Reshma Saujani made history in 2010 when she became the first Indian-American woman to run for U.S. Congress.
She did not win her bid for a seat representing New York in the House of Representatives. But her effort to better understand the lack of female representation in tech fields -- especially given what she observed in schools while on the campaign trail -- ended up changing the course of her career.
After nearly two years of research and asking questions, in 2012 Saujani launched Girls Who Code, an organization dedicated to empowering young women and bridging the gender gap.
As of today, the nonprofit has taught 40,000 girls, held 80 summer immersion programs and has 1,500 clubs across the country. Ninety-three percent of its alumni have gone on to declare or have an intention to declare a major or minor in computer science once they go to college.
This summer, Saujani once again did something new. In August, her second book -- though her first children’s book -- Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World, was released, the first in a 13-book series from the organization about girls, coding and possibility.
Entrepreneur spoke with Saujani to get her insights about disrupting structures of power and not being afraid of failure.
Can you talk about a moment in your career that you had to advocate for yourself?
When I first ran for office in 2010, I was 32 years old. The average age in Congress was 69. I was a brown woman whose name was Reshma Saujani -- a name most people couldn't pronounce. And there was never a South Asian woman who had ever run for United States Congress before. So when I decided to do this, people thought I was crazy, [and told me] you've got to wait your turn. I feel like often times when I start something, I'm up against the grain. [I’ve found that] it’s when someone tells me something is a bad idea is when I decide to do something.
[We recently] launched our children's books. And you know, here it was, a market where there were no books really, geared towards young girls about coding. And parents, educators and schools were desperately looking for something. And not only do we have one book coming out, we have 13. I don't like to do small things. If I'm going to do something, I'm going to really make an impact. I'm going to fail a bunch like a long way, and I'm OK with that.
What was a challenge that you faced in your career and what did you learn from it?
I've learned that power [in politics] is very entrenched and it's the same thing in Silicon Valley. You have a certain subset of people who have wielded power and influence [for a long time]. What we're trying to do is break the doors down -- and people don't give up power easily. I think that's why our children's books are so important too, because literary representation matters.
And so if you're a young girl and everything that you read about technology is a white or Asian boy, you don't feel like there's a place for you. If you start disrupting books, especially about what little girls can be when they grow up, and if you start putting different characters in those stories, you're able to disrupt power in a very important way. You can’t be what you cannot see.
When was a time in your career that you made a mistake? How did you move forward from it?
When I first ran for office, I lost control of my narrative. Very early in [my candidacy] I did a New York Times interview that I was not prepared to do. And you know in the way that my background and finance was interpreted wasn't the truth. And instead of really kind of pushing back, I let the narrative continue because I didn't know any better.
Now I've really learned the importance of authenticity and about how important it is to claim your own narrative. And I think social media has really changed that. Because now you can go to Instagram or Facebook or Medium and tell your truth in a way that you couldn't in 2010.
As you have built Girls Who Code, what have you learned about mentorship?
I think for every girl we teach, she teaches another five. Extending your hand back and lifting somebody up with you is so important. You're never too young or too old to be a mentor. Some of our girls are mentors to their sisters or their cousins or their best friend or their neighbors. Paying it forward is really critical.
There are so many women who have supported us, from Sheryl Sandberg to Hillary Clinton to Melinda Gates -- the list goes on and on. There are women who have used their own power and influence at companies to say let's invest in this program. Even women who are at the most junior level of these companies saying we want to change things, we want to increase the technical representation of our company and we want to do that by investing in the pipeline and in the talent pool.
What do you say to yourself to work through tough moments?
Never give up. People will always discount you and you'll always get rejected. But set your sights high. Be boldly ambitious. Be relentless and never give up.