Recently, I spoke with Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, a national non-profit organization working to close the gender gap in technology. Reshma is also an attorney, and in 2010 became the first Indian American woman in the country to run for US Congress (for the state of New York). In her new book, Women Who Don’t Wait in Line, Reshma tackles the issues surrounding gender inequality head on, and shares a blueprint for young, motivated women to succeed. We discussed her unique path to success, why women feel the need to “wait in line” instead of diving head-on into their ambition, and what lessons men and women can learn from one another to become more effective leaders in the workplace and in public service.
How do you define your personal brand?
I define my personal brand as bold — in everything from my unconventional career trajectory down to my penchant for wearing bright colors. I don’t do things half way and I’ve never met a challenge I didn’t like. In my book, I urge women to embrace risk and failure and to be unabashed about our ambition. I try to practice what I preach in all aspects of my life, and that energy is reflected in the boldness of my personal brand.
Why did you decide not to “wait in line” when it came to running for Congress?
On the one hand, you could say I had been waiting to run my entire life. I organized my first protest march against discrimination as an 8th grader, worked on countless political campaigns, fought my way into Yale Law School (I applied three times), and spent years organizing the South Asian community to vote. I had always known that my dream was to be a public servant and had in many ways been working towards that.
At the same time, when the opportunity to run for Congress in 2010 emerged, there were certainly members of the establishment that urged me to run for a smaller seat. To slow down. To be less ambitious.
I decided to jump the line because I realized that most people, and especially women, will never get to the front. Being patient, standing on the sidelines, and waiting for others to appreciate and reward our accomplishments doesn’t work. We have to stick our necks out. If you believe you have the best ideas, are the most qualified, can inspire the most people, and make the biggest impact, you just have to go for it. That’s exactly what I did.
How can young women foster an environment where they can compete with AND support each other at the same time?
I see healthy competition among women and building support networks as completely complimentary. There’s this stereotype of the ambitious woman walking all over her friends and colleagues (in 4-inch stilettos, of course) and it’s just so far from the truth.
It used to be that there was only one seat at the table for women and we would have to fight one another for it. Now, there’s no limit to how many women can make it to the top. I recently read that when she’s asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg answers: “When there are nine.” YES!
Women now have the power to hire women, promote women, and lobby in our workplaces for better family leave policies and flex working arrangements. As mentors and sponsors of other women, we can share everything from our rolodexes to our strategic advice.
Women and men have different tendencies in the workplace. What can each gender learn from the other?
Men are far less risk averse than women, and far more comfortable touting their own accomplishments. That is the kind of behavior that is usually rewarded with raises, promotions and publicity. I argue that for women to make it to the top ranks of leadership in America, we absolutely have to take a page out of this playbook.
By contrast, women tend to be great collaborators. In an economy that’s moving increasingly toward innovation and technology, where startups encourage employees to work in teams, this may be the secret weapon to our success.
What are the top 3 lessons that you would impart to someone who is just starting their career?
Embrace risk and failure. Don’t be afraid to step up and volunteer on new or intimidating projects. You won’t learn anything if you never step out of your comfort zone.
Create a brag bag. Keep a file of all your accomplishments. Whether it’s a compliment from a supervisor, an article you wrote, or an award you received, celebrate it!
Build a personal board of directors. Appoint friends, colleagues, and family members you respect and convene meetings periodically to make sure you’re staying on track and meeting your personal goals.
Reshma’s book is a good read regardless of your gender, and will make you think about the way you are approaching your career. She is very candid about her setbacks and how embracing them has led to her success. Reshma also challenges the idea that men are the only ones holding women back, and discusses how women can be more supportive of one another.