When lawyer Reshma Saujani lost a primary bid for Congress in 2010, she didn’t miss a beat: She wrote a book about how fear of failure holds women back and founded Girls Who Code, a nonprofit that has taught computer science to thousands of kids. She’s on a mission to build the next generation of female tech leaders. Saujani, 39, spoke with Real Simple about closing the gender gap and the value of a “try, try again” attitude.

By Jane Porter
Updated July 21, 2015

Solve your own problem.

“Back when I was in school, I was terrified of math and science. It’s something that haunted me. Even in my own campaign, if my website wasn’t working or I wanted to build an app, I didn’t know how to do it. I don’t want any girl to feel like that. Running for office, I visited a lot of schools. I saw this gender disparity. I started wondering, Why are girls not going into tech? I met with people who had been studying computer science and looking at this issue.”

Shoot for the stars, and bring others with you.

“I think part of [closing the gender gap] is about taking double leaps—applying for the job you’re not qualified for, asking for opportunities instead of waiting for someone to give them to you, making sure we elevate and support women. I don’t believe anything’s going to change until we build this sisterhood of support.”

Fail fast, fail hard, fail often.

“[When I ran for Congress] I had no idea that I had zero chance of winning until I lost. I’ve failed a ton in my life, but I had never failed at something so public. In some ways, it was deeply humiliating. I felt horrible. People gave me resources and time they didn’t have. I had been on the campaign trail making promises I wanted to keep. I thought I let a lot of people down. Building myself back up from that was very humbling and powerful. I’m a big fan of failure. I’m someone who applied to Yale Law School three times before I got in.”

Talk (to yourself) like a man.

“After I lost the election, nobody called me the next day to say, “That was incredible. You raised several million dollars and ran a great race. You need to do it again.” I think oftentimes when women lose, we don’t run again because we think, I only got 19 percent of the vote—I’m a loser. Whereas men are like, “Wow, I got 19 percent of the vote. I’m incredible!” I kept thinking, Gosh, if I feel this [disappointed]—and I’m someone who’s pretty comfortable with failure—how must other women feel when they don’t get the job they applied for or they don’t get into college? I started writing a journal that ended up being my book, Women Who Don’t Wait in Line.”

Jump on it.

“I had the idea of a summer program [in New York City]. I asked a friend to lend me a conference room. We had a group of 20 high school girls. I put it on my credit card and said, ‘Let’s see what happens.’”

Find your secret sauce.

We found that just learning HTML is not going to inspire girls to fall in love with coding. Girls want to solve problems; they want to make their community and the world better. The girls were building apps to help make voting easier. They were helping build web sites for immigrant entrepreneurs. One of our girls built an algorithm to help detect whether a cancer is benign or malignant. Now Girls Who Code has 30 full-time staff and 170 part-time staff in the summer.

Take it personally.

One of the scariest feelings I have ever felt was the day I left the hospital with my [newborn] son. Here you have this innocent pure thing and you're now about to throw it into this crazy, sometimes scary, sometimes not very nice world. I think I feel even more, as an activist, that I want to make this world a really good place for him. I feel like it inspires my work even more so and makes me even more passionate.

Girls Who Code offers programs and clubs throughout the country. Learn about classes and volunteer opportunities at girlswhocode.com.