preoccupation of an individual. In my conversation with Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, she spoke about being truly inspired to help solve the problem, staying relentlessly motivated in her commitment, partnering with others who share her passion, aiming to make long-term impact to better guide present-day actions, and realizing that big obstacles can create a person’s greatest opportunity. In a marketing world that often favors making short-term gains, Reshma speaks from personal experience about the importance of campaigning for a more long-term change.
Mark Miller: Girls Who Code is working to tackle a large gender issue in the American workforce. Beyond being a relevant topic for the times, why was this issue particularly important to you for the long term? What prompted you to commit yourself to the work?
Reshma Saujani: My parents were engineers. In the 1970s, they came to the United States as refugees from Uganda. Seeing everything this country did for my family inspired me to want to give back through public service.
In college, I studied political science, policy, and law. My plan was to move to New York, pay off student debt in a year or two, and then run for office. In 2008, several years later, I was hating my job in financial services and feeling like I had lost sight of my dream. Then, I saw Hillary Clinton give her concession speech when she ran her first campaign to be President of the United States. She said something very inspiring, ‘Just because I failed doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try too.’ I felt that she was talking to me. I was still an idealistic woman. I quit my job and went for it.
In 2010, I ran for Congress in a Democratic primary against someone who had been there for 18 years. The Daily News endorsed me. I was in The New York Times above the fold. CNBC called this one of the hottest races in the country. On election day, votes for me never went past 19%. I lost. I was broke and humiliated. I didn’t know what I was going to do next.
On the campaign trail, we would often talk about where future jobs were at—and they were in tech. I had gone to lots of robotics labs and computer science classes. I had seen a bunch of boys all clamoring to be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. I remember thinking, where are all the girls? After I lost the election, I reflected on all the young women who were absent. I spent about all of 2011 and half of 2012 working to understand the problem: In the technology sector, where jobs were growing, where a person could make a lot of money as a software engineer, where the income could help to move a family up to the middle class, why were women badly underrepresented?
My passion for this topic was rooted in creating greater economic opportunity. I explored what it would take to put together a curriculum. It became my full-time focus. This was the origin of Girls Who Code.
Recognizing that the solution to gender parity may take time, that there is seldom a quick fix to social and/or institutional problems. What gives you hope that your work with Girls Who Code is making a difference? What propels you onward?
I was full of pride when President Obama talked about coding in his last State of the Union address. I was proud when Chicago recently made computer science mandatory as a requirement for graduation. To see this elevate to the level of a bigger conversation is progress. Four years ago, when we started Girls Who Code, plenty of people were like, “What’s coding?”
On a personal level, the most rewarding thing for me, given my upbringing, is seeing girls whose parents work at minimum-wage jobs, or who live in homeless shelters, or who have only one meal a day come to Girls Who Code. My parents came here with something like $11 in their pockets. I am the product of the American dream. I often look at how much inequity we have in our country and ask myself, ‘How is that possible? How can I help fix things?’ In turn, it’s very exciting for me to see the girls at Girls Who Code gain technical skills, get internships, and then get a full ride to college. These girls are helping to improve their own family’s situation—helping to raise them up into the middle class. This is why I come to work every day. It is to do my part in providing these girls with better opportunities.
Your personal passion for the work you do with Girls Who Code is clear. How do you inspire others in your organization to commit as deeply as you?
To scale fast, I have to make sure that I am hiring the very best of the right kind of people—the ones with the most passion. I interview every person who works for this company. I am the filter for passion at Girls Who Code. I am the last person every single person has to interview with, and I try to talk each one out of the job to see who is really here for the mission—who will stay committed to the cause because of their passion for what we believe in.
I once worked with a coach who said it is a priority to work on something that motivates you, where you are having fun while earning. The hard reality is that at a nonprofit you’re not conventionally earning. So you have to sign on for the mission. The real compensation is the impact we are making on these young women’s lives. That is not for everybody.
What enduring impact do you hope to make through your ongoing work at Girls Who Code?
I want to help solve the problem by filling the talent vacuum. Fifty years from now, I want every girl to be a girl who codes.
Why do I care passionately? Anyone concerned with the current and future state of the economy should care. Right now, there are around five million open jobs in America. About 500,000 of those jobs are in tech—not just in New York City or in Silicon Valley. Ninety percent of all job openings in Montana are in tech. Fifty percent of all job openings in Salt Lake City are in tech. Meanwhile, 44% of executives say they can’t hire enough engineers because there’s a talent vacuum.
For the foreseeable future, it will remain a good time to be pursuing a career if you have the right skills, particularly for women and girls who have the required skills. There is more, not less, opportunity for those well-prepared for the future.
What advice do you have for other leaders aiming to create an enduring brand legacy?
To thrive professionally and personally, you need to be open to possibility. If you asked me five years ago, ‘Will you be leading a nonprofit that teaches girls to code?’ I would have said, ‘No. You’re crazy.’ I thought my way to make an impact would be by running for office. When I lost the race for Congress, I was broke, humiliated, and felt vulnerable. In being vulnerable, I allowed myself to be open to new possibilities.
Today, I am making a real impact in running Girls Who Code. I am creating real educational change and career opportunities, which were the real reasons why I wanted to run in the first place. I am making more impact, with lasting implications, than if I had been elected. From experience, I learned that being rejected, being upset, failing, and seeing dreams not work out should never break you. There is nothing wrong, and lots of good can come out of trying and, at first, not succeeding. From one dream can emerge new, better ones filled with amazing possibility.
Mark Miller is the Chief Strategy Officer at Team One. Mark is the founder of The Legacy Lab, a thought-leadership platform and consulting practice at Team One focused on long-term brand building in a short-term world.