In 2008, a knee injury from a skiing accident jolted New Yorker Reshma Saujani out of her fast-paced career and onto the political playing field. As she lay on her couch watching Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, she realized that despite her successes on Wall Street, the moment to pursue her dream of public service was now. Immediately, she phoned her father. His response. “It’s about time.”
In an intimate fireside chat hosted by the Muslim Urban Professionals (Muppies) in New York City on February 27, Saujani, a former NYC Deputy Public Advocate and founder of nonprofit Girls Who Code recounted the story of her turn to politics, her parents’ immigrant experience and her own entrepreneurial experience.
Reshma Saujani, who ran for Congress in 2010, shared her belief that increasing South Asian representation in politics is critical to better serving community needs. And if she’s successful in her current campaign for the office of Public Advocate, she will be the first South Asian elected official in New York City, home to 300,000 South Asians.
Saujani’s own parents came to America in 1972, forced to flee Uganda when dictator Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of nearly 80,000 Asian immigrants. After gaining refugee status in the United States, her family ended up in Chicago Illinois. “They literally threw a dart on a map,” recalled Saujani.
After college, Saujani pursued a master’s degree at Harvard University and a J.D. from Yale University. Upon graduation, she landed at Fortress Investment Group, a large multi-strategy investment firm where she rose to Deputy General Counsel.
Her interest in public affairs led Saujani to spearhead “South Asians for Kerry,” raising $1 million. She served on Hilary Clinton’s National Finance Board during her presidential campaign. In 2010, Saujani ran for Congress in New York against long-term incumbent Carolyn Maloney. The Washington Post reported that she was seen as a pro-Wall Street candidate given her professional background and financial backing. But she lost the race 80-20.
Despite the loss, Saujani’s commitment to public service did not go unnoticed. A few months later, she was hired as the Deputy Public Advocate for New York City, an office that promotes civic engagement and government accountability.
During her tenure, Saujani learned that a staggering 70 percent of students in the city’s public schools did not have access to a computer in school. Additionally, even though 57 percent of U.S. college graduates are women, only 14 percent of females have computer science and engineering degrees.
In 2012, hoping to direct her energy towards closing this gender gap, she founded Girls Who Code, an organization that offers underserved girls 13-17 a chance to pursue technology and engineering careers. Through an eight-week program, participants study robotics, web design, and mobile development and are matched with female mentors from the tech industry. Twitter, Google, General Electric and eBay support the organization.
At the close of the event, Saujani had an important message for the group of young professionals.
“It’s okay to fail.” Because as Saujani learned firsthand, it’s taking risks and striving for your dreams that count.
Amazon Publishing will release Reshma Saujani’s book about female leadership, “Women Who Don’t Wait in Line: Ditch the Rat Race and Lead the Pack,” later this year.
Amna Khawar is a Pakistani-American writer based in New York City interested in social entrepreneurship and South Asian arts & culture.