Every so often, Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, will have a conversation with her 3-year-old son in which he’ll ask her why she has to go to work. Saujani loves her job and wants to ensure that her son has a good relationship to work. “Mommy’s helping girls,” she tells him.
Saujani wasn’t always helping girls. Having taken on around $300,000 of student-loan debt to attend Yale Law School, Saujani felt stuck in a private-sector role because it allowed her to make enough money to pay off part of her loans. Her job in finance made her miserable and depressed, but it also made it possible for her to help her family pay their mortgage. Her parents had come to the United States as refugees and trained engineers, but in the U.S. her father worked as a machinist. After a decade of making a dent in her debt, Saujani left her job and eventually went on to found Girls Who Code.
I recently spoke with Saujani about her parents’ relationship to work, taking on student-loan debt, and familial responsibility. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Lolade Fadulu: How often were your parents working while you were growing up?
Reshma Saujani: My parents worked all the time. In the morning, we woke up, we were dropped off at a babysitter before school who lived across the street from our school. My parents were busy and they were working to put food on the table, so we didn’t have all these activities after school. We went to school, then we came home and made ourselves a snack and put on the TV and waited until our parents came home for dinner.
Fadulu: Were your parents tired when they came home?
Saujani: They were tired. They were trying to make dinner, get the housework done. And my father always took the time to read to us, but they were working-class parents.
Fadulu: How did seeing your parents come home tired every day affect what you wanted for yourself as an adult?
Saujani: My mother used to always tell us how tired she was and how she wished she didn’t have to work. Now she’s in her mid-70s and she’s still working and she doesn’t need to work. I think sometimes she felt guilty, so even if she loved her job, I think she wanted to make us feel better, and so she made it seem like she had to.
So I’m really conscious about my son now. He’s 3-and-a-half and he’s upset when I’m at work or that I’m going away for the weekend. He’ll often say, “Don’t go to work. Tell me again why you have to work. What do you do, Mom?” And instead of saying what my mother said, I explain to him, “Well, Mommy’s going to work, Mommy’s helping girls.” I don’t want him to think that I hate work; I don’t want him to have that relationship with it.
Fadulu: Do you think you’ll be in the same situation as your mom in your 70s?
Saujani: I don’t want to be so focused on money. I want to be focused on how I can live a good life, and how I can give back. And a job is the way to do that. Not that a job is a way for me to make a paycheck. But that’s a luxury I have because of all the sacrifices that they made.
Fadulu: When did your relationship to money shift away from the one your parents have?
Saujani: I think it shifted for me after I graduated from law school. I was $300,000 in student-loan debt, and I always wanted to work in public service. I just was too scared to go work for a public-interest law firm making $40,000 with $300,000 in student-loan debt.
I ended up working at a law firm and then in finance, at jobs that I hated that paid enough to pay off my loans and to help my parents with their mortgage. I was seriously depressed and miserable because I was not giving back to the world. The money wasn’t making me happy, and I felt more and more beholden to it, more and more scared. And so I quit, and ran for Congress. I lost that race, but I put so much personal savings into my race. I hadn’t had a paycheck in eight months. I was broke. But I wasn’t going back. No longer will I work in a job that I hate for a paycheck.
Fadulu: How do you balance those two: the need to help family pay the mortgage, but also having an impact on the world?
Saujani: I couldn’t go work for public interest when I graduated with that debt and other responsibilities that I had. And oftentimes it’s people from wealthy families or who have some sort of a cushion who can. But by the time I left, I had made enough of a dent in my loans and my parents were in a good enough place that I could.
Fadulu: How did your parents feel about you leaving your well-paying job?
Saujani: I stayed in that job thinking that I would disappoint them, but actually when I left my dad was like, Finally, because he knew how miserable I was.
Fadulu: How did you get through that time period of working at this miserable job, feeling depressed, but making a lot of money? How did you cope and do it day in and day out?
Saujani: I volunteered a lot. I worked on John Kerry’s campaign. I did a lot of pro bono work, helping people who needed asylum. My night job is what I wanted my day job to be. I kind of phoned in my day job; I wasn’t great at it. I did what I needed to do to get a paycheck, and that was also killing me because I don’t operate that way in life.
Fadulu: Did you know that you’d have that much debt going into law school?
Saujani: Oh, yeah. I mean, I took it on. And my father said to me, “The best investment you can make is in an education.” A lot of my students now are facing real dilemmas: The price of college has gone up, the price of law school has gone up. There’s so much shadiness within student loans that it’s harder to rationalize to yourself that you should take on this debt.
I think that we should try to get as much loan forgiveness as possible. College should be free; institutions should not charge for an education. I wish that I went into public service the minute I graduated law school, in 2002. I wish that it didn’t take me 10 years. I could have helped a lot more people in those 10 years.
Fadulu: Do you see people in Girls Who Code who are chasing money instead of what they love?
Saujani: I think it depends where you come from. If you came from a family that has resources, most of the time your parents are telling you to find your passion, find something that you love whether you make money or you don’t make money. If you come from a place that doesn’t have a lot of resources, your parents are telling you to get a job that’s going to help you pay the bills. My belief is that technology is going to change every industry. So regardless, you’re going to need to learn how to code, and maybe you can learn how to code and do something you love and make money doing it, too.