“We live in a society ashamed of failure.” Those are words from Reshma Saujani, who’s fighting to change that norm and leading by example. She’s founder of Girls Who Code, an organization helping girls in low-income neighborhoods succeed in technology and engineering. She was also the first Indian-American woman to run for Congress, with her 2010 bid for a seat in the House of Representatives in New York’s 14th congressional district. She didn’t win, but she’s not taking “no” for an answer. She believes: “If you haven’t failed yet, you haven’t tried anything.” And they’re not empty words. She’s running in this year’s race for New York City Public Advocate.
Did I mention she’s also a Next MAKER? It’s an extension of MAKERS, the digital project of AOL and PBS featuring hundreds of women across America making a difference in the world. Six women were chosen out of 1,200 nominations and awarded a $10K grant from Simple skincare to advance their causes. Reshma will be using the grant to “continue building [Girls Who Code's] movement to close the gender gap in STEM education [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] and teach more girls in cities across America the skills to be engineers and computer scientists.” This is vital work, especially as more and more jobs in the technical field become available. In a recent Forbes article, we learn that “the shortcomings in U.S. education reside at the K-12 level. And that girls in particular are way overshadowed by boys when it comes to gaining proficiency in computer science – a necessary ingredient for fueling this culture of innovation.” Only one in seven engineering jobs are going to women today- a dismal 14%.
And, as I learned in my interview with Reshma, the girls she works with across the board want to create tools to help others. One 15-year-old went as far as creating an algorithm to detect whether a cancer is malignant or benign after dealing with her father’s cancer diagnosis. Gender parity and heal the world? Now that’s work I can get on board with.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with Reshma Saujani.
AS: How do you think the world would be different if there was more gender parity in the tech industry?
RS: Girls want to leverage the power of technology to help others, and I knew we had to teach more girls the skills they needed to do that. The girls we taught last summer all opted to build products to give back to their communities. One girl built an app to help homeless youth find shelters. Another girl went home and taught her father what she was learning, and now he is taking adult programming classes. These girls are already changing the world.
AS: As women, there is often cultural stigma against risk and endeavors that go against the grain. Your story is an inspiration and a testament to entrepreneurship. What advice do you have for women who are afraid of failure or being bold?
RS: I always say you don’t fail if you don’t quit. When I was 34, I left my job as a lawyer to run for Congress. I can’t say I wasn’t scared, because I was. But the ten months on the campaign trail were the best of my life, and I leapt out of bed every morning because I knew I was finally on the right path– working towards my dream of becoming a public servant. So my advice is to take risks, and know that it’s okay to fail, and fail hard!
AS: What recent news story made you want to scream?
RS: The gang rape in Delhi. We must end violence against women everywhere. The protests after this horrific incident demonstrate that women everywhere are fighting in solidarity for their freedom from violence.
AS: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
RS: The gender divide in technology. 1.4 million jobs will be created in technical fields by 2020, but right now only 14% of computer science degrees are awarded to women. At this rate, we are leaving our girls — over half our workforce– behind.
AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
RS: Wonderwoman. The girls in my program are my [real life] heroes- they are resilient, take risks, and want to change the world.
AS: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
RS: Levain cookies, Chai, and Secretary Clinton!