The year was 2010. Reshma Saujani was in the middle of running a campaign to become the first Indian American woman in Congress when she noticed something. As she toured schools to get to know local educators and students, she saw that there were few girls in computing classes. Scratch that: There were few to none.
Saujani is known for her TED talk that teaches girls to focus on being brave instead of trying to be perfect. In 2012, she accessed that bravery for herself and founded Girls Who Code to address gender disparities within the tech world. What began as a summer experiment where Saujani brought together 20 New York girls and taught them how to code eventually became a nonprofit with coding clubs, summer programs, and more across all 50 states and multiple countries. As of 2022, more than 115,000 girls have completed Girls Who Code’s full program.
How did Saujani (while running for office) take a unique problem and address it so effectively? She is a model for other leaders and executives on how to follow what “pulls their heartstrings” and change the course of the world for the better. Saujani’s method invites flexibility, uses a relational model, and keeps eyes on the prize.
Staying Flexible in Loss
Saujani lost her 2010 bid for Congress, but instead of letting that stop her, she pivoted. Saujani had long been known for community organizing in politics and she used her connections to start Girls Who Code under the White House Science and Technology Initiative.
Girls Who Code offered after-school clubs where teachers, college students, and tech professionals taught K-12-aged girls to code by using the “core four” of computer science: Loops, conditionals, variables, and functions. Club curriculums were made free so they were accessible to all girls. The organization eventually expanded to offer summer immersion coding programs.
When the pandemic hit and it was not safe to learn code in person, Girls Who Code began offering a two-week virtual summer immersion program in partnership with tech companies such as Sephora, Microsoft, and the social media giants. Girls in this program are connected with women mentors who teach basic programming and who utilize curriculum based on each company’s needs.
The organization also started “Girls Who Code Talks” to keep girls coding across the country while people socially distanced at home. The talks provide virtual events and ways to connect via social media so that girls were able to embrace flexibility as their college and job plans changed due to the pandemic. Younger girls were invited to code from home and learned how to use the web to organize socially around an issue, create public service announcements around Earth care, and learn popular coding languages.
Relational Business Model
Girls Who Code has been about relationships as a building block for business from its inception. Saujani founded Girls Who Code through her own relationships within the community and clubs are taught by women tech professionals, college coders, and local teachers. Girls are also mentored by leaders in the tech industry.
“College Loops” are now offered as a way for college-aged coders to connect with one another and network within the tech field. This gives young women entering the tech industry like-minded community and business connections as they work to thrive in a male-dominated field.
A key piece of the mission statement of Girls Who Code is “Sisterhood.” “Instead of being afraid of difference, Girls Who Code embraces it,” the organization says. “With a focus on connecting girls and non-binary individuals who have long been kept out of the tech industry, it creates a stronger and more resilient workforce.”
MORE FOR YOU
What Keeps Saujani Up At Night
On the fifth anniversary of Girls In Code, Saujani wrote that the numbers of women in tech had declined since she founded the organization. According to her data, girls as young as 10 have internalized beliefs that say a coder is male. Saujani wrote that the declining numbers gave her sleepless nights.
Even if a woman can break through these cultural norms, get an education in computer science, and land a highly paid and sought-after tech job, there is no guarantee that they will stay there. The tech industry is known for sexism. The non-profit Women Who Tech discovered that 44% of women in the tech industry had been sexually assaulted by a leader at their company in 2020. That number grows for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC women.
Saujani has certainly created an organization that is making change for girls across the United States and more recently across the world, with its clubs and summer immersion programs in India aiming to empower more women to be engineers. However, part of what makes Saujani so successful is her refusal to take her eyes off of the main objective. With stats showing that women coders in the tech field are dropping and with harassment and assault affecting almost half of women in tech, there is still work to be done.
While Saujani has stepped aside as CEO at Girls Who Code, she has continued to focus on gender in the workplace, has a podcast encouraging women, and has written books urging girls to be brave. She continues to work in the political sphere promoting policies that compensate women well for their labor both at home and at work through her Marshall Plan for Moms. Girls Who Code inspires, educates, and equips girls in fields previously closed to them and Saujani has stayed focused on gender because she knows it matters.
Celebrating What Makes Us Unique
Saujani’s ethos is a celebration of people. She values a just world where girls are given the same space to earn the same money as boys. She acknowledges systemic barriers that have kept girls out of tech and she created an organization that celebrates diversity, equity, and inclusion in a way that makes each person’s unique experience valuable to the mission.
All girls are welcome at Girls Who Code, but the organization specifically focuses on girls who are ethnic and racial minorities, girls who come from lower economic backgrounds, girls in the disabled community, and gender non-conforming people. This method has paid off. Reshma Saujani is proof that it is possible to make change within our own spheres by noticing what isn’t right and by never letting up until these disparities are made right.