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Tech and aid

Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, on innovation and failure

What can the aid sector learn from the private sector about how to take bigger and more calculated risks?

Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of the national nonprofit Girls Who Code, knows what it means to fail. She was rejected from law school three times, tanked both her bids for public office, and worked on two failed presidential campaigns. “I surround myself with rejection letters,” she tells Grant and Ravi on today’s episode. Saujani’s message is that we need not be afraid of failure: In fact, we should encourage both failure, and the type of bravery it takes to fail, because deep learning comes only through trial and error.

The idea is a common-sense one, and far from new -- at least for the netizens of Silicon Valley. But while failing early, fast, and often may be a mantra for start-ups, it’s been harder to operationalize in the humanitarian sector. 

For one, failure in the development sector is by nature more high-stakes. While business failure means falling profits, development failure might mean patients not getting access to life-saving drugs they need, or a generation of children excluded from quality education. Humanitarian donors tend, therefore, to be risk-averse when it comes to innovation -- a stance aggravated by fluctuations in aid funding levels, generating uncertainty over whether programs will continue from year to year.

Saujani explains that she was able to scale up Girls Who Code, which offers free and paid coding classes to girls, from serving 20 students in 2012 to reaching over 90,000 today by constantly evaluating the impact of her organization. This is what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson calls “intelligent failure at the frontier”: Quasi-scientific evaluations of the effect of small, tailor-made adjustments to a generic model to account for variations across states, counties, cities, and schools can be one of the most effective ways, she argues, to scale up and deliver impact without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and several years on randomized controlled trials.

Reshma Saujani

But in the humanitarian aid and development context, it can be difficult to settle even on which metrics are important to evaluate. Implementers serve many masters -- donors, partner governments, and clients -- often with different goals. And, rewards for innovation in the development sector are minimal, while risks are high.

In the development sector, at least for now, the business-centric rhetoric of failure seems more like a trend than a committed movement. Development practitioners sing “fail songs” at Fail Fest and tout their lessons learned on Admittingfailure.com. “Perhaps I am being cynical in thinking that organizations tend to only address failure when it makes for an amusing story at a conference or TED talk, when there is a key teachable moment, and when the organization has largely already figured out the way forward,” writes health sector researcher Heather Lanthorn.

When you teach girls to code, they become changemakers … When they got the opportunity to code, the problems that they wanted to solve [were], I'm undocumented and I want to build a game on immigration. My brother's dyslexic and I want to build an app to help him read. I'm being bullied in school … I want to build a tool to help [other children who are bullied in school].

But until donors change their expectations around failure, some development projects will continue to lack the incentives to learn from their mistakes. 

Today with Reshma, we get deeper into these issues, as well as why she sees Girls Who Code as key to closing the poverty gap, why a diverse workforce is critical to innovation, and why developing nations don’t have a gender gap in the tech industry.

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Related Reading

Tech’s Sexist Algorithms and How to Fix Them -- FT, Hannah Kuchler

Why Can’t Girls Code? -- Girls Who Code

Why Are There So Few Women In Tech? The Truth Behind The Google Memo -- The Guardian, Hannah Devlin and Alex Hern

In countries with higher gender equality, women are less likely to get STEM degrees -- World Economic Forum, Jeff Sossamon

OLPC’s $100 Laptop Was Going to Change the World -- Then It All Went Wrong -- The Verge, Adi Robertson

Learning from Failure -- New York Times, Sam Lowenburg

Is Innovation Essential For Development Work? -- The Guardian, David Lewis

We Are Already Living in Virtual Reality -- The New Yorker, Joshua Rathman

Interested in learning more about what went behind this episode? Check out Airbel’s Medium.

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.