For Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani, her non-profit organization is about more than just bridging the gender gap in technology — it’s about empowering girls to change the world. Girls Who Code (GWC) has already introduced 10,000 girls to coding through after-school and summer programs. On Tuesday, the organization took steps to expand that reach to one million girls with the launch of a Girls Who Code publishing program and the release of two new books — an official coding guide, Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World, and the first book of the GWC fiction series, The Friendship Code by Stacia Deutsch.
“This is our global movement,” Saujani, 41, said in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE. “I really believe that literary representation matters. So much about representing culture is not through television, it’s through books.”
Saujani founded GWC in 2012 to teach girls coding and deconstruct the belief that coding is an exclusive boys’ club. In other words, a coder doesn’t have to be a “21-year-old white male from Palo Alto,” she says.
The cultural perception of who can and cannot code is reflected in the statistics. In 1984, 37 percent of computer science majors were women, but by 2014 that number had dropped to 18 percent.
So strong was Saujani’s belief that girls needed a coding book that she delivered the book proposal at the Penguin Young Readers office just two days before delivering her son, Shaan, via C-section.
She isn’t the only one who has such faith in her project.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, hosted the first ever Girls Who Code Governor’s Summit with Saujani in February to inform governors about the problem of the gender gap in technology.
“Reshma Saujani and Girls Who Code are changing the face of tech, one girl at a time,” said Sandberg in a press release. “This book is an invitation for every girl to join the movement for a more equal and better future.”
Saujani says she made sure that both of the new Girls Who Code books included a diverse array of female characters.
“I think if you’re any girl in the country you will pick up these books and you will see yourself in them,” she said.
The lack of inclusive representation in American culture is a personal issue for Saujani. Her own parents are South Asian refugees who were expelled from Uganda in 1972 by dictator Idi Amin in his quest to rid the country of all Asians. After her family moved to the U.S. and settled in Chicago, Saujani says her father felt pressured to change his name to a more American-sounding one (Mike) and she remembers being teased for the color of her skin.
“As much as my parents love this country, I’ve seen them go through a lot to assimilate. And I often thought, ‘Why did the Ugandan Asians just leave without a fight?’ ” she said. “I wanted to make sure no one’s rights were violated like that again.”
After college Saujani became a well-paid lawyer. But she gave up her law career on the spot when she saw Hillary Clinton give her concession speech after losing the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination to former President Barack Obama.
“She had this line, ‘Just because I failed doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, too,’ ” said Saujani. “It just rocked me. I walked into my boss’ office and I quit. I decided to do one of the most extreme things you could do, which was run for congress at age 33, against an 18-year incumbent in the New York City Democratic primary. You can’t get crazier than that.”
Saujani was the first South Asian woman to run for congress. While she lost the race spectacularly in 2010, she didn’t return to her job. Instead, her new career path was motivated by the “opportunity gap” that she saw in schools while campaigning, especially for girls in computer science. She wanted to teach them to be brave and to enter new spaces like she did.
“Right now, I think our schools are failing our girls,” she said. “I think we need programs like Girls Who Code to continue to put an emphasis on girls’ education and to meet girls where they’re at … I go to so many towns and cities where we’re depending on American women to put food on the table, to pay for the mortgage. So if they’re not getting a shot at these jobs [that pay] $120,000 a year, we’re failing them. We’re failing American families and we’re failing our children.”
Saujani shared some of her favorite projects that Girls Who Code participants have created. One girl, Trisha, created an app called “Rethink” to prevent bullying after she learned of a 12-year-old girl who felt so tormented she committed suicide. Aiysha is a Syrian refugee who built a tool to “help Americans get to the polls.” Beyond coding tactics, the girls are also learning confidence. “I’ve seen girls literally stand up to CEOs of tech companies, raise their hand and say, ‘Your code sucks by the way,’ ” Saujani said with a laugh.
The empowerment of young girls is something Saujani feels is more needed than ever in the face of the current administration’s regular attacks on women, undocumented immigrants and transgender people.
“We feel like there a lot of girls in our community who are receiving the wrong messages from this administration,” she said, “and we are continuing to double down on our commitment to serve them [so they] know that they’re valued, that they matter, that they’re loved, and that they can be anything and everything.”
She added, “I’m so excited about the future of women and this generation because they’ll change the world. [Girls] are, at their hearts, change agents. When you give them the power to code combined with that humanity and compassion it’s a spark to save the soul of America.”