How to create an education system where equity is the rule

April 9, 2021
Reshma Saujani, Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code

Reshma Saujani, the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, was inspired to form the non-profit organization after noticing the dearth of girls in computer science classrooms.

“I’d see boys who wanted to be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg and I kept thinking ‘where are the girls?’ Saujani, a 2018 McGraw Prize winner, asked during an April 8 webinar in a conversation about educational equity with Michael Golden, Executive Director, Catalyst @ Penn GSE. 

Education, and coding, in particular, has the potential to help girls, especially girls of color “to march up into the middle class,” according to Saujani. In the nine years she headed up Girls Who Code, the organization became a global movement, introducing more than 300,000 girls around the world to careers in technology. 

But, of course, it didn’t begin that way. “When I started my first program, I didn’t say, ‘I'm launching a movement. I didn’t say, ‘I‘m launching a startup.’ I didn’t say I was launching a non-profit. I said I was going to do a pilot program. I was going to do one program with twenty kids and then I was going to learn and see how it went.”

 

She soon learned that the benefits of bringing girls together went far beyond coding. It was about building a community of girls who shared their struggles and challenges, learned about each other’s cultures, and supported each other. In particular, the idea was to center the program around girls of color, and in particular girls of color below the poverty line. 

“It seems that the communities you built were one of your secret weapons in trying to address this notion of equity, recognizing the worth of everyone and giving them a voice,” Golden noted. 

It’s also about representation. “It matters when you walk into a computer science classroom and no one looks like you,” said Saujani, who later added: “We need to be committed to bringing in more diverse faculty into higher education.”

Despite the fact that more women are graduating with computer science degrees, the number of women in the technology workforce has not increased over the years,. “We have a pipeline of talent. Now the industry has to hire them,” said Saujani, who recently announced she will step down as CEO of Girls Who Code. She’s hopeful that the incoming CEO Dr. Tarika Barret will continue to create innovative virtual programming so that girls from around the world can log on and learn to code. “That will go a huge way in closing the gender gap,” she said.

Unfortunately, as Saujani pointed out, “in the middle of global pandemics and recessions, the first organizations to suffer economic losses are ones that are supporting girls’ education.” The pandemic has also highlighted existing inequities in education – especially when it comes to the digital divide. “It’s girls whose education has suffered.”

When Golden asked how to cultivate more educational innovators, Saujani suggested that we should treat “social entrepreneurs as entrepreneurs.” She acknowledged that the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education is an opportunity to “look out there into the world and say, ‘who’s making a difference in education and to tap them on the shoulder and say if you got this prize, what’s your dream? What else could you do? In the same way we invest in entrepreneurs, we need to invest in social entrepreneurs.”

Responding to a question from a participant in Albania interested creating an educational non-profit focused on equity, Saujani shared this inspirational advice: “Part of the trick to being an entrepreneur is taking one step, then another step. And then another step, and then before you know it, you’re like … oh no, I started something! Don’t wait until you’re ready because you’re ready now. Take one step.”