CEO stresses technology, female empowerment

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Photo by Christine Hong.

Nowadays women are a powerful and non-minority group, according to Reshma Saujani LAW ’02, the first Indian-American woman to ever run for Congress, and the focus today should be not on sexism but on the elevation of women’s power.

Saujani shared her personal story in the Yale Women’s Center’s fourth annual Amy Rossborough Memorial Lecture on Tuesday. She ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, and is also the chief executive officer of Girls Who Code, a non-profit working to close the gender gap in technology. Saujani spoke to an audience of about 25 in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, recounting her experiences running for Congress, working as a public advocate in New York and starting Girls Who Code. She addressed the importance of supporting girls in technology and encouraged women to embrace failure, authenticity and sponsorship.

“Women have to be comfortable with failure and rejection. We are not comfortable with rejection,” Saujani said. “Fail fast, fail hard, fall often. Put yourself out there and feel comfortable with it.”

The daughter of Indian refugees from Uganda, Saujani faced discrimination as a child in the suburbs of the Midwest; in eighth grade, she was the victim of a racist attack with a tennis racket. But she added that these experiences shaped her and taught her to not be afraid of her own identity.

Saujani described many instances of failure and perseverance. She said she looked up to Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 and aspired to attend Yale Law School, but applied three times and was rejected. After her third rejection, Saujani went to New Haven and knocked on the door of the YLS dean’s office, lobbied for a spot and was ultimately admitted.

In 2008, when Saujani worked as the deputy general counsel of Fortress Investment Group, she was inspired by Clinton’s run in the Democratic primary and quit her job to run for the House of Representatives in New York City. She ultimately lost with 19 percent of votes, but Saujani described the experience as “the best 10 months of [her] life.”

Though she cried her eyes out on the day after her loss, Saujani said her failure ultimately led to growth. After running, she was asked to be the deputy public advocate of New York City, which put her on the path to founding her own organization in 2012.

As deputy public advocate, Saujani noticed the lack of girls in computer science and technology, learning that though young girls are more digitally engaged than boys, they begin to deny their abilities in math and science when they are older. Saujani attributed this phenomenon to a cultural problem — girls don’t think technology today is “cool,” she said, whereas the media reinforces positive images of females in other fields such as law and medicine.

“Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey are our images of [technology],” Saujani said. “Women are on the Internet, but we’re not on the other side creating and developing things.”

The goal of Girls Who Code is to emphasize the importance of computer science for girls and teach coding, Saujani said, adding that “coding is like reading” and computer science work comprises 80 percent of science and technology jobs in the country. Saujani said the U.S. is “sitting on a lack of innovation,” in comparison to countries like China where 40 percent of children are familiar with computer science.

It is also important to encourage girls to pursue technology, because girls may think about practical applications for technology that boys may not, Saujani added. The organization, which was created in 2012, has grown from teaching 20 girls to 3,000.

Saujani encouraged girls to both work in the private sector and run for public office.

“How are we ever going to make real change?” Saujani said. “We have to continue to say the right thing and push for the right thing, and innovative smart, progressive, thoughtful leaders will get elected. We’re in a dark period right now.”

Saujani also said that women must believe in other women to surmount gender issues. She described an experience in 2010 when The New York Times followed her for a day during her congressional race and ended up publishing a 1,800-word story about her shoes, not her policies. Saujani said women will never be themselves if they feel like they must “go on defense every day.”

Saujani’s messages resonated with many members of the audience. Sergio Lopez ’17 said that as a high school student in Silicon Valley, he noticed a lack of girls in computer science, which became even more pronounced at Yale. Annemarie McDaniel ’16 said she appreciated Saujani’s stories on rejection and the worth of trying even with the risk of failure.

Sabrina Rangi ’15 said she has found it difficult at times to identify as a feminist while also embracing femininity at Yale. Saujani’s advice and openness were inspiring, she said.

“Through her anecdotes and personality, she wasn’t afraid to show who she is — I think she’s funny and quirky,” Rangi said.

Saujani’s talk was the fourth installment of the Women’s Center’s annual Amy Rossborough Memorial Lecture.

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