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Founder of Girls Who Code shares secrets to success

The 40-year-old entrepreneur may not be a coding expert – but the self-described feminist says she is passionate about helping women move up in their careers and find opportunities in tech fields.

Corinne Lestch
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Corinne Lestch Education staff reporter - EdScoop, FedScoop and StateScoop

Corinne Lestch is a staff reporter covering education for EdScoop and its affiliate public sector technology news websites, FedScoop and StateScoop...

Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, sat down with EdScoop at FETC. (Photo: Adrian Kinloch)

ORLANDO – Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, is not a coder. But she knows the importance of learning how to do it, especially for female students who may not be familiar with computer science and other STEM fields. The 40-year-old entrepreneur, who is based in New York City and also juggles her organization with raising an 11-month-old son, sat down with EdScoop at FETC before her keynote speech. It’s her first time at the annual conference, which brings together school administrators, technology directors and teachers.

In this edited Q&A, she talks about what inspired to her to launch Girls Who Code, the need for greater STEM education support, and her advice to girls who don't yet have access to computer-related programs.

EdScoop: You started Girls Who Code around 2011 in a room. Tell us how it grew and what you’re doing now.

Reshma Saujani: It’s funny, I didn’t intend to build a movement. It was really like, let me take 20 girls, teach them how to code and see what happened. And I think what we saw in our very first classroom is that girls want to build things to make their community better. And you really saw what we as a country are missing out on by not giving girls access to technology, and from that it just grew. We went from 20 girls in 2012 to this year, we’ve taught 10,000 girls in 43 states. That is really powerful, because last year only 10,000 women graduated in computer science, so the problem is so bad that we’re able to make real change really fast. I feel like what I’ve learned over past four years is not that girls aren’t interested in computer science, they don’t know what it is.

ES: Where have you seen your alumni go?

RS: Ninety percent are now majoring or minoring in computer science. They’re at Stanford, Berkeley, CUNY, Pomona. They’ve had internships from Gilt Group to Bank of America to Facebook to Twitter. They’re in Cambodia teaching orphans how to code. They’re making feminist games. They’re starting their own businesses. They’re fearless, and they feel like they’ve gotten a skill set they can do anything with.

ES: There was hope among STEM advocates and experts that President Barack Obama would talk about computer science in his State of the Union address last night. What did you think of his speech? Do you think he adequately touched on those issues?

RS: I thought it was powerful that within the first minute, he mentioned coding. And then later on in his speech, he talked about the need for computer science and math education in every school, and he cited Grace Hopper as one of the heroes. [Hopper was a U.S. Navy Rear Admiral who built the first compiler for computers, a device that translates code]. I believe that the fact that we are even saying the words ‘computer science’ in a State of the Union address is huge. Most of the time we’ve talked about STEM, but 71 percent of all jobs are in the T and the E in STEM. I want to see more. I think having elective computer science classes are not enough – it has to be mandatory. I’m building Girls Who Code to go out of business.

ES: What advice do you have for girls who don’t have computer science classes or coding clubs offered at school?

RS: Come to Girls Who Code and sign up to have a club! We are in 43 states, we have 1,500 clubs we’re launching, we can help you. We’re putting more of our curriculum online. We released a partnership with Penguin, so we’re going to launch the first coding books from [ages] 0 to 13. This is the challenge; there are not enough resources for the girls who don’t know what it is, and there are not enough resources for the girls who do know what it is, love it and just want more. So there’s a real gap and dearth of actual materials for our young girls right now.

ES: What are you encouraged by when you see federal and state policies that deal with education and building STEM skills?

RS: I’m encouraged that people are talking about it. The mayor of New York, the mayor of Chicago, Obama. You’re seeing more movement in Seattle and California. I want to see a computer science bill passed in Congress. I want to see more than 1 percent of education funding going towards STEM.

The biggest problem to computer science education is teachers. There just aren’t enough teachers, and the opportunity cost of going to go work at a tech company versus teaching is enormous. So I want to see a commitment from the federal government of money that they’re going to put into teacher education, because there are a lot of teachers who want to learn how to code and teach coding. They just don’t have the resources to do it. Kids want it – the demand we have for our programs is unreal.

ES: How many applicants do you get for the spots you have?

RS: For 1,200 of our summer immersion spots, we had 7,000 applicants, so we turn away thousands of girls. The biggest problem to not having a club in your community is finding a volunteer to teach, so I really believe solving the teacher pipeline is the most important thing.

ES: You’re considered a role model for girls. Tell me about how you got into coding and entrepreneurship.

RS: I’m not a coder, and it’s kind of ironic that a woman who doesn’t code had the audacity to start an organization called Girls Who Code. I think that’s because of my ability to fail, and I fail all the time. I am passionate about this issue, because I’m a feminist and I really believe women are being left behind in our highest paying jobs. My family were refugees so I know what it’s like. I’m only here because of education. To see girls who are undocumented, daughters of migrant workers, literally coming out of homeless shelters to go into our programs – the fact that they can actually learn a skill set that changes the entire trajectory of their families and is a ladder up into the middle class – that’s what moves me. And that’s why I do the work that I do.

Reach the reporter at corinne.lestch@edscoop.com, and follow her on Twitter @clestch and @edscoop_news.

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