Author | PREMIUM CONTENT

Reshma Saujani is dynamic, diverse and determined!

Sep/01/2022 / by Seema Kumar
Reshma Saujani
Photographer: Sharmeen Chaudhary, Makeup: Niko Maragos @nikomaragos, Stylist: Ritika Shamdasani, Instagram: @Sanisisters, Sani Website: www.sanidesigns.com

Reshma Saujani defines herself as an activist, a change-maker and a fighter. She says her activism began in middle school when she decided to stand up to bullying in the eighth grade. As a Gujarati girl growing up in a White working class Chicago neighborhood and trying to fit in, Saujani says she regularly endured teasing and heckling from classmates, including those daring her to a fight in the school yard. She ignored them, until one day, 12-year-old Saujani decided she’d had enough. Instead of boarding the school bus back home, Saujani showed up at the school yard, ready for a fight, only to be beaten badly with a baseball bat and a tennis racket by two classmates.

A friend dragged the injured Saujani back home to her distraught mother who was terrified to send her back to school. But Saujani was undeterred.

“The next day, I woke up, it was my eighth-grade graduation. And I remember saying to my father, I’m going. I’m going to graduation. And that was the beginning of standing up,” says Saujani. “That was the beginning of Reshma. And of not wanting to be Rachel or Rebecca, or somebody else. And it was the beginning of my career as an activist.”

A daughter of political refugees who were expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin, Saujani and her family were among the thousands of refugees who received asylum in the United States because they were skilled engineers.

 

“My father would sit me on his lap and read me books about change makers. And that’s why since I was a little girl, I wanted to give back to this country that had literally saved my parents life.”

A law graduate from the Yale School of Law, Saujani began her career as an attorney and has worked in top law firms in New York. In 2009, she entered into the political arena became the first Indian-American woman to run for Congress against long-term New York incumbent, Carolyn Maloney for the U.S. House of Representatives seat from New York’s 14th congressional district running on immigration and education. But Saujani is perhaps best known as the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in technology and prepare young women for jobs in the future.

Saujani has spent more than a decade building movements to fight for women’s empowerment, and to close the gender gap in technology. Saujani says the red thread in her life has been her consistent focus on standing up for issues and her resiliency, never giving up, even in the face of repeated rejections. 

 

Never letting go of her dream to study at Yale, Reshma Saujani
Never letting go of her dream to study at Yale

“I applied to Yale three times before I got in,” she says. “As with typical Indian kids, my father said, you can be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. I picked law. And I was set on going to the best law school in the country: Yale. I graduated first in my class, but I didn’t get in. So I went to another college. I grinded. I got to the top 10% of my class and transferred to Yale.”

Saujani delivered the 2022 commencement speech at Yale. 

“Almost 20 years later, they picked me, instead of me chasing them,” she says.

More recently, during the pandemic, Saujani created the Marshall Plan for Moms, an effort to systemically make the workplace more friendly to mothers.

In 2020, Saujani says she found myself managing two little kids and running her organization, and it nearly broke her. 

“For so long, we’ve been telling women to do it all,” Saujani says. “I learned that having it all is just a euphemism for doing it all. And that we can’t just color code our calendar or get a mentor or sponsor our way… That’s not the path to equality. We have to stop trying to fix the woman. We need to fix the structure. For so long, we’ve designed workplaces that don’t work for women, and where we’ve had to hide our motherhood, choose between take your kids to a doctor and showing up at a networking lunch. We live in a country that doesn’t have paid leave, that doesn’t have affordable childcare, that doesn’t have the child tax credit.

“We need structural changes so that women don’t have to choose between a job and being a mom. So I’ve built my next movement to really fundamentally change workplaces, change corporate policy, change culture, so that we value motherhood.”

Not one to hold back, Saujani has also spent considerable time building movements to fight women and girls economic development, and authored many books on the subject. And most recently, she has been advocating for moms and their mental health as well as their physical health in her recent bestselling book, “Pay Up,” and using her thought leadership and voice to incite action. We sat down with Reshma to talk to her about her past, present and future!

 

Rallying girls to correct the gender gap prevalent in coding through Girls Who Code Reshma Saujani
Girls Who Code holds a rally on the steps of City Hall in New York, NY on July 31, 2018 photo/Carey Wagner

In high school, to counter prejudice, you started something called PRISM. What did it stand for and what did it lead to? 

I was growing up in the suburbs of Chicago in the 1980s in a neighborhood that didn’t have a lot of brown people, Indian families. My mom had named me Reshma and my sister Keisha, typical Gujarati names. But I remember when my mom would take me to Kmart, I would see a rack of keychains, and I always was searching for the keychain that would say Reshma. A lot of us growing up then wanted to be White, because we wanted to be accepted. We wanted to fit in. My mom would get harassed for wearing a sari at Kmart, our house would get spray-painted with words like “go back to your own country. We were always navigating being Indian. Until the eighth grade (incident). That was the beginning of standing up. And that was the beginning of Reshma. And not wanting to be Rachel or Rebecca, or somebody else. And it was the beginning of my career and my lifelong passion of being an activist.

 

ER: SHARMEEN CHAUDHARY MAKEUP: NIKO MARAGOS @NIKOMARAGOS STYLIST: RITIKA SHAMDASANI @SANISISTERS INSTAGRAM: @SANI WEBSITE: WWW. SANIDESIGNS.COM
Reshma Saujani
Photographer: Sharmeen Chaudhary, Makeup: Niko Maragos @nikomaragos, Stylist: Ritika Shamdasani, Instagram: @Sanisisters, Sani Website: www.sanidesigns.com

What a turning point. How did you keep in touch with your Gujarati culture living in a predominantly White neighborhood?

And after that experience, I found a community of Indian girlfriends and Indian kids. And my parents were lucky to find other East African Gujarati families. So while I lived and went to school in a White working class neighborhood, I had this whole other life. We went to Garba on the weekends, we had our own parties. We found community. We went to the temple on weekends and ate Indian food. But our parents felt like they had to assimilate. My father changed his name to Mike and went to Toastmasters class every weekend to get rid of his accent. So there was still a sense that you had to be American. My sister and I and many other kids rebelled against that by building this Indian community.

When I went to my high school, I didn’t feel like I was pretty or could have friends or fit in to this community that was so different than mine. It is still shocking for me watching “Bridgerton” and seeing the Sharma sisters, and Indian women seen as being beautiful, likable, desirable. And it’s still like, whoa!

We’ve come a long way and it’s good to see more and more people who look like us on the big screen and in real life. What made you run for Congress?

My parents being refugees really instilled a sense of love for our country. Also, my grandfather and father, who were born in Uganda, were expelled. How could they expel a community that lived there? So I had this sense that a community has to participate in a system, or else your rights can be taken away in an instant. And there’s something about the political process, I always liked. I romanticized being a public servant. As they say in the Bhagavad Gita, I feel like I’m a warrior. And Bhagavan has put me on this earth, to fight for people, especially poor people, vulnerable people. So I always felt that the way that I could be a fighter, through public service. I graduated with $300,000 in student loan debt, still trying to be a good Indian girl, because politics is not at all what my parents wanted for me. I finally just found the courage to run for office.

You got beaten pretty badly, like in the middle school? What did you learn?

I had been involved in politics, I had been organizing, I had been active. But when I made the decision to be a congressional candidate, I ran against a very powerful person. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was naive. I thought I could shake every hand and meet every voter. I remember the first week. As we put up my website, we raised $50,000, from Indian aunties who were happy an Indian girl was running for office. But what was so wonderful about that experience was the naïveté of it, the scariness of it. I did so many things I never done before — got on a television, raised money, built a team. I was doing all these things for the very first time. I lost, I wasn’t even close, I was devastated. But you know, when I woke up the next morning, the first thing I thought to myself is, wow, I’m not broken. I go after the thing that I’ve wanted my whole life, and it doesn’t work out, and I’m not broken.

 

‘FAILURE WAS SUCH A GIFT. EVERYTHING I’M DOING TODAY IS BECAUSE I LOST THAT RACE.’

What doesn’t break you makes you stronger. A failure can redirect your life and bring you to your true calling. For you, it was Girls Who Code.

On the campaign trail, in 2010, I went into computer science classes and robotics classes and saw long lines of boys… There was not a girl in sight. I remember thinking, where the girls? I knew that Silicon Valley was a boys’ club. But I didn’t know that club started in high school. That pissed me off because I knew that, these were the jobs of the future. You can make $120,000 as a software programmer. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, all these companies were exploding. And women and girls needed to be part of this innovation revolution. So it really started with me trying to understand what kind of intervention we need to make to change [the dearth of girls who code]. And now, 10 years later, we’ve taught over half-a-million girls to code. We’ve reached half-a-billion people across the world through our work. If you go to any computer science class, engineering class in the country, those are my students.

You advise young women to be comfortable with imperfection. What advice would you give South Asian girls?

One is, fail fast, fail hard, and fail often. If you want to be great, you have to make mistakes. Sometimes we are afraid to fail. In our community, we teach our girls to play it safe, to not draw outside the lines, not call attention to yourself. My mother still says that to me. Why did you write that article about [pro] choice? Why did you put yourself out there on this issue? Because it’s drawing attention, getting criticism, the opposite of being a good immigrant daughter. I think that we have to really instill bravery. I am so blessed that I get to wake up every day and and do the work that I do. I write. I change conversations. I get politicians, policy leaders, CEOs to make real change.

 

You’re an inspiration for young girls, but also for mothers. Tell us about the Marshall Plan for Moms?

Yeah, I started my next movement, the Marshall Plan for Moms, during the pandemic. I found myself in 2020 with two little kids running my organization, and it nearly broke me. When the pandemic started in 2020, about 51 percent of the labor force was female, we were flying our feminist flags high. And at the end of the pandemic, our labor market participation is backward, same as it was in 1988. And the reason why we lost women is because women in our country do two thirds of the caregiving work. So when schools were shut down, they had to homeschool their kids. They were doing the domestic work, being the caretaker all the while maintaining their full time jobs. Right now 50% daycare centers are shut down, schools are still desperate. And so this has forced women to either downshift their careers, or leave the workforce altogether. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix this now. 

Why is this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix the problem of women leaving the workforce?

Because this is happening at the same time we have the great resignation. So 4 million Americans are leaving their jobs every month. And they’re leaving, not because they don’t want to work, but because they don’t want to work for you. And that hustle culture of work is over. We’re not going to commute two hours a day just to see our kids for 20 minutes. We want a job in which we can reconcile our motherhood and our professional job. And so I think that we have this opportunity in the workplace to finally make workplaces work for moms. 

 

Reshma Saujani keeping on top of and deftly managing her diverse roles, including that of a mother

How do we make workplaces work for moms?

One, companies should pay for or provide childcare benefits. I released to The New York Times an exclusive [story] about announcing a national business childcare coalition that I’ve created with top companies like Patagonia and Synchrony Financial. It was supported by Meghan Markle, and Prince Harry and their foundation. It’s time for companies to start providing childcare benefits to parents; they have an obligation or responsibility to figure out how that works. Creating flexibility, remote working, mental health. We have a mental health crisis right now. 51% of mothers are anxious and depressed. So companies need to not just be doing performance reviews, but wellness audits. I have a lot of ideas in my book; it lays it out systematically how we should design the future of work.

Speaking of books, you’ve authored many books. What’s this book you you’ve just written?

My new book is “Pay Up.” It’s a manifesto, about, you know, women in the workplace, and how can we use this opportunity to redesign workplaces? So it finally works for women. So if you’re a woman and you want paid leave, you want childcare. And you wonder, how do I go about asking my employer for that? Read this book. If you’re an employer managing a team and struggling with attrition, and thinking about how to retain talent, read my book. My gift is the ability to look around corners,  see issues, and talk about them in a way that people get it. The books are a vehicle for social change. Writing op eds are a vehicle for social change. And, my life is about building movements to get to equality for women and girls. And, books, articles, writing, helps me do that.

 

PUBLISHED BOOKS
Published books by Resham Saujani

 

PAY UP

In this urgent and rousing call to arms, Reshma Saujani dismantles the myth of “having it all” and lifts the burden we place on individual women to be primary caregivers, and to work around a system built for and by men. The time has come, she argues, for innovative corporate leadership, government intervention, and sweeping culture shift; it’s time to pay up.

 

BRAVE NOT PERFECT

Drawing on hundreds of interviews with girls and women from around the country, stories of women changing the world one brave act at a time, and her own personal journey, Saujani shares an array of powerful insights and practices to make bravery a lifelong habit and enable us to be the authors of our biggest, boldest, and most joyful life.

 

GIRLS WHO CODE

Bursting with dynamic artwork, the New York Times Bestseller includes down-to-earth explanations of coding principles, and real-life stories of girls and women working at places like Pixar and NASA. This graphically animated book shows what a huge role computer science plays in our lives and how much fun it can be.

 

WOMEN WHO DON’T WAIT IN LINE

The former New York City deputy public advocate and founder of the national nonprofit Girls Who Code argued that aversion to risk and failure is the final hurdle holding women back in the workplace. Saujani advocated a new model of female leadership based on sponsorship, where women encourage each other to compete, take risks, embrace failure, and lift each other up personally and professionally.

You have two sons. How you teach them gender equality?

I have two boys. And all I wanted was girls. But [the universe] gives you exactly what you deserve. I have really learned and become a stronger feminist and activist by raising sons. So much of this is about how are we raising our boys to be equal partners at work and at home. Both my parents were working and my father was an active caretaker, and that’s the role model that I have. And that’s what I want, my sons to see. I have a wonderful husband who is my biggest ally, supporter, and cheerleader You can’t do all this work unless in your home life you have people around you who are really all mobilizing to make it possible.

You need that support system in the workplace and in the community — in South Asian sisterhood?

We just have to be very intentional about it. And I think we have to recognize we have power. You know, South Asian women actually have power in our country. We’re in Hollywood, in government, we’re activist leaders, writers, media, journalists. I agree we have a void. I think it’s the community in an organized fashion that’s missing. And somebody needs to build it.

 

Seema

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