Girls Who Code: Be Brave Not PerfectJune 13, 2017
“It's like breaking a habit, once you start to be brave, you just are always brave.” Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code
She’d never written a line of code in her life — but she had the guts to take on one of tech’s biggest problems. Meet Reshma Saujani: a daughter of refugees, a Yale Law graduate, a former Wall Street lawyer, and an ex-candidate for Congress. Today, she runs Girls Who Code, an organization she founded to disrupt the tech talent pipeline, by closing the gender gap. Through all of it, she’s learned that sometimes the best way to succeed is to fail.
The Venture is hosted by Ashley Milne-Tyte.
This episode features:
Reshma Saujani, Founder of Girls Who Code and author of Women Who Don’t Wait in Line
Beth Comstock, Vice Chair at GE
Andy Gonzalez and Sophie Houser, Co-creators of Tampon Run
Trina DasGupta, Founder & CEO of Single Palm Tree Productions and founding board member of Girls Who Code
Nihal Mehta, Founding General Partner at Eniac Ventures
To learn more about The Venture, go to virginatlantic.com/theventure
RESHMA: Math never came easy to me, and I think that what happens is as a young woman, when we feel like things are fixed, right, like I’m either good at math or I’m bad at math. My first memory of math and science is really at the kitchen table with my father. And I just remember like sweating as my father asked me, like you know what’s two plus two? And so, he’s probably shocked that the girl who couldn’t you know add two plus two is now running an organization to build the next generation of engineers.
This is The Venture, a branded podcast from Virgin Atlantic and Gimlet Creative. In this series, we profile pioneering businesses that changed the face of their industries, and talk to the people who made them possible. I’m your host, Ashley Milne-Tyte, and we’re taking this journey alongside Virgin Atlantic, a company that embodies the entrepreneurial spirit and celebrates challenging the status quo.
Today, a woman who went from struggling with math at the kitchen table, to running an organization that hopes to close the gender gap in the tech industry.
RESHMA: My name is Reshma Saujani. I’m the CEO and founder of Girls Who Code.
Let’s start with some stats: According to Girls Who Code, only five percent of tech companies are led by women. So, a critical sector of the American economy is led almost entirely by men. And we can see this disparity long before we get to the C.E.O-level – women hold just 18% of undergraduate degrees in computer science. Back in the 80’s that number was 40%. And Reshma Saujani has a theory as to why girls don’t go into tech. Here she is giving a TED talk about it last year…
RESHMA TED TALK: So many women I talk to tell me that they gravitate towards careers and professions that they know they’re going to be perfect in, and it’s no wonder why. Most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure. They’re taught to smile pretty, play it safe, get all A’s. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and jump off. And by the time they’re adults, whether they’re negotiating a raise or even asking someone out on a date, they’re habituated to take risk after risk. They’re rewarded for it. It’s often said in Silicon Valley, no one even takes you seriously unless you’ve had two failed startups.
In other words …
RESHMA TED TALK: we’re raising our girls to be perfect, and we’re raising our boys to be brave.
Reshma has always been brave.
RESHMA: It wasn’t easy growing up in a Midwestern town in the 1980s being brown.
Her parents are from Uganda. They fled in the 1970’s when the dictator Idi Amin ruled the country. Reshma’s family is Indian — and Amin threatened mass executions of anyone in Uganda of Indian descent. And the US granted them refugee status. Some of the lucky few who got it – because they were engineers. That’s how Reshma found herself growing up in Schaumberg, Illinois – a small town outside of Chicago. The move was really hard on her parents…
RESHMA: You know my mother when she wore a sari, you know to the local K-Mart, she would get, you know, made fun of for the bindi on her head. And I learned from a very young age that I had to stand up for myself. Middle school was rough. I got called a Hadji and instead of getting on the bus I was like alright I’ll meet you in the schoolyard. And I got pretty badly beat up.
By the time she got to high school, Reshma knew who she was and what she looked like, wasn’t going to change. So she turned her focus to academics. And she knew exactly how she wanted to use her hard fought knowledge…
RESHMA: I wanted to be a lawyer. I saw Kelly McGillis on The Accused, and I just thought she was awesome. You know, she was like this fierce, female like lawyer that was fighting for other women and that’s what I wanted to do.
And because she was different, she thought she could prove herself…by being the best. And so naturally, she wanted to go to the best law school in the country: Yale.
RESHMA: I also knew that, you know, Bill and Hillary Clinton went there, and half the senators of the United States went there, if I was going to be somebody, then I needed that credential and that’s where I was going to go.
But, it wasn’t that simple… She applied and…got rejected. So she applied again! And…got rejected. She applied a third time, and…got rejected. Still, that didn’t stop her…
RESHMA: When I get something in my head I won’t let it go. I just had it in my head that that’s where I had to go and I was going to keep trying and keep trying and keep trying and keep trying. It was very, very painful because it was all I wanted.
Reshma’s persistence landed her a meeting with the Dean of Yale Law School. And she got him to agree to let her transfer in if she aced her first year at Georgetown. Which she did. She had talked her way into her dream school, but it came with a very high price tag. She graduated with more than 300-thousand-dollars of students loans…
RESHMA: Walking out of Yale Law School with that much debt from, you know undergrad, grad school, law school was frightening.
That’s when she took her first job as an associate at a top corporate law firm. Most of her clients worked on Wall Street…
RESHMA: I remember I got my first paycheck and it was $10,000. And I was like holy cow. Like, and my parents like oh my god this is one fifth of what my parents made an entire year. it was crazy. So, I got seduced. You think that you can go work at one of these fancy places for a couple of years and take the golden handcuffs off and then you can go live your life, but it never ends up happening that way does it.
Reshma was living the American dream. She had a good job, with a great salary, but after six years, she was was burned out.
RESHMA: In reality my day job was protecting, you know, banks. And it was killing me. I was tired of coming home everyday in the fetal position. I think I was in a very dark place. And I felt very trapped and I felt like all the decisions that I had made in my life, that had led to this point were not opening the doors that I thought would open. And I was tired of working for people whose values I didn’t respect.
What Reshma really wanted was to find a way to do work that was more meaningful to her, but she couldn’t figure out how to do that and pay the bills. So, she threw herself into her pro-bono work. She defended people unjustly accused of terrorist activity under the Patriot Act. And she worked on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. But even then..
RESHMA: It was just not enough.
But in 2008, a wake-up call.
JIM CRAMER-MAD MONEY: 14 million people took a mortgage in the last 3 years, 7 million of them took teaser rates or took piggyback rates, they will lose their homes! This is crazy!
RESHMA: Just watching homes being foreclosed on I’m like where am I standing right now? That was gut wrenching.
The looming market crash coincided with Hillary Clinton’s first failed run for presidency. Reshma had been hard at work supporting her campaign. And it was this combination of events that set Reshma on her new path.
HRC: To those who are disappointed that we couldn’t go all the way, especially the young people who put so much into this campaign…
RESHMA: I remember watching Hillary Clinton’s concession speech and she had this line where she said…
HRC: Always aim high, work hard and care deeply about what you believe in. And, when you stumble, keep faith. And, when you’re knocked down, get right back up….
RESHMA: And I literally felt like she was speaking to me, and so I decided to quit.
Reshma quit her corporate law job, and decided to run for Congress….
ASHLEY: What did your loved ones and your friends say when you told them you wanted to do this?
RESHMA: I think my family was like…great?! I think other people probably thought I was crazy. I didn’t know any better. I thought I could shake every hand. Like, this is exciting. You know, I want to run a disruptive campaign, we can use technology, I want to organize young people I want to organize people of color and I want to organize women. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was actually doing what I was meant to do. And I was I was operating for good.
NIHAL MEHTA: When Reshma makes up her mind on something there’s no stopping that.
This is Nihal Mehta, Reshma’s husband.
NIHAL: Basically you can try to help and support or just get get out of the way, you know. So I think probably most of the time I was getting out of the way.
Nihal and Reshma met while they were working on President Obama’s 2008 election campaign. He helped out on her congressional bid.
NIHAL: And so when we would go to, you know travel to L.A. or San Francisco, friends would throw events for us just to fundraise for her in New York. And so I think that’s one thing I realized that she’s truly special, is her ability to really inspire and connect with large groups of people and get them super motivated you know to fight for what she believes in.
Reshma was only thirty-three years old when she ran. The insular New York City political class considered her an outsider. And she was running in the primary against longtime incumbent Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. On all counts, she was an underdog.
RESHMA: It all felt nerve racking but it also felt very exciting and liberating at the same time, I can’t explain it. It’s like these dual emotions of like being in the thick of your passion and in the thick of your fear. I like feeling afraid. And nervous and anxious.
Reshma was also the first Indian-American woman to ever run for Congress. Reshma knew the deck was stacked against her…but she also really felt she had a shot at winning the seat.
RESHMA: I thought I had the better ideas, the better message, I thought we needed new blood.
The day of the primary arrived, after almost a year of campaigning. And the results were devastating…she got 19-percent of the vote – not bad for a newcomer. But still, it was a harsh defeat.
ASHLEY: Do you remember what you did the next day?
RESHMA: Oh my god, yeah I remember I got up and I was so terrified to look at my phone because I was like Twitter will be giddy with my loss, right? And that felt painful that I had just let so many people down and that people were…I felt humiliated.
People close to her weren’t used to seeing Reshma so down.
NIHAL: I’ll never forget that day, that was the first time I saw her in that much real pain. She was crying, crying herself to sleep, and the first thing she said when she woke up is what am I going to do now? And that was like heartbreaking for all of us, we’re like woah.
RESHMA: You know, I just went back to my room and just put the covers on.
The woman who had always had a plan…no longer had one. After the break, how Reshma turns her loss, into a win…for 40,000 girls.
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KATIE: My name is Katie Allen, I’m a flight service manager and I’ve worked for Virgin for thirty years.
Katie has worn many hats over the past three decades at Virgin Atlantic. She started out as a flight attendant. Now, in addition to her day job, she’s doing something she never thought she’d do. She’s part of a team that’s building an app that will help Virgin Atlantic cabin crew take even better care of their customers. And like many of the young women in Girls Who Code, working on a tech project was something that felt really foreign to Katie — at first…
KATIE: When I started the project, I was very very nervous…. I hadn’t really gotten involved in any computers or personal devices. And it really was all a little bit over my head. So part of being involved, I just thought, I need to have this challenge. I need to be in it on the ground. But I was able to learn how to do it and then I was able to show other people how to do it. And I’ve really quite surprised myself.
Virgin Atlantic, where taking on new challenges, is all in a day’s work. To learn more, go to virginatlantic.com/theventure
Welcome back to the Venture. In the fall of 2010, Reshma Saujani was back to square one after quitting her corporate law job and losing her race for Congress. But…there was one silver lining…
RESHMA: I mean I think the thing is, is that, I lost and I didn’t die.
She gave herself three months to grieve. And then, she would move on.
RESHMA: I think it’s important to just give yourself time to stew, but have a finite time. I was going to give myself until December 31 to just whine about it cry about it ask over and over and over again. I drank a lot of margaritas, I talked to a lot of people and I felt sorry for myself. And then on January first, I was moving on and I did.
One of the people she talked to was current mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio. Back then he was the public advocate. He asked her to come work for him. Reshma embraced the new job…she helped found the “dream fellowship,” the first-ever scholarship program for undocumented students. She worked on campaign finance reform, and she organized sessions on entrepreneurship for immigrant business owners. Reshma was finally living her childhood vision of pursuing justice and fighting for people’s rights. And as she traveled the five boroughs visiting schools and rec centers…..she remembered a pattern she’d observed while running for Congress.
RESHMA: I would go into some schools in the Upper East Side that had robotics labs and computer science classes and they were like filled with boys. And I would go into other schools in like, in Queens, and there would be like five hundred kids using one computer still, barely any girls. And so I was just curious where are the girls?
And that’s when she started to follow the thread…
RESHMA: Why is the founder of Facebook a dude? Why is the founder of Twitter a dude? Like you know why are all these men building these products
In true Reshma fashion, she was supplementing her incredibly busy day job with an ambitious side project – writing a book. It was about her experience with failure – woven with advice from powerful and successful businesswomen. For the book, she landed an interview with Beth Comstock…
BETH COMSTOCK: I’m Beth Comstock, I’m a Vice Chair at GE.
Beth is one of the top executives at General Electric – a company with about 300-thousand employees and around 124-billion dollars in revenue last year. Beth is also the first woman to hold this particular position at GE….
BETH: With Reshma it was sort of energy and deep right from the beginning. And I knew she was different. She sits down she’s just fiery energy and in two seconds she has you hooked
Reshma turned her meeting with Beth into an impromptu pitch session. She told Beth about an idea she had to solve the problem of women in tech. Teaching girls to code.
BETH: I remember her saying there’s this challenge that that girls aren’t entering science and technology the way they should be and that just resonated. I know we have a lot of great science and technology at GE. But I knew we needed more women so that resonated with me.
RESHMA: She’s like oh my god that sounds awesome, how can I help you? I was like, well I’d like $50,000.
BETH: And the fact that she had identified the problem and organized a way to go after it. Why wouldn’t you want to follow that? She just she just makes it so darn compelling you feel like you have to be part of it.
Just like that, Reshma had the backing of one of the most powerful companies in the world.
TRINA: There is no one I’ve ever met who knows how to make things happen than Reshma.
This is Trina DasGupta — a longtime friend of Reshma. She’s watched her build Girls Who Code from scratch. She’s a founding board member of the organization…
TRINA: People will feel like they need to be fully prepared and ready before they have a conversation, they almost talk themselves out of doing something. Whereas Reshma’s just like I’m just going to do it you know and that doesn’t mean she’s not prepared. She is prepared. She’s just not waiting for something else because the truth is when we say to ourselves I need to do X Y and Z before it’s really just our fear talking. Right. And she doesn’t have that.
After Beth Comstock, Reshma turned to the connections she’d made over the years in politics and in the tech industry…
RESHMA: It was the right names who gave us then small amounts of money. That created a perfect storm.
Heavy hitters started coming in: The founder of Twitter Jack Dorsey and its then CEO – Dick Costolo were both early investors. Then came Google, eBay, Microsoft and more…
RESHMA: And you have to remember at this point, it’s just an idea in my head. This was before I launched my first program. So they were just going on this crazy Indian woman who had just walked in, who wasn’t a coder telling you that she had an idea for a summer program that she was going to put together.
But not everyone she talked to was on board…
RESHMA: One person who will remain nameless who is a pretty prominent venture capitalist and who was like I just think, I think there’s an aptitude issue. Like I think that boys and girls are just wired differently and, ‘Don’t think will work, Reshma,’ and then, you know. I said, thank you, then as I left gave him the middle finger and then, did my thing. I very much started Girls Who Code not to like start a movement but to do an experiment. It was just one pilot program in a friend’s conference room where I hand-picked my first 20 girls and it was after that summer I was like oh wow, like this is, this is it.
That first summer program, was twenty girls from around New York City. They spent seven weeks together in a conference room. Reshma talked friends of friends into volunteering their time to teach the coding workshops. And she wanted to make sure the group was really diverse — in terms of race, income background, which high schools they went to.
RESHMA: The vast majority of them didn’t have computers at home or at school. And none of them knew how to code.
Reshma wasn’t even sure if they would show up…
RESHMA: I think I gave them each $50 that summer because I was like there’s no way they’re going to stay and finish this program, they’re going to want to go swimming or something, instead. But it was powerful, like not only do they learn how to code. It was the problems that they wanted to solve.
One girl wanted to help women in her neighborhood make websites for their businesses. Another girl wanted to build an algorithm to detect cancer. And because of the support she’d gotten from the big tech companies, news about the program spread fast. Twitter posted about Girls Who Code on their blog, and it quickly started trending. Reshma got an email from Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg asking how she could help.
RESHMA: The idea picked up like that because it was obvious. I don’t think Girls Who Code was like an a-ha moment. Everyone knew that we should be teaching girls to code. You know, I don’t think I invented something. But we put it together. You know what I mean, in the right way and that made sense to people.
ASHLEY: Was there any resistance or kind of, question mark over the fact that you didn’t
yourself have an engineering background?
RESHMA: No, isn’t that shocking? I don’t think I even questioned it. In some ways, running for Congress unleashed the bravery muscle in me and it’s like breaking a habit like once you start to be brave, you just are always brave. And so I was like, had the chutzpah to start an organization called Girls who Code when I did not code.
By the end of 2012, Girls Who Code was up and running. The following summer, they accepted 80 girls into the program. And then they expanded to after school clubs, around the country.
SOPHIE: Before Girls Who Code, I didn’t even know what code really was…
Sophie Houser was in a Girls Who Code summer program in New York City in 2014.
SOPHIE: …like I had no idea what it looked like or like where you did it. Like I didn’t know if it was like a word doc situation. So Girls Who Code was my first ever introduction to coding.
There, she met a girl named Andy Gonzalez.
ANDY: I’d never been in an environment where I was learning to code and also around only women.
Over that summer, Andy and Sophie teamed up on a coding project. They’d been talking about how video games are all pretty much geared towards boys. And how normal gun violence is in these games. And so they thought: why not create a game about… menstruation, something that actually is normal:
SOPHIE: I had an idea for a game where a girl throws tampons at people. And so I said it and we like, at first laughed about it and then we started just sharing stories and I, and we realized that we both felt really uncomfortable with our periods and like, we realized that was actually really strange and not at all how it should be.
The game they made is called Tampon Run. The game is pixelated and 2-dimensional. Imagine the original Super Mario Brothers..but with tampons instead of fireballs. Once they posted Tampon Run online, it became an internet sensation. Everyone from Teen Vogue to the Today Show to Fast Company to Buzzfeed featured it on their sites. It touched a nerve. Andy and Sophie even got a book deal. Here’s Andy:
ANDY: Tampon Run is probably like one of the first times I stepped forward as like this like feminist and activist. Knowing that I can make whatever I want with code has just generally made me like a lot more confident and a lot more outspoken. It opens up doors to creation that I didn’t really realize existed until I started learning to code.
Sophie and Andy are now in college, where they’re both majoring in computer science — most of the time, they’re some of the only women in their classrooms. Girls Who Code taught them about computer science – of course – but it also taught them the lesson at the center of Reshma’s life and work: Failure is key to success. Here’s Sophie…
SOPHIE: A huge part of coding is you fail over and over and over again. And then, you figure it out, and then you just feel like so incredibly good about yourself. And that process has taught me to not be so afraid of failing and that if I fail at first or am struggling that isn’t a sign that I’m naturally bad at something it’s just that is the process of doing anything.
Today, just five years later, Reshma’s ambitious pet project – to solve the problem of Women in tech – is well underway. Girls Who Code operates in all 50 states. By the end of this year, 40,000 girls will have gone through the program. The goal for next year is to reach 100,000. And growing so fast is hard, but Reshma says it’s necessary.
RESHMA: You know we had 7000 applicants for 1600 spots for us for for our summer program. I think we reject 8 out of every 1 applicant that, that sucks, like that’s not what I want. It’s hard, you can only grow as fast as you can grow. Like I want to solve the problem. And then we want to move on to the next problem. So, you know, when you operate a business or a nonprofit from that mentality is very different.
And what’s at stake if Reshma’s experiment of bringing girls into tech – doesn’t work? According to GE’s Beth Comstock: everything.
BETH: Well what’s at stake is our products aren’t going to be as good. We serve customers around the world. They expect us to keep them ahead of change. And the only way you’re going to do that is have diverse minds. And so it’s just that simple. That’s what companies get out of it. You get innovation.
Reshma Saujani has spent her life being unafraid of standing out, unafraid of trying too hard, and of failing. Now, she’s created an entire movement to pass those ideals onto tens of thousands of other young women throughout the country and even the world. But this isn’t just about empowering women to be brave…it’s empowering them with skills…skills that she fully expects them to use. Reshma has big plans for her girls…
RESHMA: You know my girls are going to solve the world’s most pressing problems. You know finding a cure to cancer, thinking about the top innovations, doing something about climate change, those are going to be my girls. And they’re sixteen. Imagine when they’re 24, 28, 32 like what they’re going to be doing.
The Venture is a co-production of Virgin Atlantic, Gimlet Creative, and Figliulo & Partners.
We were produced this week by Nicole Wong, Julia Botero and Thom Cote, with help from Rachel Ward and Caitlin Dilena. Our creative director is Nazanin Rafsanjani and our editor is Wendy Dorr. We were mixed by Andrew Dunn. Our theme song was composed by Bobby Lord and Matthew Boll.
Special thanks to Tarika Barrett, Kevin Lawler, Yohan Garcia, and Helen Altshuler. Music for this episode is courtesy of West One Music and Marmoset. You can play Andy & Sophie’s game at tamponrun.com. You can learn more about The Venture, at virginatlantic.com/theventure. And if you’re enjoying The Venture, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, and tell us why! It really helps other people find our show. Next time on The Venture…something a little different.. A live panel of entrepreneurs with Richard Branson.
RICHARD BRANSON: there’s a very thin dividing line between success and failure and for most of us you’re battling just to stay on the right side of that dividing line
That’s next week, on The Venture. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening!
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