What do you do if you apply to Yale Law School and are rejected? Well, if you really want that education, you apply again. But what if you’re rejected a second time? If you’re Reshma Saujani, you apply a third time – and you use your contacts and arrange a personal visit with the Dean of the school. The third time was the charm – Saujani gained admittance.
What drove her to be so diligent in her pursuit of a Yale law degree? The pursuit of perfection. For Saujani, not just any law degree would suffice – she had determined that a Yale degree represented the ultimate. Her education credentials were already impressive – she had a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from the University of Illinois, and a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. But Yale Law….
The daughter of immigrant refugees, Reshma’s parents were Gujarati Indian forced to flee Uganda when Idi Amin came to power in that country and began his reign of terror. Settling in Chicago, they took jobs beneath their engineer training in order to earn a living and adjust to their new country. Raising Reshma, they instilled in her two primary principles – education and community.
With her degree firmly in hand, Reshma began her professional career on Wall Street where she worked for a variety of firms including Davis Polk & Wardwell, Carret Asset Management, Blue Wave Partners Management, and Fortress Investment Group. Although legal and ethical issues swirled around some of those companies, Reshma remained unscathed.
What was more significant than her day job was the pro bono asylum work she performed in her off hours. The tie to community instilled by her parents began to blossom even more. Reshma realized that she wanted to work on behalf of the community – to serve the public. So, at the age of 34, with no political experience, she decided to run for the U.S. Congress. That decision was even more bold in that she was challenging long-time and popular incumbent, Democratic Representative, Carolyn Maloney. In spite of Saujani’s ability to garner a great deal of money and support from notable business people, she lost in a landslide.
So much for perfection.
There were two significant results from her race for Congress – two items which made hers an unsuccessful campaign and not a failed campaign. First, Saujani realized that she was brave to have pursued her passion – and that having tried was better than not doing so out of the fear of failure. Second, she became keenly aware of a gender gap in computing classes as she visited New York schools while campaigning. There was a disproportionately low number of girls in those classes.
Her parents had instilled in her the principles of education and community.
Reshma Saujani became determined to do something about the gender gap in tech. She pulled together a list of donors, teachers, and others she believed would be interested in addressing this void – drafted an email, and hit send. In 2012, without knowing how to code herself, she started Girls Who Code – an eight-week intensive program where high school girls are taught the basics of coding.
Six years later, Girls Who Code has reached nearly 90,000 girls in all 50 U.S. states. The organization projects that there will be gender parity in the tech industry by 2027 – an incredible milestone considering the width of the gap when Girls Who Code began.
Yet Reshma Saujani realized that the tech gender gap represented something of far greater significance. She learned that coding was a process of trial and error – a process which guaranteed a degree of failure prior to success. It was then that Reshma had an epiphany of sorts. Girls weren’t enamored with coding and tech not because of a lack of aptitude. Rather, it was a function of social conditioning.
Girls were taught to be perfect. Boys were taught to be brave.
Reflecting on her own life she realized that pursuing a Yale law degree was pursuing perfection. Deciding to run for Congress, and subsequently for New York City’s Public Advocate – both huge losses – were both acts of bravery. The fear of imperfection had not held her back.
Girls needed to be taught that it was ok to be brave – encouraged to be brave – if they were to reach their full potential. It was that topic which Reshma Saujani spoke about in her 2016 TED Talk – “Teach girls bravery, not perfection” – a talk which has had over 4,000,000 views! By persistently following her passions – education and community service – Saujani found her purpose – and in so doing, represents the epitome of a fearless brand.
Today Saujani lives in New York with her husband, Nihal Mehta, and Shaan, their 3-year-old son, and their bulldog, Stanley. Reshma is a dedicated mother, sharing parenting duties with Nihal – both sacrificing, both adjusting their schedules to ensure that Shaan is best cared for. Saujani is the author of two books – Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World and Women Who Don’t Wait in Line: Break the Mold, Lead the Way.
As director of Girls Who Code, she continues the mission for gender equality in tech. Her passion for community, education, and fairness continues to fuel her efforts. She is an active supporter of political issues, and has not totally ruled out another run for office somewhere in the future. Saujani serves on the boards of She Should Run, an organization which seeks to increase the number of women in public office, and also Overseers for the International Rescue Committee, providing aid to refugees and those impacted by humanitarian crises.
There’s much we can learn from this Fearless Brand – Reshma Saujani:
Teach girls to place bravery over perfection – Girls, like boys, need to become comfortable with taking risks. Taking risk requires one to realize that failure is a byproduct. Bravery is necessary in corporate board rooms, politics – life in general. Especially if the pursuit of perfection is limiting our accomplishments.
Family matters! – When her parents moved to Chicago after they were forced out of Uganda, one of the things they missed the most was their community. As strangers in a new land – one filled with promise – there was still a void of community. That void made family an even higher priority than it might have otherwise been. At Girls Who Code, Saujani has instilled a family-first mentality. Employees are encouraged to spend time with family, exercising, getting ‘balanced’. Everyone is encouraged to leave by 5 pm. That philosophy empowers her team, creates a more positive and rewarding work environment, and yields greater performance. To quote Saujani: “You can have a conference call and have your baby crying in the background and that’s just how it is. You don’t have to apologize.”
Failure leads to success – For Reshma Saujani, success materialized once she realized that her inclination to take a risk – to be brave – had superseded her quest for perfection. In her words: “There’s no more powerful lesson than knowing that your setbacks will one day help you succeed.” Growth, of any sort, requires us to push our limits – to try new things, new approaches, new thinking. Rather than focusing on perceived failure, focus on the bravery shown to take the risk.
Reshma Saujani is having an impact on tens of thousands of girls who, in turn, will have an almost immeasurable positive impact on society. That impact is the result of Saujani’s passion, purpose, and persistence. It’s the result of her being a fearless brand. Using her as an example, there’s nothing to keep you or me from having an equally powerful impact on our part of the world!