Reshma Saujani, CEO of Girls Who Code, on Inspiring Women to Take on Tech Roles

May 19, 2016 - Article reads in
Reshma Saujani onstage at Target's Outer Spaces event.

Reshma Saujani is all about setting girls up for success. She’s the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit working to close the gender gap in technology and prepare young women for jobs of the future. Recently named to Fortune’s list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders, she’s become a fearless advocate in her efforts to disrupt both politics and technology to create positive change.

This week, Reshma joined the Target team in Minneapolis for a chat as part of our Outer Spaces series of innovation talks, where she spoke candidly about risk and failure, mentorship and sponsorship, and how to boldly chart your own course, personally and professionally.

Reshma speaks in front of a large crowd on stage in front of a large screen.

Reshma took her first big leap at age 33 when she quit her job to run for Congress against her state’s 18-year incumbent. While she ultimately didn’t win, it was an empowering moment, and a turning point in her life. “I may have fallen on my face, but it was the bravest thing I’d ever done. I realized how important it is to not fear things just because I think I can’t do them. I grew a thick skin and got much more comfortable with rejection.”

On the campaign trail, Reshma had another revelation. “I thought about the faces I didn’t see. When I visited schools, the computer science labs were packed with boys clamoring to be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg—but where were the girls? It didn’t seem right, and that became my obsession.” Today, she estimates, there are 500,000 tech jobs in the U.S., and 1.4 million positions within science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. “Companies and startups can’t hire engineers fast enough,” she says. “And yet, only about 20% of those roles are filled by women. There’s been a massive decline of women in computer science jobs in recent decades, and I wanted to know why.”

As she dug in, Reshma uncovered several reasons girls weren’t getting into technology. “Many girls grow up thinking they’re not interested, but I say that’s not true. Culturally, we’ve sent our girls messages that this is not for you. Most tech toys and gadgets are marketed mainly to boys, and there’s a lack of female role models. Girls see so many smart, hot, awesome female doctors and lawyers on TV and in movies, and they say I can do that too. But we’ve turned girls off with this image we’ve created of the ‘tech guy’—they don’t want to be him.”

And there was another, bigger issue at play. “As a society, we raise our boys to take risks and our girls to be perfect. Learning to code is a process of trial and error, and plenty of failure. So when girls try it and fail, instead of trying again, they move on to another subject where they can excel right away.”

Reshma founded Girls Who Code in 2012 to help change all that. The program recruited its first 20 girls, taught them coding over a summer, and let them build some amazing things. It eventually began partnering with tech brands to imbed the classes in their companies and launch more clubs across the country. By the end of this year, it will have reached 40,000 girls in all 50 states. “At Girls Who Code, we get girls comfortable with imperfection, and that has powerful consequences. We’re a sisterhood; we’ve created a support system and a sense of community. The girls learn that they’ve been given a superpower and they have to pay it forward.”

Target is proud to work with Girls Who Code—we’re putting together a partnership to help grow its club program for high school girls, including things like hands-on skills training and an exclusive mentor network. Encouraging women in STEM fields has been a longtime priority for Target’s teams, who regularly bring in local youth for presentations and job shadows, sharing their skills and knowledge.

So far, the Girls Who Code program results are promising. “Ninety percent of our participants are going on to major or minor in computer sciences,” Reshma says. “I’m excited, because it means our society is having the right conversations and taking steps to close the technology gender gap. It could happen in my lifetime—hopefully a lot sooner!”

At Target, we’re always looking to hire talented team members to help us transform our guest experience across all channels. Interested in joining our team? Check out available technology roles.

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