Table of Contents:
- What’s your favorite time-saving hack?
- The power of collective networks
- How Reshma built — and relied on — a network of changemakers
- Why Reshma Saujani decided to build Girls Who Code
- Obtaining funding for Girls Who Code
- Scaling a non-profit organization like a tech start-up
- Linda Rottenberg on how a network of changemaker impacts society
- Why Reshma Saujani launched Moms First
Tap into collective genius
ERIC CERVINI: It’s not that people weren’t queer back in the day, it’s that they had to hide it. You had to pretend to be straight, as many people unfortunately still have to do, to your employer, to your family, to your friends, to your landlord, to everyone.
REID HOFFMAN: That’s Eric Cervini, writer and historian of LGBTQ+ politics. His book, The Deviance War: the Homosexual Versus the United States of America, uncovers the story of astronomer Frank Kameny.
CERVINI: First and foremost, he was an astronomer. He was a PhD astrophysicist from Harvard.
HOFFMAN: In the late 1950s, Frank was recruited by the Pentagon to help build America’s space program.
CERVINI: He was well-positioned to be one of the founding fathers of the American manned space program.
HOFFMAN: But then his new employer discovered that Frank was gay.
CERVINI: Within weeks, he was barred from ever working in the federal government for the rest of his life.
HOFFMAN: What happened to Frank was sadly all too common at the time, but it’s how Frank reacted to this injustice that made him stand out.
CERVINI: What makes Frank Kameny so special is that he was the first to really fight back. He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court and that was something that had never been done. He was the first to protest in front of the White House for gay rights, first to testify in Congress for gay rights.
HOFFMAN: Frank couldn’t and didn’t do this alone.
CERVINI: You have to convince your potential allies that there exists a problem with the current status quo.
HOFFMAN: The repressive constraints of American society in the 1950s and 1960s meant Frank had to work less overtly.
CERVINI: Half the work is just getting people in the room to begin with. The way he did this on a really practical level was first, tapping into networks that he already had. There actually existed really vibrant queer subcultures. There were more gay bars in San Francisco, in Boston and Los Angeles in the 1950s than there are now, which is mind blowing. Frank Kameny was at the center of that. So when it was time to actually create an organization, one of America’s first gay rights organizations, the Mattachine Society, all he had to do was pick up the phone.
HOFFMAN: That early network of supporters and allies enabled Frank to start a movement against the odds — a movement that would help grow a wider awareness of gay rights.
CERVINI: He really did lay the groundwork for the modern gay rights movement. He was one of the first to say, actually no, we have nothing wrong with ourselves and in fact, what makes us different is what makes us beautiful.
HOFFMAN: Frank’s work was just one of the early threads in a complex struggle that goes on to this day. And he knew, like many other leaders of change, that building a strong network of allies is key to tackling intractable problems. That’s why I believe building a network of change makers is the most powerful way to unlock opportunity and uncover creative solutions.
What’s your favorite time-saving hack?
One of my favorite questions to ask Masters of Scale guests is, what’s your favorite time-saving hack? The answers range from elegant to illuminating to unexpected.
TREVOR MCFEDRIES: My smartest time-saving hack is to make time to think.
BARACK OBAMA: The smartest time-saving hack is not watching a lot of TV.
JESSICA ALBA: Picking out my kids’ clothes and my clothes the night before.
SATYA NADELLA: God. Maybe, what? Having a desk in my bedroom.
RICHARD BRANSON: Let me just say my smartest time saving hack. What’s a hack? Sorry.
WILL.I.AM: Making music.
HOFFMAN: How is that a time saving hack?
WILL.I.AM: Because time goes away, so I get to save time by saving me from having a horrible time in the future.
The power of collective networks
HOFFMAN: All of these hacks are potent ways of making time for doing the real work of leadership: solving problems and affecting lasting, impactful change. And while there’s no hack for achieving this kind of change, there is something every leader should do to greatly increase their odds of success: embracing the dynamic potential of collaborative networks.
When we tap into the collective genius of a diverse group, magic happens. Collaboration fosters the cross-pollination of ideas, blending diverse perspectives and skills to create something greater than the sum of its parts. As a leader, the most effective way to achieve this is to build a network of people and organizations who are fired up by a common purpose. This network of change makers, made up of diverse perspectives, will drive innovation and impact. I wanted to talk to Reshma Saujani about this, because she has a track record of building inclusive networks of collaborators that let her tackle problems from unexpected angles and unlock massive opportunities.
Reshma did this most famously by founding and scaling Girls Who Code, the nonprofit that has supported thousands of young women and non-binary people to develop coding skills and take up impactful roles in the tech industry. Reshma’s focus has been on tackling deeply embedded inequality and a broken economic system. Her methods are united by how she brings together and inspires mission-driven change makers. It’s something that every leader should study and apply to their organization. To understand how Reshma developed her approach, let’s look back at her early and harrowing experience of exclusion.
SAUJANI: I had a tough childhood in terms of fitting in. I was angry. My name was Reshma. I wish I was white. I just was trying to hide.
HOFFMAN: A few years before Reshma’s birth, her parents were among an estimated 80,000 Ugandans of Indian descent, who were expelled by the country’s dictator, Idi Amin. Reshma’s parents scrambled for refugee status and eventually immigrated to the US, where they’ve settled in Schaumburg, Illinois. In 1975, Reshma was born.
SAUJANI: We were in a working class white neighborhood that didn’t have a lot of brown people. We didn’t look the part, still ate Indian food. I think my mom tried to put it in my lunchbox a couple of times. And my mother would wear sari at the local Kmart and be made fun of.
HOFFMAN: Facing racism is incredibly difficult for anyone, let alone a child. And it can feel like a very lonely experience. For Reshma, seeing how her parents dealt with it, heightened her feeling of isolation.
SAUJANI: I remember this one time, our house got spray painted, “go back to your own country.” I woke up and I was out there. I was watching my father and he just had this…a little rag and a jar of Clorox and he’s just cleaning it up. And I think he was humming a Bollywood tune while he was doing it. I remember looking at him saying, I’m never going to do that. I’m never going to be quiet.
HOFFMAN: One day at school, Reshma tried an extreme approach.
SAUJANI: It was the last day of eighth grade. This girl called me a derogatory term for a brown person. And instead of just normally, I would pretend I didn’t hear or just walk the other direction, and I agreed to meet her at the schoolyard at the end of the day. And I got beat up pretty bad with a Wilson tennis racket and a baseball bat. And I remember coming home and my mother just looking at me and looking at my father and being like, why did you bring us to this country?
HOFFMAN: It was the last time Reshma would try to tackle a huge problem alone.
SAUJANI: It was the beginning of this now life of activism, but also doing it in a way that did kind of have a lot of Gandhian principles about non-violence, about love, about togetherness, about finding our commonality. And from that moment onwards, I was fighting. And I was also fighting with love. One of the first organizations I started in the ninth grade was called PRISM — Prejudice Reduction Interested Students Movement.
HOFFMAN: This was Reshma’s first attempt at building a network of collaborators. Fired up by the experience, she decided to pursue law and politics as roots to take this approach to the next level. But after gaining her law degree, she started to feel more disconnection than connection.
SAUJANI: I was $300,000 in student loan debt. So I thought I’d have to work for the man and then I’d go give back, and kind of woke up at age 33 in New York City, and I wasn’t getting any younger. I remember I was in a job I didn’t want, a life I didn’t want.
HOFFMAN: Despite the pressures of her job, Reshma still made time to do pro bono work, advocating for immigrants. The collaborative impact fulfilled her, but she could only do one case at a time. So Reshma began thinking more deeply about how she could start building a network of change makers for scale impact. Politics seemed like it might be the answer.
SAUJANI: My parents got expelled from their home because the community never participated in the political process, right? They never fought for their rights in their … and I saw very clearly what happens when you don’t.
I worked on my first campaign for Bill Clinton early on, and so I got the bug.
HOFFMAN: Getting experience on the campaign trail convinced Reshma that politics was the way to build a network of motivated change makers, with a shared passion for improving the world.
SAUJANI: A romanticized government, a romanticized politics.
How Reshma built — and relied on — a network of changemakers
HOFFMAN: In 2010, Reshma saw her opportunity. Carolyn Maloney, Democratic representative for New York’s 12th Congressional District, was vacating her seat to run for the Senate. So Reshma put herself forward.
SAUJANI: And I was like, I gotta do it.
HOFFMAN: This seemed like a good way to start tackling the problems she wanted to solve.
SAUJANI: I’m getting excited. I’m talking to consultants. I’m thinking about my campaign. I’m building my policy book. I’m in.
HOFFMAN: But then Reshma hit a stumbling block. Carolyn Maloney changed her mind and instead stayed to defend her congressional seat. Reshma’s task suddenly became a lot lonelier and a lot harder.
SAUJANI: Now I’ve quit my job. I’m in it, and I’m like, well, wait a minute. All the reasons for running haven’t changed. I still think that we need younger, fresher voices. I still have a lot of ideas. And there’s something about… you may appreciate this as an entrepreneur. There’s something about that naivete, right? When you’re young and you kind of think, I really kind of looked and said, oh, I can win this congressional race. And I don’t realize how bananas that is.
HOFFMAN: And well, I mean you wouldn’t do it otherwise. That’s kind of the classic entrepreneurial jump off the cliff.
SAUJANI: I didn’t know how to hire people. I didn’t know what to ask for. This was the first time I was building something. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I got a lot of people to support me from John Legend to Jack Dorsey to all these titans in business. And we had all these young people in our campaign. It was exciting.
HOFFMAN: But it wasn’t enough.
SAUJANI: It was basically like a death sentence in politics. And I lost spectacularly.
HOFFMAN: Reshma had seen becoming a leader in a political party as a shortcut to building a network of change makers. Instead, she had learned how political parties can be unwelcoming of new perspectives and leadership. But there had been some upsides to the experience. One was how campaigning across the city, opened Reshma’s eyes to a new way to drive change.
SAUJANI: When you run for office, you end up going to a lot of schools. I was going into the best private schools in New York City and some of the poorer schools in New York. And I’d walk into computer science classes and robotics labs and there’s just tons of boys, right? Not a girl in sight. I was like, wait, what’s going on here? Where are the girls?
Why Reshma Saujani decided to build Girls Who Code
HOFFMAN: Reshma could see this was part of a wider problem.
SAUJANI: I was paying attention to what was happening in tech. And the fact that so many of these products were being used by women, but women weren’t sitting around the table.
HOFFMAN: Reshma used the contacts in tech and education that she’d built up on the campaign trail.
SAUJANI: And I spent about two years, almost treating it like I was creating a start-up. I would talk to every smart person I knew, every teacher, every computer scientist, trying to understand the problem, trying to think about what the right solution to that would be.
HOFFMAN: Notice how Reshma hadn’t come up with a solution yet. In doing this research, she was not only learning about what would make a successful program an organization, she was pulling together the threads of a new network of collaborators, who would be aligned with her mission. This is a key skill for any leader aiming to build a network of change makers. You have to invite people in, listen to their experiences, and then ask yourself a series of questions. How does the problem you want to address impact them? What solutions have they tried that have failed? What are the factors that keep getting overlooked. And just what would a solution actually look like? What Reshma discovered astounded her.
SAUJANI: 74% of high school girls wanted to pick a career that was about changing the world. And back then, less than like 0.2% of girls were going into computer science. So I thought, you know what? If I could connect coding to change-making, I could inspire a generation of girls to go into technology.
HOFFMAN: Reshma didn’t just want to build a network to address the issue of representation in tech.
SAUJANI: You could use these programs to close the gender gap. The idea was that you would come out of that summer classroom, you would love coding so much that you would want to go major or minor in computer science. And if you major or minored in computer science, you would then go work in the technology workforce. This is a job where you can march up into the middle class. Maybe for the first time, we’re kind of starting kids out at the same place. And whether you are a young girl living in a homeless shelter in Harlem or a girl going to the best private school in New York City, you have an equal shot at getting a job at LinkedIn, right? That really excited me.
At the core of my life is not just solving equity for women and girls, but it’s also solving poverty. And here, I saw an opportunity to do both. So, I put the model together. When I talked to people, the number 20 kept coming up, that you wanted to put a group of 20 together to teach them a new skill set. And so I designed these summer camps to have 20 girls, and then I did my first program.
HOFFMAN: The experience was so negative that Diana decided software engineering was a closed network, and one she couldn’t break into. That was until she came across the website for Girls Who Code. She applied, was accepted, and in the summer of 2012, arrived for the first Girls Who Code session at an office building in downtown Manhattan.
HOFFMAN: The program covered coding skills, but Reshma also made sure to get the cohort thinking about how they could work together to solve a range of problems.
SAUJANI: What app would you create? What technology would you build? And I remember just watching the room. I believed in this idea that if you actually bring together girls that were black, white, straight, gay, you know what i mean… rich, poor and you put ’em in a classroom together and you taught them a new skill set, that they would become best friends.
SAUJANI: It was this big light that went off in my head. I thought to myself, maybe I could help create an entire generation of girls that could make the world a better place.
SAUJANI: And then that was it. We were going to build Girls Who Code.
HOFFMAN: With that initial Girls Who Code class, Reshma had put together the first threads of a new network of collaborators. To grow it, she had to find a way to scale, beyond that first summer class of just 20 students. Although Reshma saw many of the problems stemming from the school system, she didn’t believe government funded education was the right place to start.
SAUJANI: In many ways, the government was failing, right? That they were failing to produce this talent and that we needed different solutions.
HOFFMAN: Reshma was establishing Girls Who Code as a nonprofit. So, for the initial round of funding, she went to the people who she thought would be eager to help.
SAUJANI: I went to the big foundations… Soros, Ford… they wouldn’t write me a check. When you have a new idea and you’re coming into a busy, fractured space, where there are lots of different nonprofits, but they’ve been doing it the same way for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, there’s a real resistance to newcomers and new ideas.
HOFFMAN: We’ll hear how Reshma overcame this resistance after the break.
HOFFMAN: We’re back with Reshma Saujani on how to build a network of change makers to unlock opportunities and find solutions. And just a reminder that once you finish this episode, you can see more of my interview with Reshma on the Masters of Scale YouTube channel.
Obtaining funding for Girls Who Code
Before the break, we heard how Reshma set up a summer coding camp for girls. It had turned out to be much more than a class. The 20 students soon formed a small cohort of change makers, determined to create scalable solutions to wider problems of representation and inclusivity in the tech industry. Now Reshma wanted to scale Girls Who Code. To do this, she needed funding. Government funding would be too slow. Philanthropic donors had turned her down, but Reshma found a creative solution. She went back to the network that she’d nurtured in her ill-fated political campaign.
SAUJANI: Like, Jack Dorsey was one of my first supporters. Companies realized at that time that they wanted to build this pipeline of talent. And they needed women and they needed people of color. And so in many ways, it was really this partnership with the private sector.
HOFFMAN: Activating and developing a network is often like this — scrappy, yet effective. You need to show everyone how becoming part of the network is in their own interest, but also the interest of the greater good. Reshma signed tech companies up to host coding camps at their offices. It was a win for all parties. Reshma solved the problem of where to host the summer camps. The students got a taste of life at the heart of the tech industry. As for the companies, well, as Reshma puts it…
SAUJANI: You have to imagine these 20 young girls coming into your workforce. You’re now then enabling another 50-60 employees to participate in this summer program and teach these girls. And it just helps you in this really powerful way. It helped you retain the women that you had already hired, even for male technologists, who may have never worked with a woman before. Teach and recognize why this is so important.
Scaling a non-profit organization like a tech start-up
HOFFMAN: Reshma also took inspiration from the tech industry and how she scaled Girls Who Code.
SAUJANI: I built Girls Who Code like it was a tech company. Every year, I had metrics of scale. And I pushed. And the way we hired, our culture, everything was about building big things, scaling hard, solving tough problems.
HOFFMAN: Once that partnership with the tech companies was up and running, Reshma set her sights on expanding the network. To do this, she turned to the Girls Who Code graduates themselves.
SAUJANI: I said, all right, I got one favor for you. I want you to go back to your school, and I want you to start a Girls Who Code club. And we had kind of put together Girls Who Code club in a box for them. And that is what then launched. By the beginning of the pandemic, we had over 10,000 Girls Who Code clubs. So talk about a network effect.
HOFFMAN: This was a piece of genius level network building. Girls Who Code had created a cohort of motivated young professionals, who had experienced firsthand the transformative effect of Girls Who Code. And they now wanted to pay that forward by helping broaden the network. Once Reshma had 10,000 high school clubs operating, she turned her attention to colleges.
SAUJANI: In college, if I declare Poli Sci as a major, when I start my freshman year, there’s a 99% chance that I’m going to complete college, majoring in political science. But if I declare computer science as a major, I’m a woman, a person of color, there’s only a 75% chance that I’m going to complete when I graduate. So we knew that there was an attrition that was happening in college and we wanted to say, well, what can we do about it by building network and by building community? So we started launching these Girls Who Code loops that built that sisterhood and that community that had you say, alright, maybe I’m struggling in this class right now, but I have you. I’m not crazy. You two are basically wondering, maybe, what’s going on. And now we have each other and so we’re going to stick with it.
HOFFMAN: Building these loops meant more young women sticking with computer science as a major. The loops also had another unexpected positive effect.
SAUJANI: They’re starting companies together. The amount of students that are really thinking about, what can I build here and what can we build together? So it’s powerful.
HOFFMAN: Those students are now helping scale the impact of Girls Who Code throughout the tech industry. Here’s Girls Who Code alumni, Diana Kris Navarro, who we heard from earlier.
HOFFMAN: Girls Who Code has also had a deeper impact through the wider tech ecosystem.
Linda Rottenberg on how a network of changemaker impacts society
HOFFMAN: Let’s take a moment to look at how building a network of change makers can have outsize impact in other areas. First, here’s Linda Rottenberg, CEO and co-founder of Endeavor, which connects entrepreneurs to local investors around the world. You’re about to hear an excerpt of a talk she gave at the Masters of Scale Summit in 2022.
LINDA ROTTENBERG: So, let’s look at how it’s been possible to breed unicorns and build unicorn breeding ecosystems in places we never imagined. The mental barrier flips when one emerging market founder breaks through. Now, as we dug deeper, we realized that successful entrepreneurs were doing more than passively inspiring the next group of founders. They were actively enabling the next generation to overcome the systematic barriers. So, Endeavor coined the multiplier effect to capture these ecosystem inputs. The multiplier effect is the process whereby successful entrepreneurs inspire, train, mentor and invest in the next generation. And it’s through the multiplier effect, the tech ecosystems are jumpstarted, to transform tech wastelands into places where jobs, innovation and opportunities multiply.
HOFFMAN: When you think about it, it’s no surprise that entrepreneurs spontaneously form networks to affect change. The multiplier effect that Linda speaks about is exactly how we ended up with Silicon Valley. But what about in environments where you might not expect such spontaneous entrepreneurial collaboration, like for example, a huge established company? Padmasree Warrior saw the huge impact of building an internal network of change makers when she was chief technology officer at Cisco. The company did it through an initiative called Spin In.
PADMASREE WARRIOR: The idea of the Spin In was when a group of people have a great idea, could we just fund them and keep them in the family? They’re a startup, but the funding all comes exclusively from the parent company. The advantage of that was that you kept the innovation and you kept those ideas inside the family of the bigger company. If someone’s going to leave your company to go start a company, what would you do as a parent company to keep that talent inside and leverage that innovation inside? Or are you better off letting them go start a company and then maybe pay more to acquire them back in? That was just something that Cisco did, I would say quite successfully, many times.
HOFFMAN: Padmasree’s example from Cisco shows just some of the upsides of building an internal entrepreneurial network. It also shows the importance of trusting in your network, once you build it. As a leader, it can be tempting to try to direct all your resources to what you believe to be the biggest problem facing you. But it is usually better to build an environment that encourages people to identify the problems themselves and then solve them. Reshma has done exactly this with Girls Who Code. And it’s at the heart of the organization’s success.
SAUJANI: In 10 years, I raised a hundred million dollars from the private sector to build Girls Who Code. And we taught over 600,000 students. I mean, now we have over 130 companies that are a part of Girls Who Code, that have either had a class, that have sponsored a club, that have mentored, that have written a check. I can’t stress enough how much of a powerful example of a private public partnership it was.
HOFFMAN: With Girls Who Code, Reshma had built a powerful community of change makers. But in 2020, like the rest of the world, it was thrown into disarray by the Covid pandemic.
SAUJANI: I started 2020 on top of the world. Girls Who Code had just had a Superbowl ad. I was having my second son. I was finally going to take that paternity leave. And my son was born January 25th and the world fell apart the first week of March. And I have found myself having to go back to work and homeschool my five-year-old at that time, take care of a newborn and save my nonprofit, Girls Who Code, from being shut down. Because when pandemics or crises hit, the first resources to go are ones to women and girls.
Why Reshma Saujani launched Moms First
HOFFMAN: There was a deeper problem that made this an even more profound challenge for Girls Who Code.
SAUJANI: So many of my students are under the poverty line, are black and brown. And their mothers were essential workers. And my students were on their way to go major in computer science, but because their moms were essential workers and daycare centers were shut down and schools were shut down, instead of going to college, they had to stay home and take care of their siblings. And so I really just witnessed the generational cycle of poverty that happens for girls because they’re caretakers.
HOFFMAN: Now, Reshma had identified a new cohort to enlist in our network of change makers: mothers.
SAUJANI: I could teach millions of girls to cope if I don’t help their mothers. I haven’t done anything. Oftentimes, when I see a big problem, I write. And so I wrote this op-ed, we need a Marshall plan for moms.
HOFFMAN: The New York Times published Reshma’s op-ed in May of 2021. It highlighted the startling hardships and challenges mothers face.
SAUJANI: 86% of women, by the time they’re 44 will become mothers. And as Melinda Gates says, two thirds of caregiving work is done by women. United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t have paid leave. 40% of parents are in debt because of the cost of childcare. We have a motherhood penalty. And what I mean by that is moms make 58 cents on every dollar made by fathers. And so, this structural problem is literally the reason why we’ve never gotten to equality in the workforce.
HOFFMAN: That op-ed planted the seed of a new network, and Reshma found herself compelled to keep building it. But to shift the conversation around how mothers are treated in the workplace, Reshma knew she would need to step away from Girls Who Code. So in 2021, she stepped down as CEO and founded the Marshall Plan for moms, which was later renamed Moms First.
SAUJANI: The two goals of Moms First are to get paid leave and affordable childcare done in our country, not just through the political process. One of the biggest interventions that we’re engaging in right now is in private sector. So we’ve launched this National Business Coalition on childcare. I think when companies start basically subsidizing childcare, it signals that childcare is not a personal problem that you have to solve. It’s an economic imperative. And then I think childcare is at the center of so much for families and it is basically impeding innovation as a nation. And right now, 6% of companies offer some sort of childcare. I want to get to 50%.
HOFFMAN: Notice how Reshma reframes the problem of childcare to make it clear that it’s an issue that affects not just mothers alone, but the whole of society. In doing so, she positions Moms First as an inclusive network aimed at benefiting everyone. Just as importantly, Reshma hopes Girls Who Code and Moms First will be inspirational examples of how building broad networks of change makers can have transformative impact on society.
SAUJANI: When I talk to young people, I’m like, you don’t have to go to government. You can start a nonprofit. You can start a company.
HOFFMAN: So how should you start thinking about building broader coalitions, both within and beyond your organization? For Reshma, the first step lies in discarding your assumptions about the “right approach.”
SAUJANI: We get into these false dichotomies. There’s people who say, we don’t want the private sector to do anything because we want a federal solution. And I say, no, absolutely not, because these are millions of women that can have access to childcare, while we’re waiting for Washington to get it right. Why would we wait, just because we may have feelings about the private sector. We got to shift the conversation on so many of these topics. I am a believer that the private sector can be a partner.
HOFFMAN: As a leader, you need to throw out your own assumptions about who the “right people” are for tackling a problem. Instead, concentrate on fostering an inclusive problem solving approach centered on diversity, empathy, and a sense of ownership across your team. By welcoming a wide range of people and partners into your network, you’ll vastly improve the odds of hitting upon groundbreaking solutions to the problems you face. Just as importantly, you’ll also increase your chances of discovering new, exciting challenges, through which you can grow. I’m Reid Hoffman. Thank you for listening.