Reshma Saujani, 37, and a quintet of journalists are tucked inside the green room at swanky Village cabaret, (Le) Poisson Rouge. Every so often a staffer or groomed coif of the NYC tech glitterati will poke around the door, but Ms. Saujani has staked out five minutes–not easy after stepping offstage with Jack Dorsey, the inventor of Twitter.
“I’m a man of few characters, so I’m going to keep this very, very brief,” Dorsey told the packed crowd earlier at Saujani’s Manhattan campaign launch for public advocate Monday night. “We need more strong women leaders in this country. We need more revolutionaries. That is Reshma.”
The daughter of Indian refugees who fled the regime of Idi Amin in Uganda, Saujani earned advanced degrees at Harvard and Yale, then moved to New York City with $200,000 in student loan debt. She interned at the White House during the Clinton administration, went on to work for Hillary’s campaign, litigated for Wall Street, paid off those loans, and sent money home. She ran for Congress in 2009 (the first South Asian woman to do so) in New York’s 14th district, and was then appointed to the position of Deputy Public Advocate. There, she created the DREAM fellowship to give undocumented immigrant students a shot at higher education.
She’s not afraid of the F-word, either.
“Would you consider yourself a feminist?”
“Absolutely,” Saujani tells the Voice backstage, with zero hesitation.
Saujani continues. “I define feminism as empowering women. To me it’s about the sisterhood. And I write about this in my book that’s coming out. I think there’s a new generation of feminism that’s about power.”
“I try to spend 20 percent of my week, no matter how busy I am, mentoring young people,” Saujani says. “Like having time for that 15-minute phone call, making that introduction, reviewing that résumé. It’s critical.”
Empowering young people–young women, daughters of immigrants, or those from disadvantaged backgrounds–was much of the focus of the night. One of Saujani’s greatest accomplishments has been launching Girls Who Code, an organization which aims to educate 1 million young women in computer science by 2020.
In 2012, Girls Who Code worked with 20 high school girls from all five boroughs, teaching them how to build mobile apps, websites, and more generally and gradually, break down the gender barrier in tech and science. The success of the New York City pilot is most of the reason Jack Dorsey was on stage–though the other is that Saujani’s husband is tech entrepreneur Nihal Mehta, the CEO of LocalResponse, who originally made the introduction.
It makes sense, then, that the campaign itself places an emphasis on data. As I was waiting in line for the venue, one of Saujani’s many staffers (and friends) started collecting phone numbers. “Do you really need that?” a woman asked behind me. “Oh yes,” the staffer replied. “We’re doing this the Obama campaign way.”
Saujani’s rhetoric is also not too dissimilar from Obama’s circa 2008. While Saujani highlights affordable housing, job creation, education, and fighting for women as her four main points, she has also identifies herself as “a change agent.”
“Jack is a disruptor of industries, of communities, of countries,” Saujani told her crowd of supporters. “I am a disruptor of politics, the system, of poverty.”
Still, not all of Saujani’s moves have been hopeful, radical, and rosy. Salon’s Alex Pareene highlighted the fact that her new campaign has done much to destroy traces of her Congressional run when he dove into Saujani’s Wall Street background earlier this month.
In that race, Saujani portrayed herself as a forceful voice for Wall Street, against those that would seek to destroy it. She was supported by — or perhaps foisted on New York by — the worst people in New York, in many cases the same ones who tried very hard to get Harold Ford a Senate seat. This is the New York Times story that introduced Saujani to many New Yorkers. Saujani said she was “running on my Wall Street record, not from it.” And she really, really was.
So when I ask Saujani about her feelings toward campaign finance reform, the high-profile initiative gaining traction at the state level, the answer is less than satisfying. “I feel very confident about it,” Saujani said.
“When I was deputy public advocate I helped build on a coalition for accountability in political spending, to mobilize pension trustees to put pressure on corporations,” she also points out. “I’m participating in our campaign finance system in New York City–I think there are lots of opportunities to receive low dollar donations. Today, she says, is a great example of that. The ticket price here was $50.”
How Saujani handles her relationship with Wall Street will be something to watch going forward. But there’s certainly a way to do so honestly, and one point Saujani made last night said it squarely, if she takes her own advice:
“Those of us who drink from the well of American opportunity need to make sure it never runs dry,” she said. And later: “I cannot be the exception.”