Reshma Saujani, the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, will be the first to tell you that her first big success was technically a failure. In 2010, Saujani hit pause on a successful career in law and finance to run for incumbent Rep. Carolyn Maloney's seat in Congress.
"I ran the hardest kind of race of my life and I lost famously. Miserably," Saujani recently told Refinery29. "When you run for political office, everybody knows that you lose. You can't hide it."
But instead of letting the loss define her negatively, she used it to her advantage. "It didn't break me and I was shocked that it didn't break me. It was the beginning of this eye-opening revelation that I can build a bravery muscle and that being brave actually brings you joy," she says.
Saujani is helping women and girls build that muscle with her new book, Brave, Not Perfect. She was inspired to write the book following the the hugely positive reception she received from her TED Talk on the same topic. Drawing on hundreds of interviews with women and girls as well her own life experience, the entrepreneur challenges years of ingrained teaching that says girls should be "nice" at any cost, while boys are encouraged to pursue their dreams loudly and without fear of failure.
"I think perfectionism today in society is doing two things. One, it's making women really unhappy," says Saujani. "Women are twice as likely to be depressed than men and I think secondly, it's causing a leadership gap. I think bravery is the antidote to perfection. I think bravery equals joy."
And even with the level of success she has reached today – Girls Who Code has reached over 90,000 girls across the country, and Saujani has been named a WSJ Magazine Innovator of the Year and one of Fortune's World's Greatest Leaders – she still needs to flex her bravery muscle in the face of challenges. When a recent 60 Minutes episode glossed over her and other female-led organizations' accomplishments in leveling the playing field for girls in computer science, she spoke up. In a widely shared post on Medium, Saujani addressed the erasure head-on.
"As women do, we debated publishing our account. We went back and forth about who we might offend. We consulted with allies in our space and with our friends in media. We considered how we’d be perceived by those in power," she wrote. "And then we thought about the very reason we exist: Because for too long institutions like 60 Minutes have sidelined the work of women and women-led organizations in tech. We thought about the girls we’ve served: 185,000 of them across 50 states, half of whom are Black, Latina, or low-income. We thought about our alumni, 13,000 strong, majoring in computer science at a rate 15 times the national average."
Read on for more from Saujani on life, risk-taking, and bravery.
Tell us about the origin of your book Brave, Not Perfect.
"The idea came from a TED Talk a few years ago where I made the point that we teach our girls to be perfect and we teach our boys to be brave, and that this perfectionism training has real consequences in our adult lives.
"And that message really struck a nerve. Not just with the audience at TED but women, men, teachers, parents, everyone started reaching out to me and it was crazy how pervasive our struggles with perfectionism are. It didn't matter whether you worked at a Walmart in Ohio or owned an art gallery in Chelsea. It was a universal experience among women, so it inspired me to write this book."
You took a huge risk running for Congress. Can you tell us more about why you made that choice and what you took away from the experience?
"I'm the daughter of immigrants. I spent my entire life thinking that the more perfect me would be the smarter me, the happier me, and I kind of woke up at age 33 with all of those things professionally, but I was miserable and I was coming home every day from work in the fetal position with a big glass of wine.
"I felt like I was stuck. I realized, for me, I ended up running for Congress because it was something that I had dreamed about doing since I was 13 years old but had been too afraid to do because I was worried that I would fail.
"And so, I ran against an incumbent in New York City in a primary which was a total no-no in 2010. It was not done, but I did it anyway. Before that, I was so focused on doing everything perfectly. This was the first time that I had done something that I was really putting myself out there and taking a risk and knowing it might not work out. It was the most amazing 10 months of my life because I felt free, but then I lost. The most interesting thing about losing was that it didn't break me. I'm not broken. I failed and I'm not broken. Before this, I was too afraid to fail because I literally thought it would break me and I wouldn't be able to recover.
"But I realized very quickly that even after losing I didn't want to go back to the private sector. I wanted to keep serving people because it's always been my dream. I thought, what I can do the best? And it was this idea of girls and coding.
"I was the Deputy Public Advocate [at the Office of the New York City Public Advocate] at that time and Girls Who Code was my side hustle for two years. In the morning, I would have coffee, I would read, I would research everything that there was about girls and coding and came up with this idea and then launched it. I did not code and I think far too often, we think that we have to be experts in the thing when we begin.
"And I think because I lost that race, and I didn't die, that's what gave me the courage to start something that I knew nothing about."
Where do you see examples of women's bravery in the world today?
"I feel like we, through #MeToo, we're seeing bravery on the biggest stage. You have amazing women running for president, you have women who have taken down some of the most powerful men in this country. But what I'm talking about is also everyday bravery.
"For instance, every woman I know in the past week was probably walking down the street, someone bumped into you, and you said, 'I'm sorry.' Right? Every woman I know has probably, in the past week, said yes to something when she really wanted to say no. Every woman I know in the past month has probably put off a doctor's appointment because she felt too selfish to schedule something for herself.
"I want women to have the courage to live their life for themselves, to stop that toxic people-pleasing, to say no when they want to say no, and to have the courage to start living their life. There is something really powerful about that act.
"Being brave is saying no to something that you don't have time to do. Being brave is bringing store-bought cookies instead of baked ones because you didn't have time. Being brave is you never learned to ride a bike, and so you get a bicycle with training wheels and just say, 'Eff it, I'm going to learn at 60 how to ride a bike.' That's bravery."