The Daily Beast: You mention in the first chapter this very public loss when you ran for Congressional office. And you talk a lot about resilience and the importance of picking yourself up after failure.
Reshma Saujani: In many ways, I wrote the book as therapy. I had probably never publicly failed at something before. And when you lose a race, it’s a very public failure. Everyone knows that you’ve lost. It’s not like not getting a job where you can crawl in a hole and cry. And I really felt like for so long, I had been going to conferences and events and people shared their journey, their journey of success, and we didn’t’ talk enough about failures. So I really wanted to write a book that was about recognizing the importance of failure as part of our journey, and that’s what really led me to write the book. Also, I believe that we’re in such a different time as women where many of us are looking at the numbers and they’re stagnating and they’re staying the same. And it really feels like we need a different playbook, in that we really need to offer young women specific things that they could be doing in their careers and in their lives to help them achieve their life dreams and goals.
Why do you think young women today are reluctant to enter public service or the C-suite?
I don’t know if we’re reluctant—I think we don’t know how it works. And I think we need to have a lot more sponsors and mentors. After I lost in 2010, even though I’d raised a lot of money, gotten a lot of support and ran a strong race, nobody called me the next day to say, ‘Let me help you figure out how to win next time.’ And I think that oftentimes, as they say in politics, when men lose, they say, ‘That was great, I increased my name recognition.’ And when we lose, we say, ‘I let people down.’ And that puts us in an isolating space. The first thing is that there’s not a playbook. Nobody was there for me to show me, ‘How do you run a race? How do you get support?’ We’re often figuring out the pieces on our own. The idea that sponsorship is the new feminism, which I talk about in my book, is a really important part. Women now, we are the majority of the workforce, we are the majority in college. Twenty million of us can now make hiring decisions. We have to now use our positions of leadership and power to help uplift and leverage other women. And we have to see that as our job as feminists.
Can you talk about this idea in the book of leveraging 'sisterhoods' of women?
Women feel more generous about their networks. We don’t feel there is one spot and one woman to fill it and we have to be in competition with one another and drag each other down. We think that there are multiple opportunities for us. I get a physical high out of hooking a woman up. And I think that a lot of women feel that way. They open up their Rolodex, they tweet for one another, they support one another. On my campaign for public advocate, the majority of my donors were women. I had 450 full-time female volunteers who wanted to help another woman get into elected office. Girls Who Code has been so successful because there are so many women in powerful positions in the technology space saying, ‘I have an obligation to help girls.’ I think there is so much more generosity and a feeling of a sisterhood, and that’s what we have to build on.
When you ran your first race [against U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney], you got advice not to run against another woman. How did that make you feel?
I was very confused by it. When I decided to enter the race in 2010, running against Carolyn Maloney, I didn’t think there was anything wrong or bad about running against another woman. Because I’ve been competing—most of the women of my generation, have been competing—against women our whole lives. And I wouldn’t think, ‘I’m not going to apply for that job because I know another woman is applying for it.’ So I think that the attitude that we should only be competing against men is just going to keep women behind. To me, the celebration of how far we’ve come, to have two pro-choice women running against each other—I want every race to be a race between two women! We’ll get more women in elected office once we do that.
In the book, you talk about women embracing an “authentic, softer styles of leadership” and yet you also encourage women to be “unapologetically ambitious.” Do you think these two leadership styles coexist in you?
I learned it. In 2010, in my first race, I dressed like a boy. I wore my boxy suit and my hair in a ponytail. I didn’t run on my femininity or my authentic self. And I went I got to this race, I was very much me in how I dressed, in how I spoke. Oftentimes, in 2010, I would scroll YouTube looking for that perfect video of a woman giving an amazing speech. That doesn’t exist. I know it sounds cliché, but we have to find our own voice and who we are and be authentically us.
You mention the trap of getting focused on perfection and how that can trip a young women up. Do you think the quest for perfection is one of the things that really holds women back from going for their dreams?
Absolutely. I think that we feel that we have to do the job before we get the job. That we have to continue put notches on our belt and be very prepared and we often think that’s why we don’t apply for jobs—we think that we’re not qualified for. I think in the meantime, men are passing us by and applying for them and getting them. And we’re still preparing. It’s that quest for perfection that has very much kept us behind as well.
You were blamed for being aggressive enough during a debate, and then you were blamed for being too aggressive and too ambitious. How hard is it, having been a woman in the public eye, to walk this ideal line between just ambitious enough but not too ambitious to be scary?
I think it’s really hard. I do think that women are penalized for that and men aren’t. And I’ve had so many young women say, ‘Well, the takeaway from that is I should put a lid on it and not show that side of me and play by the rules.’ And I think that’s the wrong takeaway. I think the right takeaway is, we have to all be ambitious and wear our ambition on our sleeves, and that way you won’t see female caricatures like Devil Wears Prada and Black Swan, all of these cutthroat women who will do anything that it takes to get ahead. That’s what they said about Hillary Clinton. Whereas if we have so many women in the States who are being honest about their ambition, being aggressive, being who they are, that media caricature really falls to the wayside, because it becomes the norm.
You were rejected from Yale Law three times in a row and yet you persevered and eventually transferred in. In that vein, are you going to keep trying for public office?
Probably. Yes. Look, I lost and I came home and the next morning, I read my book again to uplift me. I’m not going to say it’s not hard and it’s not hard on the soul to keep failing. But you almost have to. Especially when you’re trying to break barriers. My name is Reshma Saujani. I remember we were at a polling booth, and I asked a woman who she voted for, and she said, ‘I voted for the really pretty girl with the foreign name.’ And I thought, ‘That’s me!’ Every one of those 76,000 votes, we earned. And we are not in a place in our city where it is custom to vote for a Reshma Saujani. As a South Asian woman, when I think about my peers, they’ve changed their name, they’ve changed their religion. And I’m not going to do that. But that means I’m going to have to run a couple of times to get people comfortable voting for a Reshma Saujani.
What was your first thought after the race for Public Advocate concluded?
So many thoughts. You know, I struggled because I felt like we ran an authentic campaign and we ran a campaign about women and girls. So if you look at my television ad, my mail pieces, they were aimed at young women—talking about gender equity, talking about paid parental leave. And still in my race, the majority of women did not vote for a woman. So I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of gender in politics. What is it really going to take? I’m not saying that you only have to vote for a woman. But I do feel if you’re a women voter, and we’re the majority of voters, if we’re really going to crash through the glass ceiling in politics, and if there are two qualified candidates and one on of them is a man and one is a woman, we should vote for the woman. And we have to get to the place where we see ourselves as a bloc.
What does the next five years look like for you?
I am really focused on Girls Who Code. I do want Girls Who Code to become the 21st-century Girl Scouts. I do believe that technical skills is a skill set that every young girl has to have, whatever she wants to do with her life. I’m really committed to figuring out this gender in leadership question. I believe there is a new model that I’m putting forth. We are responsible for making those cracks in the ceiling, but we have to operate as a sisterhood—we have to actively hire women, we have to actively vote for women, we have to actively put women in leadership roles. And in turn, we have to work on our own self-confidence—embrace failure, take those leaps in our career. The issue that is really important to me, besides gender parity and computer science, is really getting to a place where we are passing paid parental leave. We have not structurally made changes that allow women to work and have children, and now the majority of bread winners are moms. And they are still getting paid 70 cents on every dollar. I don’t want to be talking about these issues 10 years from now. I don’t want my unborn daughter to be facing these issues. But that means that those of us who are in this space have to be really committed to doing things differently.
A lot of women who run for office don’t have a sponsor or role model who is pushing them forward. For my opponent, Daniel Squadron, he had Chuck Schumer who was out there for him, who was opening doors, raising money, helping him. And none of the women in my race similarly had a woman who was doing that for them. And it was one of the big lessons for me—that I have to operate as a mentor or a sponsor for a woman who runs for office, where I can actually crash down some doors. And we as women who are in these spaces, who are in leadership roles, have to take responsibility for doing that for other women. And if we don’t, and we have to find our male allies, but if we don’t, nothing is going to change.
What has it been like to have the book come out, to have it out there in the world?
If you read the book, in some ways, it’s a memoir-self-help-business book. The book also represents the future of leadership. I was very real about some personal stuff in my life. Because I believe that the only way you can inspire and share and grow is if you share your worst moments and your biggest insecurities and your biggest challenges. And I hope that more people continue to do that, and that we create this culture, as I write about in my book, this culture of having failure parties, where we talk about what we’ve gone through and what we’ve experienced.