Reshma Saujani, Founder of Girls Who Code
May 9, 2017
Graduates, deans, parents, and guests: thank you so much for inviting me to share this day with you. I know it’s traditional for a commencement speaker to start off with a joke about which bar everyone’s going to afterward, or the best burger joint on campus, but anyone who knows me knows that I am super impatient and a little ADD—so I’m just going to cut right to the chase. You are graduating at a crazy time in human history—I’m talking like top five earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting moments of human existence. There was the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Digital Revolution, and now automation is about to change everything about the way we live and work. Everything. According to McKinsey, 45 percent of the tasks that people do manually today have the potential to be automated using current technology alone. And the pace of innovation has never been faster. That means the future is going to look nothing like the present. Now, I’m not a historian, but I’ve been thinking about those other revolutions—the ones I mentioned a second ago. It turns out they have some big things in common, like: They brought sweeping change to the world. They were the product of incredible vision, creativity, and courage. And, oh yeah, they were all led by white guys. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love white guys. They’re some of my best friends. But let’s be real. They have never had a monopoly on good ideas. They’ve just occupied a platform the rest of us haven’t had access to. The good news is, that platform is no longer out of reach. In the last half century, women and people of color have been climbing.
Graduates, give yourselves a pat on the back. You now outpace men in earning advanced degrees! Today, some 40 percent of women are their family’s breadwinners. We are as close to equality as we have ever been. And yet, we have a problem. Because the next revolution is already underway. And it’s leaders? Well, they don’t look like us. They look like Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Tim Cook. Don’t get me wrong—those guys are awesome. But America is a big, beautiful, diverse country. And for all the progress women have made, we are still vastly underrepresented in Congress, in the C-suite, and in the tech community, too. So . . . why? Why aren’t there more women in power? Well, there’s no question—it’s a structural problem. From workplace discrimination to systemic sexism, to lack of paid family leave and childcare benefits, women face extraordinary challenges that men just don’t. But there’s another challenge we face, and it’s not structural—it’s cultural. In our society, we train boys to be brave—to throw caution to the wind and follow their passions. And we train girls to be perfect—to please and play it safe, to follow the rules, and to always get straight A’s. We don’t just point girls and boys toward different careers, we hold them to different standards. Nothing demonstrates this like the tech industry. In 1995, women made up almost 40 percent of the computing workforce. Today? Less than 25 percent. If current trends hold, that number could drop to 22 percent in the next ten years, even as the tech industry grows exponentially. And on the business side of tech, women make up just 17 percent of startup founders, and female-led companies receive just eight percent of late-stage investment dollars.
This isn’t happening by accident. It’s by design. When the standard for girls is perfection or bust, can you really blame them for not wanting to play the game? We’ve got to change that. If we don’t start teaching our girls that success is a product of bravery, not perfection, then the next generation of women is going to miss their chance to code the future in Silicon Valley, to build the future in the C-suite, and to legislate the future on Capitol Hill. Women are going to find themselves and their ideas, once again, on the sidelines of the revolution. We can’t let that happen. Nothing is more important than solving this problem. And that’s what I need you to do after you walk across this stage and head out into the world. Now, at this point, you’re probably wondering: Who the hell is this lady, and why should we listen to her? Well, let me tell you a bit about my own journey because it illustrates the shift I’m talking about. I grew up in Schaumburg, Illinois, the daughter of refugees expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin. There weren’t many other people in our community who looked like us. Sometimes the neighborhood kids would TP our house. One time, I punched a bully at school who called me a hajji (it was awesome). In middle school, I founded my own advocacy organization—the Prejudice Reduction Interested Students Movement—or PRISM, for short. I led my first march when I was twelve. By high school, I was pretty much set on what I wanted to do with my life. I dreamed of working in politics and social justice. So, I decided, I would go to the best law school in the country, graduate at the top of my class, and run for office. I went to the library, found a copy of US News and World Report, and looked up the number one law school. I photocopied that page and tacked it to my wall. For years, I had one obsession: get into Yale Law School.
And then, the time finally came. I finished college in three years, took the LSAT, and applied to my dream school. And . . . I didn’t get in. So the next year I applied to Yale again. And I didn’t get in. Again.That should have been it. I should have just gone out to change the world. But I couldn’t shake the idea of needing that perfectcredential—a degree from Yale Law. So I got myself a mentor, Leon Higginbotham—the first black jurist to come out of Yale Law School, and the former Chief Judge of the Federal Appeals Court of Philadelphia—and he promised to write me a recommendation letter. He was like, “Don’t worry, Reshma, I got you. You will get in.” Boom. I was set. Except right before applications were due, Leon had a stroke and died. I was devastated. I loved Leon. But also, I never got that recommendation letter. Instead, I got a rejection letter. My third one from Yale. Now, at this point, most people would have packed up what was left of their dignity and taken it to one of the many other great law schools our country has to offer. But I was convinced that my whole career—my whole life—was riding on a degree from Yale. Everyone I looked up to in politics—Bill and Hillary Clinton, like, six Attorneys General, half the senators in Congress—they all went to Yale Law. Whatever I aspired to, I was sure I needed Yale to get it. So I made one last desperate attempt. At Leon’s funeral, I met the assistant to the dean at Yale Law, who, upon hearing my story, offered to make me an appointment with the dean. I got on the next train to New Haven, and before I knew it, I was sitting in front of the man himself. He offered me a deal. Go to one of the other schools I had gotten into for a year, and if I made it into the top 10 percent of my class, he would admit me to Yale for the following year. I accepted admission to Georgetown that first year and I crushed it. I had no friends, no social life; I would raise my hand in class and be like, “I know the answer!” and everybody would throw things at me. But I was number one in my class. And that fall, I transferred to Yale, where I spent the next two years partying. But I did it! I graduated from Yale Law. I had the perfect resume to do the kind of work I always wanted to do.
And yet, when I graduated, I didn’t end up doing that work. I wanted to “be successful.” I wanted another perfect credential. So I followed my classmates to a job at a white-shoe, Wall Street firm, and spent the next six years defending bankers and hedge fund managers accused of securities fraud. Fast forward to 2008, when I watched Hillary Clinton give her famous concession speech—Ugh, I thought I was heartbroken then—but she said something that resonated with me. She said that just because she had come up short, that didn’t mean we should be discouraged from aiming high. That’s when it clicked for me. All those years of working and waiting for a credential—that wasn’t aiming high. That was aiming low. So I quit my job at the law firm and I decided to run for Congress. I lost. Badly. Three years later, I ran for New York City public advocate and lost again. Less badly. But still . . . pretty badly. I won’t lie: it hurt. But also . . . it was amazing. Not being perfect was liberating. And chasing my dream, not a credential, was the best decision I ever made. It turns out, when you get a taste for being brave, it’s hard to stop. It’s kind of a rush. And that’s how I started Girls Who Code. During my first campaign, I visited a lot of New York City public schools, where I saw computer labs full of boys learning to code. No girls in sight. I was baffled. I mean, I knew Silicon Valley was a boy’s club, but I didn’t know that club started back in high school. That pissed me off, and I wanted to do something about it. But this time, I didn’t wait until I had the perfect degree or credential. I didn’t ask anyone for permission. I didn’t even bother to learn how to code. I just went for it. I called up a friend who lent me some office space, and that summer we brought 20 girls from New York City together for seven weeks and taught them how to code. Five years later, we’ve taught 40,000 girls in all 50 states—effectively quadrupling the talent pipeline. Girls Who Code is now a full-blown nonprofit, with offices in New York City and San Francisco, all dedicated to getting—and keeping—adolescent girls in computer science. So, what’s the lesson?
My obsession with perfection—with pedigrees and credentials—was just a long detour that kept me from doing what I really wanted to do, which was to make a difference in the world. Bravery, not perfection, was the key that unlocked all the doors I’ve walked through since. It took me 37 years to figure that out. But today’s young women don’t have 37 years to waste. Our world is transforming, and if our girls don’t step up now, they are going to get left behind. We see the same thing again and again at Girls Who Code. The girls in our programs are brilliant. They are talented. They are just as capable as the boys. But they are afraid. They are afraid of imperfection. They are afraid of critical feedback. They are afraid of trying something they might not excel at right away. They are not taught to be brave the way boys are. Girls figure out early on what they are good at and they stick to it. They avoid the less intuitive, more competitive subjects—like coding and STEM. They leave those for the boys. So what can we do? I’m not asking all of you to become computer science teachers or to encourage every girl you encounter to code. Tech is a critical sector that will shape the future—and it’s one in which the gender gap is most acute.
But the problem is bigger than tech. And it’s bigger than the many structural barriers women face. We can’t topple the structures without addressing the culture. The culture is the problem. And the solution is us. In whatever career you choose, don’t wait for the perfect credential. Don’t wait for outside validation. You have a degree from Scripps College. You don’t need any more validation. As Phil Knight would say: Just Do It. And when it comes to the women and girls you will encounter in the work world, your colleagues, employees, or mentees: Don’t let girls and women play it safe. Don’t let them limit themselves to the thing they’re best at or the thing they think they should do. Push them to be brave. Push them to take risks. Challenge them to step outside their comfort zones, to tip-toe out to the very edge of their abilities. Reward them for trying. Because if you do your part—if we all do our part—then we will unleash the most badass generation of women leaders the world has ever seen. I know every graduation speaker says it, but Class of 2017, you really are going to change the world.
Thank you, and congratulations!