Successful entrepreneur on economic empowerment for women
Reshma Saujani is a leading activist and the founder of Girls Who Code as well as founder and CEO of Moms First (formerly Marshall Plan for Moms. Reshma began her career as an attorney and Democratic organizer. In 2010, she surged onto the political scene as the first Indian American woman to run for U.S. Congress. Reshma has spent more than a decade building movements to fight for women and girls’ economic empowerment, working to close the gender gap in the tech sector. Most recently, she has been advocating for policies to support moms impacted by the pandemic. Reshma is also the author of the international bestseller Brave, Not Perfect, and her influential TED talk, “Teach girls, bravery not perfection,” has more than five million views globally.
I found talking with Reshma Saujani so inspiring. I hope you do too.
Reshma Saujani Successful entrepreneur on economic empowerment for women
Reshma Saujani 0:00
When students come to our Girls Who Code program, none of them have coded before. And during the first week, a student will call her teacher over, and she’ll say, “I don’t know what code to write”. The teacher will look at her screen, and she’ll see a blank text editor but when the teacher presses undo on the computer, she sees that she actually wrote something and then deleted it. So instead of the students saying to her teacher, “hey, I wrote a line of code. I think the semicolon is in the wrong place. Can you help me? What did I do wrong?” She’d rather show nothing at all. So it’s this idea of perfection or bust.
Sangeeta Pillai 0:50
I’m Sangeeta Pillai and this is the Masala podcast. This multi-award winning feminist podcast for and by South Asian women is all about cultural taboos, from sex, sexuality, mental health, menopause, to nipple hair, and more. This season is a US Special, and it took me by surprise. You see, I interviewed these incredible South Asian American women. I expected to hear some angst around identity and belonging. Instead, they told me how comfortable they were with both their South Asian and American identity. I confess, this is not the podcast season I set out to record. It’s so much more powerful.
I found talking with Reshma Saujaniso inspiring. She is a leading activist and the founder of Girls Who Code, as well as founder and CEO of Moms First formerly Marshall Plan For Moms. Reshma began her career as an attorney and democratic organiser. In 2010, she surged into the political scene as the first Indian American woman to run for US Congress. She has spent more than a decade building movements to fight for women and girls’ economic empowerment. Most recently, Reshma has been advocating for policies to support moms impacted by the pandemic. Reshma is also the author of international bestseller “Brave Not Perfect”.Her influential TED Talk, “Teach Girls Bravery, not Perfection,” has had more than 5 million views globally. Do you see what I mean? When I say she’s inspiring?
Reshma Saujani 2:43
My parents came here as refugees from Uganda in 1973. With a huge family in Africa, the vast majority of them ended up in England. But my parents had just recently been arranged, because they were both engineers, they got the opportunity to come to the United States so they decided to come to the Midwest. That’s where they built a life for themselves. I grew up in America in the 80s, where there weren’t a lot of brown people, there certainly weren’t people whose names were Reshma. And my parents didn’t know anybody so they really struggled. They found this small, tight knit Ugandan-Asian community that we were then friends with. We would meet every weekend and participate in Garba Raas, during Navratri and so childhood was a lot about trying to fit in and feel like I belonged when I didn’t belong. I think what happens for us is, you pretend to be white back then, because there just aren’t enough people who look like you. You don’t have a strong enough community. It’s different now, but back then you didn’t see people who look like you on television. There was never a Never Have I Ever, there wasn’t a Mindy Kaling, there wasn’t a Priyanka Chopra. There wasn’t any of that, you didn’t open up a magazine, you didn’t think you were attractive, you didn’t think you were anything and people made fun of you. I mean, bullying, hate crimes were really real. So I think in the beginning, you really tried to make yourself small. I reached a breaking point where I had a schoolyard fight, where I got beat up, for basically being a brown girl. And it was a revelation for me that I can’t be white, that I have to be me. It really kind of unleashed activism and being an activist and fighting for those who don’t have a voice or fighting for those that are vulnerable. So, in many ways, it was such a gift. I think that if I didn’t grow up that way, being bullied, being harassed, really seeing racial hate up close and personal, I don’t know if I’d be doing the work that I’m doing right now. Because at the same time, so much of that came with so much love, and s other parts of the community that really embraced you. And it also is a lesson on how we always move towards progress. And how are things today different, than when I was growing up?
Sangeeta Pillai 5:10
Do you remember any instances? You mentioned this bullying, what’s the kind of…I mean, we don’t need to get into the details of that if it’s painful, but what are the sort of things that were said to you when you were a child?
Reshma Saujani 5:21
Well back then they called you a “Haji”, right?
Sangeeta Pillai 5:24
What is a haji?
Reshma Saujani 5:21
“Haji” is basically a derogatory name for a brown person, or was it like, “you smell like curry”, or they called you a “dot head”. Those were kind of the terms that were used, “go back to your own country”, those were the terms that were used for the South Asian people, you know what I mean, the derogatory terms or the racial slurs, that was what was really used against us then. I heard them all the time growing up. I think that one day, I decided I was gonna fight back. I was going to meet these two girls for a schoolyard fight, and I got beaten up pretty badly. I remember when I went home, my friend had kind of dragged me home, a big Black guy, it was the day before eighth grade graduation. I remember my mother just crying and looking at my father saying, “You brought us here” and they didn’t call the police. They didn’t call the school because they were immigrants. And part of what I had done was that I violated the family pact, which was to make yourself small, don’t call attention to yourself, and don’t fight back, basically- don’t stand up for yourself, make yourself invisible. I think for me, it was very much the beginning of not doing that anymore and wearing my desi-ness very loud and proud, and very out in the open. I wasn’t trying to be anybody but Reshma, I was not trying to hide the fact that I was a Hindu. I was not trying to hide the fact that this was my culture and I was proud of it.
Sangeeta Pillai 6:56
How old were you at this point, Reshma?
Reshma Saujani 6:58
Sangeeta Pillai 7:00
That’s amazing. A lot of kids at that age haven’t got that, I guess, gumption because you’re trying so hard to fit in, you’re trying so hard to find your tribe, make friends, all of that. I mean, hats off to having that kind of courage at that kind of age. That’s incredible.
So tell me the journey from that point on to this incredible career. You’ve got, I’m just reading it out, there were just so many things I had to write it down- lawyer, politician, civil servant, I’m gonna say coding expert because I don’t know the words for it. But so many things. Talk us through how you went from that 12 year old girl, taking on the bullies to all of these fantastic things?
Reshma Saujani 7:44
Well, I mean that experience really set off a career of activism. I started building organisations. The first organisation I built was the “Prejudice Reduction Interested Students Movement”, I started really leaning into public speaking in going to my Debate Club, because I knew that I wanted to be an activist, an organiser. And then when I got to college, I saw that kind of upfront activism, I went to the big university, to this thing called the quad. It’s where people spoke out at that time, we were fighting against apartheid, fighting against the Contract with America. So, I remember walking by one day being like “Oh, that’s me.” That’s what I want to be. I want to be out there. And so for me that was the through line that I was always speaking out. I was always organising, I was starting organisations, I knew that I wanted to be a warrior. And I I thought that that would come in the form of being a lawyer. I always wanted to go to law schoolso I went to college, and I decided I wanted to go to law school, part of that ended that experience, got exposed to politics, became an intern in the White House, met Hillary Clinton, ended up going to the Kennedy School of Government, got my Master’s in Public Policy, was really passionate about fighting against apartheid, lived in South Africa for a while, worked on that after Mandela came to power, then went to law school, then graduated in a lot of debt, and then I got off path. I think sometimes what happens, and I think a lot of young people can resonate with this, is when you’re saddled with student loan debt, the thing you always wanted to do that wanted to make you take up that debt in the first place, is no longer in your reach. Because you have to pick other jobs that pay more so that you can pay off loans. And then I think I entered this 10 year period where my activism was my side hustle. I was still working on campaigns, still organising but it wasn’t my job and my job was really just choking me and choking the life out of me.
Sangeeta Pillai 9:58
What was the job at that point?
Reshma Saujani 10:00
I’m a corporate lawyer, I hate it, then I’m working at a financial services organisation as a lawyer, I hate it. None of it is… but all of it is in pursuit of trying to make money so I can pay off my student loans. I think for a while when you’re young you are like, “oh, I got time,” I got time to pursue the dream, to pursue the destiny, pursue what you’re put on this earth to do. And I think I woke up at age 33 being like, “I don’t have all that much time anymore. I’m not young.” And that is when for me, I decided to quit my job and take the leap and run for United States Congress. And I was the first South Asian American woman to ever run, which is wild, for the United States Congress. And it was the best experience of my life.
Sangeeta Pillai 10:45
It’s incredible. That was literally the next question I was gonna ask you, because I read about that. I was like, “wow, the first ever South Asian American woman to run for Congress.” What was that like? What was it like for you, in your own mind? What was that like for other people, your family, people around you?
Reshma Saujani 11:01
It was terrifying for me and it was irritating, probably, for my family at first. Going back to that point about making yourself small, my mother was like “Why you’re doing that? What?” I think when you’re younger, you’re naive enough to think that you can make anything happen. You don’t do the same cost benefit analysis, I really thought I could shake every hand and meet every voter. And I had this ragtag group of friends, and then campaign staff. What I was doing at that time was very rebellious. Nobody ran, I was running in a Democratic primary, so nobody did that and especially no brown girl did that. So then it attracted people who were excited about somebody that was a disrupter like an outsider. So many people who worked for that campaign are still working with me now, they are still in my life, and my dearest closest friends and mentees. So in many ways, it attracted a lot of really great people, because I really thought that I could, like I said, meet every voter, shake every hand, and all the stuff that I was doing, I had never done before. So I had never given a campaign speech. I had never walked into a room and just talked about my policy ideas. I had never raised money before. I’ve never been on television. I had my first interview on Prime Time, NBC. So everything I had done, I had never done before, I never hired people and now I had to hire an entire campaign set. When you run a campaign, it’s like starting and shutting down a business in a span of 10 months. I had to learn how to be a good manager, I had to learn how to identify talent, I had to learn how to build a plan, I had to learn how to trust people. So the whole experience was just incredible, I would argue, still in many ways, some of the 10 best months of my life, because it was all really terrifying. I think the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realised, I love hard things. I love scary things. For me, I actually feel the most alive when I wake up and be like, “how do I freaking do this, and how am I gonna figure this out?” It actually makes me feel like… So I’m an intellectually curious person, I think it taps into that part of myself that I really love or enjoy that nerdiness.
Sangeeta Pillai 13:37
I have been an activist my entire life, I just didn’t know it. When I was younger, I was fighting with my family for the right to wear what I wanted, to cut my hair short, to not have an arranged marriage, basically to have the kind of life that I wanted. Now, my activism has a different shape and name and feel. I fight for the rights of South Asian women, to have a voice, to be heard, to have the sort of lives we want. My activism powers me up, it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. My activism gives my voice the strength to reach the hundreds of 1000s of people that I want to. My activism is what I hope to do for the rest of my days on this planet. As I do more and more, some of the projects that I’m involved in terrify me, they excite me and they terrify me and I’ll take that as a good sign.
Sangeeta Pillai 14:44
So as if that wasn’t enough, you went and set up “Girls Who Code” in 2012. Tell us what that was about and how that came about. I’ve got loads of questions around it to ask you but let’s start by telling us how and why.
Reshma Saujani 14:57
Yeah, so I ran this race. I lost terribly, and I realised I’m not going back to that crappy job that I did not like, I’m not going to go back to being a corporate lawyer, what can I do in public service? What are the things that I saw on the campaign trail that really moved me? And as part of when I was running for office in 2010, that’s when Tech was just starting to grow and it was just starting to build. When I looked at these tech companies, none of them were run by women but the consumer base was female. And I was like, “What is that about?” And then when I was running for office, I would go into public schools, and I would go into computer science classes, and in robotics labs, and I would just see lines and lines and lines of boys, not a girl in sight. And because I was not a computer science major, I was like, “what’s going on? This doesn’t make any sense.” It pissed me off because again, as the daughter of refugees, I’ve been having a job my whole life from retail, to food service, to whatever, you name it. And I knew that, so much of my dad would say, “When you grow up, you should be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer” because of course, right? For them it was about financial security and in 2010, financial security was a tech job. This is where the growing industry was, this is where all the opportunity was. So not seeing girls in those classrooms made me realise, “oh, wait a minute, no, they’re not going to get an opportunity to march to the middle class.” And so that was really the inspiration when I started “Girls Who Code”, it was really about creating economic opportunity.
Sangeeta Pillai 16:40
You were saying somewhere, I think in one of the articles, that teaching “Girls Who Code” has to do with bravery. That really stuck with me. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Reshma Saujani 16:50
Yeah. So as I’m building “Girls Who Code” now 10 years later, we’ve taught over 600,000 girls to code. But in the middle of it, I get this opportunity to give a TED talk for a public speaker or for an activist, TED, it’s like going to the Super Bowl, like once in a lifetime, we’re gonna go you better bring it. I was like, “Okay, what do I want to talk about?” and there was this story that every “Girls Who Code” teacher would tell me and it went something like this, which is- when students come to our girls or code program, none of them have coded before so they’re all starting from this blank slate. During the first week, a student will call her teacher over, and she’ll say, “I don’t know what code to write.” The teacher will look at her screen, and she’ll see a blank text editor, so if she didn’t know any better, she thought that her students spent the past 20 minutes just staring at the screen. But when the teacher presses undo on the computer, she sees that she actually wrote something, and then deleted it. So instead of the students saying to her teacher, “hey, I wrote a line of code, I think the semicolons are in the wrong place. Can you help me? What did I do wrong?” She would rather show nothing at all. So it’s this idea of perfection or bust. And so I tell this in front of the TED stage and I’m inundated with messages of women who say, “Yeah, I do this too. I erase the code of my life,” which means I give up before I even try. So I write a book about it, “Brave Not Perfect”, do a podcast about it, go on a tour that they’re still talking about and part of the aha for me was that coding is a metaphor for bravery. When students come to our class, they think they’re not smart enough to code or won’t be able to do it – they do it. They get comfortable with failure, because all about coding is just iteration, iteration, iteration, iteration. So then you’re like, “Wow, if I can do that? What are all the other things that I can do that I’ve talked myself out of?” It unleashes a lifetime of bravery. And when I say bravery, I don’t mean bravery of like, even running for office or saving a baby from a burning building, but the bravery to raise your hand when you don’t know exactly what the answer is, the bravery when you’re walking down the street and someone bumps into you, for you not to say, “Oh, I’m sorry.” It’s the bravery in all the small moments of our life that we need to be able to tap into, to unleash, to exercise, so when the big moments come, we’re ready.
Sangeeta Pillai 19:17
100% and I think you touched upon this. And I’ve kind of thought about this and read about it so much, because that bravery is what lets you or doesn’t let you put your hand up in a classroom, or apply for a job in the office, or speak up in a meeting. All of these come from the same place, don’t they? Because as women, I think you say this, “we’re socialised towards perfection.” So in our heads, we’ve got to be like 1,000% Before we even put our hand up.
Reshma Saujani 19:48
Exactly. I mean, that’s what is happening when you’re in a room and you’re listening or in a meeting, or in a lecture, or whatever, and they say “does anybody have any questions?” You may have 100 questions in your mind, but you’re thinking, “what’s the question that might sound smart? What’s the question that I’m gonna ask that isn’t going to have people think it is dumb?” You’re trying to get the answer right even to ask a question. That is something we deeply have been socialised to do and we really have to unlearn because failure is just a gift. It’s a privilege, you don’t learn unless you fail, and you don’t learn unless you ask questions. So if you think asking a question is making you sound not smart, and so you’re terrified of asking the question, then you’re just going to gravitate towards the things that you know how to do and so you’re never going to grow. And that is deeply problematic, I think for us scaling our potential. It’s funny, we are all women qualified, if not overqualified for most of the things, if not all the things that we do, but still we question ourselves, because we don’t question. And so we think that we’re out of the joke, right? Or we don’t have the information or something else is going on, because we don’t ask the questions to get the knowledge to recognise, oh no, I got this.
Sangeeta Pillai 21:17
And I suspect it’s also… one has been socialised to do this. And also, when you look at how boys and girls are brought up, boys are told to go and jump and fail, and it’s okay- you fall down, you get the bruises, you come back, and you try again. So you see boys at all ages kind of just going for it without really worrying about it. Whereas girls, every little thing, and I know this, every woman I know, pretty much “can I do this? What happens if this doesn’t go right?” This whole tsunami of questions and self doubt before you’ve even stepped out.
Reshma Saujani 21:55
Well also because we haven’t learned swag. Like the storytime I booked was a little… I was at my son’s class this morning and the swag that they have at eight, the confidence, the bravado, that’s how they’re encouraged. Whereas we’re encouraged to be likeable, to be small, to be humble, to be kind, so we don’t develop that sense of swag. I wouldn’t even call it confidence per se, because it’s almost like we know the answer, but basically, to say it with a sense of, “oh, I got this. I can figure it out.” The story I tell is at an award ceremony, boys are dabbing, like “yeah, me, I got it. I got the award.” And girls are like “me, really?”and we’ve kind of been doing that our whole lives. I mean, the amount of times I play tennis and I make myself be like, “that was a baller shot” to myself or to my coach, but when I’m playing with other women, they’re like, “Oh, I got lucky”. Yeah, do we immediately have to make our success small?
Sangeeta Pillai 23:11
Absolutely. I’m just nodding away, because it resonates so deeply with me as well. I started this podcast without knowing anything about podcasting. I’ve won like a zillion awards, and I get written about, but the minute anybody says, “Oh, your podcast is great.” Oh, yeah. Or “you think? Oh, thanks so much.” Not that, “yes, I work very hard for it” but it’s so difficult to even say the words, I feel discomfort in my body, because it’s so deeply conditioned.
Reshma Saujani 23:42
But you have to do it like it’s so so… I stepped off of being CEO of “Girls Who Code”. I’m building my next movement, “Moms First”, and I’ll go to big audiences and I do this intentionally, I’ll say, “As I’m building my second movement, it’s been hard, right? Because investing in women? We don’t do and it’s always fricking harder for us, right?” It just is. It has nothing to do with our capability or performance. And so I say, “I am a PhD in social entrepreneurship. I am the Elon Musk of social entrepreneurs, what I built with “Girls Who Code” with my hands, on my own, on my back, no one’s done.” And I figured it out, I built a scalable organisation, that’s globe, that’s a model. I have another idea that I’ve incubated and thought through, it should just be like, “Okay, where do I send the check?” And so I’ll say in big groups, “I’m the Elon Musk of social entrepreneurship.” It’s funny, my development director is like, every time you say that, I’m like, “Ah, is she really gonna say that?” And I’m sure half the women in the audience are like, “damn, like, yeah, she says, what?” But I’m doing that to give you permission to do the same. I think that that’s the thing we have to turn on its head, which is that we’ve been acting small for too long, we’ve been grateful for scraps for too long, we’ve been shrinking our ability and to make other people feel secure for too long. Now we have to just be real bold about it, about our performance, what we’ve achieved, our successes, our wins.
Sangeeta Pillai 25:28
And you think it’s as simple as talking about it in rooms, talking about it to each other, talking about it in big spaces. How do we do this?
Reshma Saujani 25:37
The generation ahead of us, it was true, there probably was just one spot for one so there was a lot of competition. I think in many ways, that generation knew that to be likeable to men, we had to play to their ego, and not actually have all that swag. Things have changed. We are in a new place. Now, there is plenty of room for all of us and so you see that, I don’t know if you feel it, but I have such a huge sisterhood, I have so much love, so much support, so much from women, I have no feelings of competition or issues. I think we’ve moved into a different place where we realise, “okay, like we’re in the room. Now what?” And I think now what piece is this idea of, we have got to basically celebrate our accomplishments and share them with one another and teach one another, how to actually be loud, be bold, take up space. I think the women, the generation below us, they get it even in the way that they just look at themselves in the mirror. When I looked at myself in the mirror, when I was in my 20s, there were a million… I was so horrible to myself. The way that they even just embrace their own beauty and their own bodies, and their own choices. They don’t feel encumbered in the way that we were, but we’re still kind of racked by this sense that we’re not at… We need to be asking the question of like, wait a minute here, like, we are 75% of valedictorians, we get 20% more bachelor’s degrees, I know when I am in a room I am pretty much the smartest person there. What’s up? We need to sit in that inquiry. I do think that part of it is about the fact that we make ourselves seem small, we think we’re not quite, I mean, I have this whole thing about imposter syndrome, I hate the word and I will refuse to use it, it’s all a big lie. I’m doing a big speech about this. But this is my thing, it’s these… We have to see these as tactics and strategies used against women and how do we not participate in that anymore?
Sangeeta Pillai 27:58
Hey, I wanted to pause this episode for a minute to share something that I’m really excited about. Podcasting changed my life. I went from typing into Google, “what is a podcast?” Yes, I did that, to creating the multi-award winning Masala podcast. And now I’d like to share some of my knowledge with you. I’m starting podcasting master classes on my website, and one of them’s been created, especially for women. podcasters. Just go to my website, soul sutras.co.uk and look under courses, or email me at podcasting at soul sutras.co.uk and I’ll share details with you. I look forward to helping you on your podcasting journey. Now, let’s get back to our guest for this episode.
Sangeeta Pillai 28:56
When you were talking about setting up companies, again, there’s something else you said, which stuck with me – that men and women who create companies do it for different reasons. And this is a while ago, I think you said this and you were talking about how for men, they create companies to replace their mothers, which made me laugh. And women are, let’s say for the majority, more empathy lead or conscience lead or whatever. Do you still believe this?
Reshma Saujani 29:28
I don’t think it’s a bad thing, actually. I think that we see a problem in our society. I’ve seen this for my girls for a decade. If you look around, if you sit with my students, you will know they are two years ahead of what’s happening in that generation. So they were talking about bullying, eight years ago, they were talking about climate change six years ago, they were talking about what’s wrong with Instagram’s algorithm four years ago, same for mental health. They’re paying attention to what’s broken, and saying “how do I fix it?” And I think that will stay with me as an entrepreneur. As a social entrepreneur, I’m fixing things that women are facing. I’m basically seeing problems and saying, “my playgrounds are women and girls and the problems that they experienced, the roadblocks that are in front of them.” I think that happens even in business. There’s not enough beauty manufacturers, how do I solve that problem? Because, I really want to find a better foundation for my skin tone, because right now, nothing exists for me. I’m in the middle of perimenopause, there’s not enough products and solutions out there for me. How do I solve that? But I think that really, we have a bigger lens on it. And I joke, I think sometimes men are trying to solve their own individual pain point. I joke, it’s like, my husband can’t multitask the way that I can multitask, but he’s a great delegator. So much about entrepreneurship for men is about delegation, my husband would be perfectly happy if he could sit in front of his computer and get everything his house cleaned, his food delivered, and his dog walked. So literally the way his world is, like, how do I do that? Quite frankly, damn, we should be doing the same thing. We’re doing all this stuff on our own and if we were better actually about this, we would have more time.
Sangeeta Pillai 31:23
Playing down my achievements, playing down my successes. I’ve been doing that for years. As a South Asian woman, I learned very young to play small. So if someone compliments me on a great outfit, I’ll say, “Oh, I just found it.” The same goes for my work. Despite having a super successful podcast and winning multiple awards, I will always answer compliments about my work with “it just happened.” Not taking into consideration the years of relentless work that I put in, the late nights, the quite literally backbreaking work, sometimes the endless learning about podcasting without being from the industry, none of that is taken into consideration. I will admit this to you right here, right now. I really struggle with taking credit for my own successes. However, I’m determined to do things differently. I will take up space, I will own my own voice. I will own my many, many successes that are surely coming my way.
Sangeeta Pillai 32:43
Self belief is hard enough but if you’re a brown woman, it’s a lot harder. South Asian, South Asian-American, South Asian-British, Indian – why is it that much harder? It’s like this whole other layer of culture.
Reshma Saujani 32:58
My father never said to me, “you are so brilliant, you can do everything.” What my father said to me is “you’ve got to work hard.” When I lost my race, he would send me the 20 things that I did wrong. To this day, I could be on the front page of The New York Times, which I have been, and he won’t call me like, “Oh my God, that was amazing.” I know he has it. I know he’s read it. In fact, I will find him often in my talks at the bottom. We’re going to Johnny. He knows exactly what I’m doing, exactly what I’m saying, exactly the thing, the difference that I’m making, but he will never build my ego. I think sometimes, we need to be told “you’re great,you’re exceptional, you’re one in a million.” We need to be told that but it’s not the way we’ve been raised. Now, I would argue for me, it served me to get that hard, tough love because that is what drives me. I do think it puts my ego in check, and that is a little cultural. As a Hindu, I serve God, this is not about me. This is about him, and what I’m put on this earth to do, in the service of him. And so I think in that sense, culturally, it’s good, but not everybody operates that way. I’ve learned this as a CEO, it’s like, my dad’s basically saying, “congratulations for doing your job.” But when you manage a team you have to say “thank you, that’s amazing.” You’ve got to send them flowers, you’ve gotta give them their kudos because that is the recognition, because that’s what motivates people.
Sangeeta Pillai 34:41
Absolutely. And I guess culturally, because we’re taught that “oh, your ego will get too big” or “we never praise the kids because, oh…” What is it that they say? – “Your head will get too big for your body.” But I think, personally, that it would be nicer if we changed that little bit about our culture, that we told our kids that “hey, my God, that animal you just drew is amazing” or whatever.
Reshma Saujani 35:07
I think the other thing in our culture, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot as a mother, our culture – we don’t hug, we don’t kiss, we don’t say I love you. We withhold affection and I used to when I first had my children, my son would literally just stare at me all the time. It used to freak me out, that focus, or my kids are super attached to me all the time. They’re on top of me, my kids, my dog, my husband, everybody, and I’m picking one off or the other. It used to bother me, because I didn’t feel like I had time to breathe. A friend of mine said, “if your biggest problem is that your kids love you too much, you don’t have any problems.” And I realised too, that for me, I also now suffocate them with love, in the way that I didn’t get that same type of attention, I should say. I realised, as I’m watching them, they’re so secure and confident. They don’t have… my son could be on a playground, nobody could play with him, he does not care. He’s like, “what? My mom and dad love me. I got my family.” We missed out on that and so much of our own insecurities, doubts come from the fact that we were not just unconditionally loved and knew that we were loved, but we didn’t know it. That is a generational trauma that we have to not continue.
Sangeeta Pillai 36:43
I remember when I was younger, and living in India, I’d watch western films on TV. I’d be amazed that people were constantly hugging and kissing each other. Of course, if it was romantic kissing, my parents would tell me all loudly saying, “what are these dirty things you watch?” and I would immediately change the channel. But it wasn’t just romantic touching, I found scenes of parents hugging kids, so alien, because that never happened in my home or the homes of people around us. Love was shown in so many other ways. My mum would cook my favourite dishes, for example, or I’d hear her telling the neighbours how well I’ve done in school but she’d never tell me. Love was never shown through physical acts of affection. No hugs, no kissing, no nothing and as I’ve grown up, I realised that I’m a very physical sort of person. I would have really loved to be hugged. Isn’t that sad?
Sangeeta Pillai 37:58
I’d love to speak to you about the moms project, the “Marshall Plan For Moms” right?
Reshma Saujani 38:03
Now, “Mom’s First”, Yes.
Sangeeta Pillai 38:04
Tell me more about it. It’s about getting the world to appreciate women’s work right? Whether it’s at home or outside?
Reshma Saujani 38:08
Basically, it’s… Listen, we are never getting to gender equality, until we have paid leave, affordable childcare, and pay equity. So if you look at the trajectory of a woman, quite frankly, anywhere in the world, she crushes middle school, she’s top of her class in college, she’s highly sought after at any company that she goes to, and then the minute she becomes a mother, she’s pushed out of the workforce. So there’s a reason why now for three, four or five decades, you have the highest, most highly educated cohort of women, but you have five times more women leaving the workforce. I mean, that we have had in the past five years, because you are basically doing two and a half jobs, and there’s no structural support. That was a big aha for me during the pandemic so I stepped off of being the CEO of “Girls Who Code” and I said, “I can teach a million girls to code but I don’t help their mothers?” If I don’t change the structure, if we keep trying to fix women, why do we have this constant leaky pipeline? Why are we not at 50% of Fortune 100 CEOs women? Why don’t we have a female president in the United States? And this is a global problem. When you look at the top level of leadership, or the top of pay equity, or even homeownership, we’re not there. Even if you look strictly at our education or earning potential. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make sense. And so there’s a direct correlation with motherhood. I think the way we’ve been trying to solve it is by saying, “when was your problem? You just need a little more confidence. You need to get a mentor. You got to colour code your calendar,” it’s been about fixing women, and not saying “oh, well we’ve never designed workplaces to ever work for you.” That’s why you’re sliding back. So we’re on a mission to get paid leave, and affordable childcare in as many places and spaces by 2028. So we’re working with companies. We’ve launched something called the National Business Coalition on childcare, to start getting companies to start subsidising and supporting childcare, treating childcare the way that you treat healthcare. You wouldn’t go work for an employer that wasn’t providing some form of healthcare for you and your family,because it’s just fundamental. In the world, 40% of parents are in debt because of childcare. It’s often the largest cost centre, I should say, in countries where childcare is not being provided. So childcare in general, is critical for women’s participation in the labour force, because most women work to work.
Sangeeta Pillai 40:53
Absolutely, and again, adding a cultural lens to that, moms worked around us, as South Asian girls growing up, but there was very rarely any value attached to the labour. Moms woke up first thing in the morning, they made your breakfast, they gave you lunch, and she was waiting for you when you came home, whether you’re a traditional mum or you went to work, you still did all the work and there was never any value attached to that.
Reshma Saujani 41:19
And guilt! My mother was an engineer,she’s amazing. She was so good at her job, but everyday she said, “I hate working.” Because for her then, success was being able to stay home, take care of your kids, that’s very much a cultural thing, but they can’t afford to do that. And in reality, they really did love their work. I mean, my mother retired at like, 75, long after we were gone. So it was never about us. She actually wanted to work, but she didn’t have the support that she needed. Now, one of the things I think is interesting for my family is that my father did a lot of unpaid labour. My dad did the cooking, he did my laundry, they did have gender parity in unpaid labour, because they had to, because they were poor, working class was a struggle. So my dad did pick me up from school, he was very engaged and very involved in many ways, their marriage or their relationship, it was an ideal for me of what the world should quite frankly, look like. But I think when you’re struggling, you’d have to do that.
Sangeeta Pillai 42:20
What about you? Have you, because you’ve talked about failure, we’ve talked about perfectionism, any kind of setbacks apart from the Congress episode you told me about that have helped you in your own journey?
Reshma Saujani 42:32
Listen, I had 10 years of fertility journey. I wanted to be a mother so bad, and it was not easy for me. But I think I learned what pain and heartache is, when you want something so bad, and you feel like the world is conspiring against you. And when you have to shop, I mean, I would have a miscarriage and an hour later be in a room full of donors having to raise money for “Girls Who Code” or be in a room full of girls having to speak to them. I never got to take care of my own self, and my own pain, because I thought that this was the price I had to pay for making the world a better place. I never really got to sit in many ways with my own suffering. I’m in the practice of deeply studying the Bhagavad Gita, and really learning about this. And my guru or my teacher was saying to me, “we can’t actually learn and have compassion for other people’s suffering until we have compassion for our own.” I think I’ve spent most of my life not actually having compassion for my own suffering, because it was always something I had to move through to get to where I was going and that has been a big failure, because I think what happens is that you get out of a mind-body loop and you’re disconnected from your heart. I think I’ve failed on self care most of my life. I get it now, I’m like self care, and just like any… I was just watching basketball. I’m a fan of this guy, to be honest that I really love, and he was giving a talk about this. Someone said, “How does it feel to keep losing all these games?” And he’s like, “It’s not failure.” It’s basically driving towards a goal and you miss your goal sometimes and then you learn. But if you don’t ever put yourself in the position, to have these goals that you will miss, you don’t learn and that’s the thing, I think for a lot of us as women, we don’t actually really put ourselves out there to fail because we’re terrified that it will break us and then we miss out on our biggest potential.
Sangeeta Pillai 44:43
Tell me Reshma, if five year old Reshma was sitting here, what would this Reshma say to that Reshma?
Reshma Saujani 44:49
I think, I mean, I would definitely say be comfortable in your own skin. I think I would still say focus on bravery, not perfection.
Sangeeta Pillai 45:02
Yeah, that’s good. Any words or wisdom or anything for all the listeners of Masala podcast, who I have no doubt will be listening to you thinking, “oh my God, she’s amazing.”
Reshma Saujani 45:09
I mean, I would just say pursue failure, pursue making mistakes. I waited till I was 33 to take the biggest leap of my life and maybe I do have regrets that I actually didn’t go for what I wanted earlier, that I didn’t understand or learn that lesson. I think the second thing is that pursue hard things, pursue the things that terrify you, sit in your uncomfort. That’s where you should go. And I think the third thing is, especially for all of our brown girls, to have fun, find joy. Trust me, I’m 47 and now I don’t… I needed the Ivy League degree, I needed the recognition, I needed to prove probably to my father or my mother that I was worthy. And now I always say after I built “Girls Who Code”, I don’t need to do anything else in my life, I’m good. I’m at this place now and I’m on a spiritual journey right now, which is bringing me so much joy because it’s about me and my own personal growth and not an external accolade that I need or that I think I need. It’s such a gift to feel that free now, I’m on the journey. I’m still learning my bad practices or my bad habits but I would just encourage people to pursue that in their life early.
Sangeeta Pillai 46:41
Thank you so so much Reshma. It’s been an absolute joy speaking to you. You’re inspiring, you’re kind of life affirming in so many ways. Thank you.
Sangeeta Pillai 46:51
Thank you for listening to the Masala podcast. Masala podcast is part of my platform, Soul Sutras, dedicated to celebrating and supporting South Asian women. This is a space for all of us bad betties who don’t do as we’re told. This is where we get to celebrate our culture our way and be exactly who we want to be. I’d love to hear from you. Get in touch via email at soul sutras.co.uk or my website soul sutras.co.uk, I’m also on Instagram and Twitter. Just look for Soul Sutras. Masala podcast was created and presented by me, Sangeeta Pillai produced by Anushka Tate, opening music by Sonny Robertson.