I. Intro—This Moment in History
Graduates, deans, parents, and guests: thank you so much for inviting me to share this day with you.
I know it’s traditional for a commencement speaker to start off with a joke…
But anyone who knows me knows that I am super impatient and a little ADD — so I’m just going to cut to the chase.
You are graduating at a crazy time in history — I’m talking like top five earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting moments of human existence.
There was the Enlightenment…the American Revolution…the Industrial Revolution…the Digital Revolution…and now, automation is going to change everything about the way we live and work.
According to McKinsey, 45 percent of the tasks that people do manually today have the potential to be automated using current technology alone. And the pace of innovation has never been faster. That means the future is going to look nothing like the present.
II. The Next Revolution
Now, I’m not a historian, but I’ve been thinking about those other revolutions—the ones I mentioned a second ago.
And it turns out they have some big things in common, like:
They brought sweeping change to the world.
They were the product of incredible vision, creativity, and courage.
And, oh yeah, they were all led by white guys.
Don’t get me wrong. I love white guys. White guys are some of my best friends.
But let’s be real. They have never had a monopoly on good ideas. They’ve just occupied a platform the rest of us [...?] haven’t had access to.
The good news is, that platform is no longer out of reach. In the last half-century, women and people of color have been climbing.
Women now earn the majority of all bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees. Graduates, give yourselves a pat on the back!
Today, some 40 percent of women are their family’s breadwinners.
We are as close to equality as we have ever been. And yet…
We have a problem.
Because the next revolution is underway. And it’s leaders? Well, they don’t look like me.
They look like tomorrow’s commencement speaker.
And I mean no shade to Zuckerberg! He is absolutely brilliant, and a really good guy, too.
But America is a big, beautiful, diverse country. And for all the progress women have made, we are still vastly underrepresented in Congress, in the C-Suite, and in the tech community, too.
So…why? Why aren’t there more women in power?
There’s no question that it’s a structural problem. From workplace discrimination, to systemic sexism, to lack of paid family leave and childcare benefits, women face extraordinary challenges that men just don’t.
But there’s another challenge we face, and it’s not structural—it’s cultural.
In our society, we train boys to be brave—to throw caution to the wind and follow their passions.
And we train girls to be perfect—to please and play it safe, to follow the rules, and to always get straight A’s.
The result? Girls are kicking you-know-what in the classroom, but falling behind in the real world.
Because in the real world, success is a product of bravery, not perfection.
If we don’t start teaching girls to be brave, they are going to miss their chance to code the future in Silicon Valley, to build the future in the C-suite, and to legislate the future on Capitol Hill.
And women are going to find themselves and their ideas, once again, on the sidelines of the revolution.
We can’t let that happen. Nothing is more important than solving this problem. And that’s what I need you to do after you walk across this stage and head out into the world.
III. My Story
Now, at this point, you’re probably wondering: who the hell is this lady, and why should we listen to her?
Well, let me tell you a bit about my own journey, because it illustrates the shift I’m talking about.
I grew up in Schaumburg, Illinois. My parents were refugees expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin. There weren’t many other people in our community who looked like us. Sometimes the neighborhood kids would TP our house. One time, I punched a bully at school who called me a hajji.
(To be clear, violence is never the answer. But it felt good)
In middle school, I founded my own advocacy organization—the Prejudice Reduction Interested Students Movement—or PRISM, for short. I led my first march when I was twelve.
By high school, I was pretty much set on what I wanted to do with my life. I dreamed of working in politics and social justice. So, I decided, I would go to the best law school in the country, graduate at the top of my class, and run for office.
I went to the library, found a copy of US News and World Report, and looked up the number one law school. And you’ll have to forgive me—it was Yale.
I photocopied that page and tacked it to my wall. For years, I had one obsession: get into Yale Law School.
And then, the time finally came. I finished college in three years, took the LSAT, and applied to my dream school.
And… I didn’t get in. So I came here to Harvard to study public policy at the Kennedy School, and the next year I applied to Yale again. And…I didn’t get in…again.
That should have been it. I should have just gone out to change the world. But I couldn’t shake the idea of needing that one. perfect. credential.—a degree from Yale Law.
So I got myself a mentor, Leon Higginbotham — the first black jurist to come out of Yale Law School, and the former Chief Judge of the Federal Appeals Court in Philadelphia — and he promised to write me a recommendation letter.
He was like, “Don’t worry, Reshma, I got you. You will get in.”
Boom. I was set.
Except right before applications were due, Leon had a stroke and died. I was devastated. I loved Leon. But also? I never did get that recommendation letter. Instead, I got a rejection letter. My third one from Yale.
At this point, most people would have packed up what was left of their dignity and moved on to another law school. But I was convinced that my whole career — my whole life — was riding on a degree from Yale. Everyone I looked up to in politics — Bill and Hillary Clinton, like six Attorneys General, half the senators in Congress — they all went to Yale Law. Whatever I aspired to, I was sure I needed Yale to get it.
So I made one last desperate attempt. At Leon’s funeral [...pause for effect], I met the assistant to the dean at Yale Law, who, upon hearing my story, offered to make me an appointment with the dean. I got on the next train to New Haven, and before I knew it, I was sitting in front of the man himself.
He offered me a deal. Go to one of those other schools for a year, and if I made it into the top 10 percent of my class, he would admit me to Yale.
I accepted admission to Georgetown that first year and I crushed it. I had no friends, no social life, I would raise my hand in class and be like, “I know the answer!” and everybody would throw things at me.
But I was number one in my class. And that fall, I transferred to Yale, where I spent the next two years partying.
Who cares — I did it! I graduated from Yale Law. I had the perfect resume to do the kind of work I always wanted to do. Right?
Well, not exactly. When I graduated, I didn’t end up doing social justice work. I couldn’t resist the pull of the next perfect credential. I followed my classmates to a job at a white shoe, Wall Street law firm, and spent the next six years defending bankers and hedge fund managers accused of securities fraud.
So… pretty much the opposite of social justice.
Fast forward to 2008, when I watched Hillary Clinton give her first concession speech.
She said something that resonated with me. She said just because she had come up short, that didn’t mean women should be discouraged from aiming high.
That’s when it all clicked. All those years of working and waiting for a credential—that wasn’t aiming high. That was aiming low.
So I quit my job, and I decided to run for Congress.
I lost. Badly.
Three years later, I ran for New York City Public Advocate and lost again. Less badly. But still…pretty badly.
I won’t lie…it hurt. But also…it was amazing. Not being perfect was liberating. And chasing my dream, not a credential, was the best decision I ever made.
It turns out, when you get a taste for being brave, it’s hard to stop. It’s kind of a rush. And that’s how I started Girls Who Code.
During my first campaign, I visited a lot of New York City public schools, where I saw computer labs full of boys learning to code. No girls in sight. I was baffled. I mean, I knew Silicon Valley was a boy’s club, but I didn’t know that club started back in high school.
That pissed me off, and I wanted to do something about it. But this time, I didn’t ask anyone for permission. I didn’t wait until I had the perfect credential. I didn’t even bother to learn how to code. I just went for it. I called up a friend who lent me some office space, and that summer we brought 20 girls from New York City together for seven weeks and taught them how to code.
Five years later, we’ve taught 40,000 girls in all 50 states—effectively quadrupling the talent pipeline.
IV. Conclusion: Don’t Play it Safe
So, what’s the lesson?
My obsession with perfection — with pedigrees and credentials — was a dead end.
Like, it literally led me to a funeral.
All that time I spent chasing Yale was time I could have been using to actually make a difference in the world. Bravery, not perfection, was the key that unlocked all the doors I’ve walked through since.
Mark Zuckerberg gets that, by the way. He was just a sophomore when he dropped out of Harvard to start Facebook. He could have totally failed, with no bachelor’s degree to fall back on. But he just went for it. It’s such a white guy thing to do. It took me 33 years to figure out that brown girls can do white guy things, too.
But today’s young women don’t have 33 years to waste. Our world is transforming, and if girls and women don’t step up now, they are going to be left behind.
That’s why I’m counting on you. I’m not an expert in education. I only know what I’ve seen in my own life and what I’ve observed at Girls Who Code.
The girls in our programs are brilliant. They are talented. They are just as capable as the boys.
But they are afraid. Afraid of imperfection. Of critical feedback. Of trying something they might not excel at right away.
They figure out early on what they are good at and they stick to it. They avoid the less intuitive, more competitive subjects—like coding and STEM.
They are not taught to be brave the way boys are.
So what can we do?
We can’t topple the structures without addressing the culture. The culture is the problem. And the solution, graduates, is you.
In whatever capacity you pursue a career in the field of education, you, or the people you manage or teach, will be some of the most influential role models in a young girl’s life.
So here’s my ask: Don’t let our girls play it safe. Don’t let them limit themselves to the thing they’re best at, or the thing they think they should do. Push them to be brave. Push them to take risks. Reward them for trying.
Let’s start challenging girls to step outside their comfort zones and tip-toe out to the very edge of their abilities.
If you do your part—if we all do our part—then we will unleash the most badass generation of women leaders the world has ever seen.
I know every graduation speaker says it, but Class of 2017, you really are going to change the world.
Thank you, and congratulations!