The following is a conversation between Reshma Saujani, the Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: When people are asked to name just one organization that is effectively addressing the gender gap in high tech and computer science, the name that springs to mind is Girls Who Code. That’s pretty remarkable for an organization that was just founded in 2012. It’s a wonderful story, and here to share it with us is Reshma Saujani, the Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code.
Good evening, Reshma, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Reshma: Thank you for having me.
Denver: You do not come out of the tech world. You weren’t a computer science major. So, what prompted you to start Girls Who Code?
I started Girls Who Code because I wanted to make sure that girls had a chance to march up into the middle class, and I knew that learning how to code was going to be critical to that.
Reshma: Opportunity. You know, my parents came here as refugees from Uganda in the 1970s. I’ve had a job since I was 12. I’m standing here because of the American dream. And I think today, technology is disrupting everything about the way we live and work, but we’re leaving girls behind and we’re leaving girls especially who live under the poverty line behind. And so, I started Girls Who Code because I wanted to make sure that girls had a chance to march up into the middle class, and I knew that learning how to code was going to be critical to that.
Denver: I think that a lot of people might suspect that more girls and women have gone into computer science over the past 25 or 30 years, that it’s just not happening fast enough. But that is actually far from the case. What is the real picture here?
Reshma: It’s the opposite. The world’s first programmer was a woman, Ada Lovelace. In the 1980s, if you walked into any gaming camp in America, it would have been half boys, half girls. But starting in the 1980s, essentially, you started to see this decline of women in computer science. So in the 80s, 37% of computer science graduates were women; today, that number is less than 18%. So, it’s the only industry where you’ve seen this type of decline in women, again, at a time where technology is a part of everything about the way we live and work.
Denver: So what is preventing young girls from entering the science, technology, engineering, and math fields?
Reshma: I think the first thing is culture, right? So, in the 1980s… I go cross country all the time, and I ask girls to describe to me what a computer scientist looks like. And they’ll all say the same thing. “It’s a guy. He is often white. He’s wearing a hoodie. He’s a nerd, and he’s sitting in a basement, and he’s staring at a screen.” That’s him, right? So, you started to see this depiction in culture in the 1980s in Weird Science, Revenge of the Nerds, right? If you opened up magazines or you turned on the television, when you saw computer scientists, that’s what it looked like. And so, little girls look at that image and they said, “Not only do I not want to be him, I don’t even want t o be friends with him.”
But role models — what we see in television — plays a huge role. I’m a lawyer because I saw Kelly McGillis on The Accused, and I thought she was awesome, and I made my father take me to the library so I could decide what law school I was going to. Who girls see on TV matters. Culture matters. From what we see on TV to the fact that we can buy a T-shirt that says, “I’m allergic to Algebra,” we’re constantly sending these signals to our girls that math and science are not for you. And they’re listening.
Denver: Have there been any advances or breakthroughs in popular culture where girls can see role models and imagine themselves taking that road?
Reshma: Yes! Totally. I think that a lot of what we’re doing at Girls Who Code is doing that. We recently had a book that came out. It’s a New York Times bestseller, Learn to Code and Change the World. It’s basically telling the story of computer science through the eyes of five girls that look like every girl in America. And I think when girls open that book, it’s like, “Oh my God, Lucy looks like me!” You know what I mean? “Sophie loves selfies like I do.” And it changes the way that they think about themselves and what’s possible. I think the book has played a huge role… Hidden Figures! You know, every girl in America knows who Katherine Johnson is now, and they dream of being a NASA scientist. So, yeah. I think culture can play a huge role, but we just got to get on it.
And what we realized is that when girls learn how to code, when they learn how to do something they didn’t think they’d be great at, it opens their mind to all the other things that they have turned away from because they didn’t think they’d be great at it.
Denver: Yeah. It’s beginning to but still a long way to go. You’ve also said that girls suffer from a bravery deficit. What is that? And why do you believe it’s the case?
Reshma: I did a TED Talk and basically, the thesis was that girls are taught to be perfect, and boys are taught to be brave. At a young age, we teach our girls to smile pretty and play it safe and get all As, and we teach our boys to crawl to the top of the monkey bars and just jump. My son is almost three, and he’s in the swim class. And it’s half boys, half girls. When the girls are learning how to swim, all the parents are like, “It’s okay, honey. You don’t have to get your face wet. Don’t be scared.” And with the boys, they’re pushing them into the deep end at six months because they’re trying to teach them how to be men, how to be risk takers, how to be fearless.
And then when they get older, they raise their hand for opportunities that they may not know much about, but we feel like if we don’t know how to do it exactly right, why try at all? It’s like we think our mindset is fixed, we’re either good at something or bad at something. And we start gravitating towards things we’re good at because we’re used to getting those accolades that we got when we were two, three, four, five. So, I think the bravery deficit is also having a huge impact on girls going into technology because we think that for coding, you have to be a super genius. Again, I’m either good at it or I’m bad at it. And what we realized is that when girls learn how to code, when they learn how to do something they didn’t think they’d be great at, it opens their mind to all the other things that they have turned away from because they didn’t think they’d be great at it.
Denver: They have to learn how to fail, and then be resilient. Like you did.
Reshma: All the time. Right. I’m a serial failure. I’ve run for office twice. I’ve lost twice. I constantly challenge myself. But I’ve exercised my bravery muscle… like it’s a muscle. So, when I do something that’s a lot of risk, I don’t even really think about it. Or when I get rejected, I’m not going to say that it doesn’t hurt, but I don’t get fixated. Because sometimes people think that failure will break them, and I’ve realized it’s not going to break you. You’ll recover.
Denver: Take a little bit; breathe some, and shake it off and then move on to the next thing. Absolutely. So, how does your program work? What age girls do you target? Who do you partner with? What happens with these girls? What do they do when they enter your program?
Reshma: We’ve taught over 53,000 girls to code in all 50 states, and again, to put that into perspective, only 7,000 women graduated in computer science last year. So, we’re solving this problem. We think it’s very solvable.
We basically have two programs. We have what we call our free summer program. We embed a classroom in a technology company. We run 80 of those in 11 states, and every company from Facebook to Twitter to Pixar to Disney to Adobe to Microsoft has a summer immersion program on site where 20 girls go for seven weeks over the summer, and they learn how to computer program. The program is free. The goal is to get those girls to major or minor in computer science, which almost 90% of our girls at that program are like, “I’m going to major or minor in CS.”
And then the second thing we do is we have after-school clubs for middle school girls on up. They’re at libraries, homeless shelters, community centers, private schools, public schools. We have girls from all across… There is a story that I just read last week about the first club for autistic girls at Florida Atlantic University. We have so many different types of young women who are learning how to code, and it’s changing their lives.
Denver: What’s the dynamic in a class of all girls learning to code as opposed to a mixed class?
Reshma: It’s amazing. I think that what happens to a lot of these girls… remember, they don’t know each other, and they have all of their own baggage that they come into it. They’re meeting girls from all different walks of life, different races, different religions, different socio-economic backgrounds, and they’re all probably there because maybe their mom made them go. Not all of them are willing participants. But I see them almost get back to being like children, and it’s beautiful to watch in terms of their excitement, their creativity. They’re bonding with each other, they’re building… it’s magical. It’s life-changing for them. No matter how big we’ve grown over the past six years, that Girls Who Code magic never goes away. There’s something special about that experience for them.
Denver: Talk a little bit about your alumni. You sort of touched on that before, but of these 53,000 girls, do you have data as to how many of them are sticking with math and engineering and computer science?
Reshma: Yes, we will be sharing that data. Let’s just say I’m jumping up with joy about it.
Denver: That’s great.
Reshma: Because we’ve grown 300% every year, we have about 5,000 of those 53,000 girls that are in college right now, and when I walk around and go to different college campuses, we’re actually a critical mass of the college, of the CS departments. Even so, statistically, half of the women that declare computer science as their major will drop out by the end of the four years. To me, what’s the opportunity? What’s the thing that we can do to reduce that attrition rate? And that’s what we’re working on right now. But I think at the rate that we’re growing, we can solve this problem by 2027. That’s our goal.
Denver: That’s a pretty clear goal you’ve got there and very ambitious. You mentioned before that you had written this book Girls Who Code, but that’s just the start of a 13-book series by Penguin. Tell us a little bit more about it.
Reshma: Yes. I would go all over the country speaking a lot, and I would get question after question from parents like:” Is there a book? I want to teach my girls how to code.” I said, “There must be.” And I went online or went to a bookstore. Oh my God, there isn’t anything.
Denver: There’s an opportunity though.
Reshma: Yes! So, we have this wonderful partnership with Penguin where we have board books — Babies who Code. How to Code a Sandcastle. We have activities books. We have a fiction series called the Friendship Code, which is essentially, four girls meet in a coding club, and it’s like a babysitters club. The book that’s so popular with so many girls… We have essentially our primer of our curriculum and a graphic nonfiction book called Girls Who Learn to Code Change the World. Both the fiction and nonfiction books were New York Times bestseller the first week. So, it’s pretty amazing. I’ve been getting… I love the holiday season. I’ve been getting all these photos from parents being like, “My daughter asked Santa for the book for Christmas.” Oh my God. It’s wonderful.
Denver: It’s very sweet. You know, it’s one thing, Reshma, to encourage girls to pursue computer science at school; quite another to have them pursue long and successful careers at high tech organizations where they rise through the ranks and assume leadership positions. What is the latter part of that picture look like, the workforce part?
Reshma: We have a lot of work to do. We’ve seen over the past year different ….like the Me Too Movement has been very powerful in showcasing the work and the harassment culture that exists still in technology companies. I fear though that doesn’t change unless you really have critical mass, which is why we’re trying to flood the gates with women. A lot of these startup companies, they don’t have mature HR Departments, right? They need to really invest in thinking clearly on how they make those changes. I’m confident that they will, and I think that organizations like Girls Who Code need to continue to put pressure on them to do that.
Denver: What are some of the more forward-thinking companies and organizations that are addressing this issue successfully?
Reshma: I think that a lot of them are really thinking about what are the practices that they have to change to first make sure that once you teach a girl how to code, does she ever have a real shot at getting an offer? So taking a critical look, we are housed in a company called AppNexus, and we work very closely and say, “Who applied to your full-time internship program? Did you give them a real look? Are we giving them a shot at a real opportunity there?”
So, I think that more companies are taking a more critical look at their HR practices to see whether they’re giving girls real opportunities. And we’re going to definitely put pressure on them to make sure that happens because I don’t want to teach tens of thousands of girls to code and then these companies don’t hire them.
You know, 74% of girls that are in high school say that they want to pick a career that’s about changing the world.
What blows my mind is in the tens of thousands of girls that we have taught to code, all of them are thinking about their world, their community, their family, their friends… and they’re seeing a problem that they’re facing and saying, “What can I do? How can I use technology to solve that?” It is pretty powerful.
Denver: That would be pretty frustrating, I’m sure. I’ve been curious about this. Is there a difference between how men and women use technology and the problems they decide to focus on?
Reshma: You know, 74% of girls that are in high school say that they want to pick a career that’s about changing the world. And one of things that we’ve seen in our program–so, at Girls Who Code: Girls are encouraged to go into teams and build something. Often that something is: My father has cancer so I’m building an algorithm to help detect whether a cancer is benign or malignant; I’m undocumented and I want to build a game on immigration; I know there’s something called the menstruation tablet, so I’m building a game called Tampon Run; I see that Congress isn’t passing a bill on Zika funding, so I want to build a machine-learning tool that does that.
What blows my mind is again, in the tens of thousands of girls that we have taught to code, all of them are thinking about their world, their community, their family, their friends… and they’re seeing a problem that they’re facing and saying, “What can I do? How can I use technology to solve that?” It is pretty powerful.
So, I would say, there might be so many innovations that are sitting on the sidelines that we’re just not even thinking about. It’s funny, I was reading something about how… I think it was when Apple was making their earpods, they didn’t realize that sometimes women wear earrings that are long and dangling. And so they kept banging up against them because all of their testers and their engineers were essentially male. As we’re building these products, we’re not thinking about women because women are not in the room.
Denver: And women do tend to focus more on the greater good. I think that’s just a fact of life. Let’s talk a little bit about your organization. What’s your business model? And what are your different sources of revenue?
Reshma: About 80% plus of our funding comes from corporations. From very early on, I think we had a great understanding with many companies like: you have a pipeline problem. We know if girls don’t take computer science by the time they are in college, they’re unlikely to take it. So, let us start basically developing that pipeline. So, we’re very much aligned with our corporate partners and basically being committed together to basically solving the gender disparity problem, and in many ways, the lack of women of color in technology too. That’s why we have such strong and powerful support from tech companies.
I always hire people that are smarter than me. Most people that work at Girls Who Code are smarter than me, and that is awesome because then we push each other to think about things that I didn’t think about or they didn’t think about. I think it builds a culture of evangelists who very much feel like they’re on a mission — it’s not a job.
Denver: As you know, Reshma, so many organizations are interested in knowing how to go about scaling an organization and boy, have you done that! You started with 20 people here in New York City, and as you mentioned a moment ago, you have 53,000 girls now in all 50 states. What are the things you did, the lessons you learned about successfully scaling up an organization?
Reshma: My philosophy is you either go big or go home. I didn’t want to build the next Red Cross. I wanted to solve a problem and then be done. And so I always wake up every New Year and think about: What did we learn last year? How can we take those lessons and go even bigger? And so we’ve been relentless about scale and growth, with also maintaining a commitment to quality. And so I think that that’s been really important.
Because I ran for office twice, I’ve been a political fundraiser, I think, my whole life, I’m not embarrassed to ask for resources and ask for more. I think that that often gets in the way for a lot of organizations where they feel guilty asking, and I don’t. I have a good sense of nervous energy that I’ve made a commitment to teaching millions of girls to code, and so I need to honor that commitment to them. I think that that brings about an intensity. I always hire people that are smarter than me. Most people that work at Girls Who Code are smarter than me, and that is awesome because then we push each other to think about things that I didn’t think about or they didn’t think about. I think it builds a culture of evangelists who very much feel like they’re on a mission — it’s not a job.
I think that a lot of it is about sisterhood. Building community. Bravery. Encouraging one another to be honest and open in our feedback, and to take big risks and to think big. We really care a lot about community.
Denver: Let’s talk a little bit about that culture. I know you have one that you’ve created and that you’re exceptionally proud of. Describe it for us and what makes it such a special and distinctive place in which to work?
Reshma: We’ve been working on what we think are the tenets of our organization, and I think that a lot of it is about sisterhood. Building community. Bravery. Encouraging one another to be honest and open in our feedback, and to take big risks and to think big. We really care a lot about community.
Again, I keep saying, one of the powerful things about Girls Who Code is this idea of sisterhood, and so how do we emulate that in our office? It’s hard. Running a nonprofit organization is hard. You can’t pay people the way you want to pay them. You’re asking them to work just as hard if they were in the private sector. You take it all home with you. You take your girls’ dreams, hopes and visions home with you every night. Every year for me, I’ve got to raise a new $50 million from scratch.
Denver: That’s right. January 1 rolls around, and you’re starting at the starting line, one more year.
Reshma: Yeah. And it’s not a performance-based, “Oh you’re doing a great job. Let me just give you $100 million,” right? And you focus on that. That would be very nice. If anyone is listening that has $100 million, please send it to 28 West 23rd Street.
Denver: Why don’t you share with us an inspiring story or two of young ladies who’ve been through your program and the impact that it’s had on their lives?
Reshma: We had a girl in our first program, Cora, whose father was diagnosed with cancer. She built an algorithm to help detect whether the cancer was benign or malignant. We had a young girl, Trisha Prabhu, who was actually a volunteer at one of our clubs, and she built an app called ReThink. She was being bullied her whole life, and she read about a little girl who was being bullied so bad that the girl actually jumped off a building and killed herself, and she was 12 years old. And so Trisha said, “It’s not right.” And she built an app that every time you’re about to send something that’s not so nice, it asks you: Are you sure you want to send that? Sixteen years old.
I was also moved by a group of organizers in Florida that have built a club for girls that are on the autistic spectrum. The facilitator was telling me how many lives have been changed by girls that have participated in this program and of their families, that it’s oversubscribed and they’re going to try to figure out how to build it even bigger. But I had a group of girls — Brookview House at Dorchester, Massachusetts. It’s a homeless shelter, and the girls learn how to code. They wake up from their bedrooms, go downstairs, and they learn how to computer program. And I brought them to the National Governor’s Association, and they were wireframing these ideas about how to increase women’s small businesses to like the governors of America. It was just so powerful, so incredible to watch them. So I get to live in these stories every day. To see them every day, in every town, every county, every parish in America.
I really do believe that coding jobs can be the great equalizer. The last jobs to go will be the humans that are telling the computers what to do.
Denver: Keeps you going.
Reshma: It totally keeps you. I think for me again, my parents came here with nothing, and I am big believer in the American dream. A lot of families are suffering and they feel like their kids don’t have the same shot that they had at the American dream. And I really do believe that coding jobs can be the great equalizer. The last jobs to go will be the humans that are telling the computers what to do. So, we got to get on this. And fast.
Denver: Let me close with this, Reshma. You’ve done an awful lot and have accomplished a lot, but you’re still in the early innings of a big game here. What’s your vision for the organization over the next five years? And what changes are you working on and advocating for which are really going to accelerate the progress of girls and women being equitably represented in this all-important field?
Reshma: I think we are strongly considering going international. Secondly, we are thinking about going younger. So having clubs for girls that are third to fifth grade. I think we are thinking more about what we can do to engage our alumni community together and foster community with one another. How can we continue to build the brand through licensing and merchandising? And I think the opportunity is now that we’ve taught all these girls, we want to make sure that we don’t lose them, either in college or in the technology workforce. So what are the interventions that we can actually offer and do to basically make sure that girls stay?
Denver: Stay on the course. Absolutely. Well, Reshma Saujani, the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website, what visitors will find there, and how they can become engaged in the organization, either financially or otherwise.
Reshma: We’re in the middle of our giving campaign, so if you can give a little, give a little. If you can give a lot, give a lot. Go to girlswhocode.com. There’s a nice, obvious donate button — press it. If you’re a volunteer, even if you don’t code, you can come learn how to code. We basically have a program where non-technical facilitators can help support a Girls Who Code club. So, sign up. Find time to give back. Buy one of our books and give it to a girl; donate it to a library; give it to a girl who doesn’t have the resources, who doesn’t have WiFi at home or in school. Constantly think about the young girls in your life, and how do you get them to innovate, create, and build.
Denver: Fantastic. Well, thanks, Reshma. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Reshma: Thank you.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving