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In 2013, The Wall Street Journal speculated that Google’s greatest strength could be its “luxury of failure.” The same could be said of Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, a non-profit based in New York.  

In 2009, she ran against Carolyn Maloney, a veteran congresswoman from New York’s 14th congressional district. She was routed in the Democratic primary. “I lost spectacularly. I got less than 19 percent of the votes,” said Saujani, in an interview with India Currents.

Up until that time, she hadn’t “failed” in any sphere of her life. Notably, she had excelled at academics, having been a straight A student throughout her educational journey, which includes a stop at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

First South Asian American Woman To Run For Congress

But politics was a whole new beast, where the person with the most talent doesn’t always win. Oftentimes, it’s someone with a base and a brand that does. Saujani had neither of these. “I was just the first South Asian American woman running for Congress from the Big Apple,” she said.  

The experience had been a “magical moment” for her, but as in magic, it too, had vanished. “It didn’t happen.” And as she hadn’t quite expected that outcome, she didn’t know what she would do next.

But the electoral debacle didn’t “break her.” Four years later, she ran again on the Democratic ticket—this time for the job of public advocate, but came in third in the primary. Still, Saujani persevered, just as years earlier, she hadn’t let rejection knock her down.

Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection

She had applied to Yale Law thrice, but didn’t get in. Judge Leon Higginbotham—who served as chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit—had written a letter of recommendation, but had passed away soon after that. At his funeral, she ran into the dean of Yale Law, approached him and appealed to him to offer her a seat at the prestigious law school. “I was obsessed with going to law school. No one I knew had gone to an Ivy League. I’d always dreamed of it.”

At this writing, Saujani’s TED talk, “Teach girls bravery, not perfection,” has garnered more than 6,000,000 hits. In her book, “Women Who Don’t Wait in Line,” she advocates for a new model of female leadership focused on embracing failure.

Saujani is a lawyer and an also-ran turned entrepreneur. After her bids for public office, she didn’t want to return to Wall Street, where she’d worked previously. “I wanted to make a difference,” she said.

Reshma Saujani (center) with members of Girls Who Code. (photo courtesy of the organization)

As a congressional contender, when she was taking tours of local schools, she had found that classes for computer science and robotics “only had boys, training to be the next Mark Zuckerberg or the next Steve Jobs, but no girls.” The gender gap was glaring. Saujani wanted to play a role in creating the next Ada Lovelace, a 19th century British pioneer who is credited as the world’s first computer programmer. 

Political Refugee

In August 1972, the ex-dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin, expelled the country’s South-Asians and gave them 90 days to get out of Kampala. Saujani’s parents were one of them. They left Africa and resettled in the American Midwest, where Saujani was born in 1973.

As the daughter of political refugees, Saujani grew up working while going to school. She knew that coding jobs paid well and that they could help lift the families of girls—particularly, girls of color—to the next higher rung of the economic ladder.

In 2012, the year that President Barack Obama was re-elected to the Oval Office, Saujani launched Girls Who Code, with the goal of bringing more girls into the field of programming.

During the summer, Girls Who Code runs a coding camp that offers high schoolers the opportunity to have fun with HTML, CSS, Python, etc. through immersion programs and after-school clubs. To generate awareness, Saujani went analog and partnered with Penguin Random House to release a 13-volume series named “Girls Who Code.” The approach has been working. So far, 500,000 girls and non-binary folks in the U.S., the U.K., Canada and India have learned to code.  

Saujani herself has learned to code and believes that everyone should, as it teaches “computational thinking.” Indeed, juggling the roles of an angel investor, a writer, a wife, a mom of two boys (and one bulldog), must indeed require it. She admits to being a “multitasker at heart.”

Marshall Plan For Moms

To a plate piled high with projects, lately, she’s added another: a Marshall Plan for Moms. It’s a movement that calls for pathways to help “moms” who’ve been hit hard by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to McKinsey, 2.3 million women left the workforce in 2020. “And no one was doing anything about it,” she said.

So, she founded Marshall Plan for Moms to advocate for policies, both in the public and the private sectors, which would lead to their economic recovery. (The original Marshall Plan was an American economic recovery program to help Western Europe recover from the ravages of World War II. Between 1948 and 1952, the U.S. sent $14.3 billion of foreign aid to those economies.)   

Has she achieved her dreams yet? “I have many more to reach,” she stated, as she concluded the interview.

Alakananda Mookerjee

Alakananda Mookerjee lives in Brooklyn, and is a Francophile.