Saujani, an Indian-American child of political refugees, launched her underdog campaign in 2010, motivated by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential run. While she didn't win, the support she received from other women pushed her to "pay it forward." During her campaign, she’d learned that job growth came from technology – but only a small, mostly male fraction of the U.S. work force could fill those jobs. "As a nation, we're missing out not just on innovation, but the innovation of an entire gender," she says. "Our country depends on teaching girls to get into these fields."
Taking her renewed passion for public service, Saujani last summer launched Girls Who Code, training underprivileged teenage girls in computer science. She recruited executives at Twitter, GE and eBay to support the program. This year, with a $435,000 grant by the Knight Foundation, she plans to expand Girls Who Code to three cities, and eventually launch Girls Who Code clubs in schools.
Saujani was recently named a Next MAKER by Makers.com, which honors trailblazing women leaders across the globe, joining the ranks of Madeleine Albright, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and her mentor, Clinton. She’s now a candidate for New York City Public Advocate, running on a platform focused on supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs.
Edited interview excerpts follow.
Entrepreneur: Will training and mentoring girls in tech have more of a social impact or economic impact?
Saujani: They’re intertwined. If we teach a million girls to code by 2020, there will be a tangible change in the economic future – more jobs, less pay inequity. There’s an access issue in this country. In NYC, 76 percent of public school students don’t have access to a computer in school. So students are missing a fundamental language that we use in business. Socially, there is a huge impact. When girls build, they make things to improve their community.
Entrepreneur: Do you know how to code?
Saujani: I wish I did! I was always intimidated by math and science growing up and I still am now. I don’t want other girls to feel as I did. I wish I could build an app. Even as I run for office, it’d be great if I could make changes to my website myself. There’s a vulnerability that comes with not knowing. That is true for small-business owners as well. Think about the small family restaurant down the street — if everyone else is on Seamless and she’s not, how does she compete?
Entrepreneur: Has the tech community been supportive of nurturing girls?
Saujani: Yes. Both men and women have come out to support us. My relationship with the CEO of Twitter evolved because I reached out to the women of Twitter networking group. They helped recruit other female engineers and entrepreneurs to support us. Men support us because they have daughters, and they see that computer science education isn’t happening in school.
Entrepreneur: Are young women less interested in becoming tech entrepreneurs than young men are? Is that a myth?
Saujani: We make it true by saying it. If we encourage girls to take risks like we do for boys, there will be more gender parity in entrepreneurship. We have to start encouraging our girls to fail fast, fail hard and fail often. Girls Who Code is a natural place for this. I saw the confidence level in our girls enormously increase in the eight weeks of the program. In the beginning, they could hardly introduce themselves. By the end we had them making presentations in a room of 100 people and doing science fairs at the New York Stock Exchange. They were not the same girls they were when they started. We shouldn’t have a creative culture or society that makes it more acceptable for men to fail than women.
Entrepreneur: Was it difficult to recover from your congressional race?
Saujani: I gave myself two months to mourn it and ask questions of what went wrong during the campaign. Putting together a campaign is like starting a business — you learn about how to hire, how to run your budget, what your message is, what your mission is.
Entrepreneur: Is failure now part of the zeitgeist of our culture?
Saujani: The economy has changed so significantly that if you ask young people what they want to do, they want to become entrepreneurs. Failure is part of that. If you are passionate and smart and you have an idea and you fail, it doesn’t preclude you from doing anything else. Exploring these things is about finding your dharma and figuring out what you’re put on this earth to do.
Entrepreneur: How do you find your dharma?
Saujani: The best test: Do you bound out of bed in the morning? I don’t sleep enough, but I jump out of bed every morning. I love what I’m doing, I love Girls Who Code and I love running for office. I did not feel that way for most of my career. I was curled up in the fetal position for most of my career! What are you getting out of your work? What are you losing? Do the cost benefit analysis of sticking with something that you don’t love, and see if it’s worth it to you.