Written by Wendy Bowman Tuesday, February 05 2013
Snapshot: Reshma Saujani, Founder, Girls Who Code
As the daughter of refugees who fled the violence of Idi Amin’s Uganda for freedom in the U.S., Reshma Saujani is personally interested in ensuring that all Americans have a political voice and economic opportunity. That has led the 37-year-old New Yorker to careers as a deputy advocate for special initiatives at the New York City Office of the Public Advocate and executive director of The Fund for Public Advocacy.
In 2010, she resigned her position as general counsel at an investment firm to run for Congress in New York’s 14th Congressional District. Struck by a vast income inequality between women and men in the technology field she saw during her run for office, Saujani decided to continue to focus full-time on public service and community building. She went on to found the New York-based nonprofit organization Girls Who Code in summer 2011 to help educate, empower, and equip 13- to 17-year-old girls with the skills and resources to pursue and obtain careers in technology and engineering.
She also has written a book, “Women Who Don’t Wait in Line,” about female leadership and risk-taking, which is set for release this year.
Below, Saujani discusses how she hopes to use computer science to get more girls interested and involved in the fields of STEM better known as science, technology, engineering and mathematics along with how she was recently recognized by AOL and Simple® facial skincare brand as one of the nation’s “Next MAKERS” with other trailblazing women she admires, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Womenetics: You mentioned you ran for public office. What lessons did you learn through that process and why did you decide to focus your attention on Girls Who Code afterward?
Reshma Saujani: I’m a refugee from Uganda, so I’m very passionate about public service and fighting for others to have opportunities. One of the biggest lessons I learned is about community building. I lost my race, but it was the best 10 months of my life because I was on the path of what I want to do in my life. I made a commitment to what I would do to help in the community when I became a public advocate and started Girls Who Code, which is tackling income and gender equity in the technology-related fields.
Womenetics: Why did you feel Girls Who Code was needed?
Saujani: When I was running for office, I saw the power of technology to increase or shrink income gaps between men and women. Many young girls don’t have access to technology and weren’t trained in technology. There are 1.4 million jobs open in 2020 in the computing-related field and less than 20 percent of of those will be filled by women at the current rate. We have to build a pipeline. At Girls Who Code, we’ve started building that pipeline by teaching young teenagers computer science and how to get excited and interested in computers.
We launched an eight-week program last summer with 20 girls from all five boroughs of New York City. We wanted to make sure we had a diverse range of girls. Some were from underserved families, and some came from middle-class families. They were all girls who wouldn’t have been able to get the training they needed to get to the place they need to be successful in college.
Many of our girls had little or no exposure to computer science before they started our program. They might have had somebody in their family or somebody they knew who was a computer scientist or engineer or worked in the technology field, but they didn’t know they would be interested in it or like it before they went through the program.
By the end of the eight weeks, all of our girls wanted to major or minor in computer science when they went to college.
Womenetics: What type of things did you girls learn how to do as a result of the program?
Saujani: We taught them how they could use technology to make the world a better place and to help the members of their community by building phone apps to help disabled New Yorkers navigate the city better and to help homeless people in the community find shelter in their neighborhoods.
We also taught them how to develop websites and how to have a conversation with engineers about a business plan. We had speakers like author and journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon and Richelle Parham, the chief marketing officer of eBay North America Marketplaces, come in and talk to them, and we took them on field trips to companies like Facebook, Twitter, Conde Nast and Foursquare.
Womenetics: How is taking the girls on field trips to technology companies helping to coax them to become more interested in the field?
Saujani: It offered a lot of exposure. Many of our girls have never been in a company before. So, now that they have; they say they can’t believe going to work could be so much fun. One girl had wanted to be a doctor because her father has cancer, but she learned about the power of computer science to help with finding a cure for cancer from Girls Who Code.
When most girls say they don’t want to go into computer science, it’s because they think of computer science as being just a boy sitting at a computer typing, and they want a position that will help change the world. Going to Facebook and Twitter, and learning how technology is being used to run revolutions, engage people, and get involved in nonprofits and community work is very influential to them.
Womenetics: How many women are in these jobs now and what positions do they typically hold?
Saujani: Less than 25 percent of the jobs in the technical and computing fields are held by women, and only one out of every seven — or about 14 percent — of engineers will be a woman. Probably less than 4 percent of all engineers also are African-American, so there’s also a real disparity there. We want to teach a million girls how to code by 2020 to help shrink that gap.
Womenetics: How do you help girls overcome the challenges of learning about and acquiring jobs in the technology and engineering field?
Saujani: With Girls Who Code, they’ve been able to build a sisterhood. They’re walking into their first year of science class, and only 20 percent are women. Now they have a network of women they can go to when facing challenges; they can go to 19 other sisters and ask for help. That’s really critical.
Truly, they just need to be prepared. Now they’re prepared to take the AP science exam and the first-year science course at their university. They have learned how to code and built and developed mobile apps and websites.
Womenetics: Do you plan to take the Girls Who Code program to other cities across the nation?
Saujani: We’re getting ready to launch in other cities in 2013. We’re still finalizing our plans, but we’re looking at starting probably seven to eight different programs. A couple will be in New York City and the rest in other cities.
Womenetics: How will you use the $10,000 grant you received from Simple facial skincare for being named one of the Next MAKERS?
Saujani: I’m using it all for Girls Who Code … to increase the number of girls who know how to computer program and to close the gender gap in technology. We want to teach a million girls how to code by 2020, not only by operating our summer program but also by launching Girls Who Code computer science clubs in high schools in the New York area and all across the country after 2013. These will be after-school learning clubs on how to computer program and the fundamentals of engineering and computer science.
Womenetics: What is the most important piece of advice you would you give a woman trying to find a job in the technology and engineering fields today?
Saujani: One, I would tell them to tell young women in their lives to start learning technology early and to go into the math, science, engineering and computing fields because that is where so many of the jobs in the nation are going to be. For women right now who are coders and engineers, there are networks that are starting to form and more opportunities opening for these women.
I think the numbers have gone down since the 1970s, but we still have a huge gap in the number of engineers. Here in New York City, if you talk to most startups, their number one issue is how they can’t find engineers to hire. For example, there are 8 million girls in high school right now, but only 3,769 took the AP computer science exam.
We’re closing the huge gender gap in computer science and technology 20 girls at a time, and those 20 are teaching 20 other girls, who are teaching 20 other girls, so it’s a multiplying factor that’s really powerful.
More on empowering young women:
Hillary Clinton, Sandra Day O'Connor and Barabara Walters are just a few of the impressive women who are former Girl Scouts. Find out how selling cookies develops essential leadership qualities in young women.
The core of the Atlanta Women's Foundation's mission is to break the cycle of generational poverty. With its community partners, the organization provides young women with the tools to improve their quality of life.
After producing the eye-opening documentary "Cover Girl Culture," Nicole Clark now travels the nation orchestrating media literacy workshops for middle and high school girls.
Wendy Bowman is a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based freelance journalist. She spent 15-plus years as a writer and editor for Atlanta Business Chronicle, covering nonprofit business, homes and lifestyles, Atlanta visitors market and more. She currently writes for Riviera Orange County, The Atlantan and Men’s Book Atlanta magazines.