Meet Your Neighbor: Pooja Sankar
By bayareadesi team on 20 Oct 2011
Pooja Sankar is an IIT'ian and Stanford graduate who founded Piazza so every student can have that opportunity to learn from his/her classmates. An idea (a phenomenon actually!!) conceived in 2009 by a shy girl from a small town in India has seen explosive growth. This year itself more than 900 school campuses and ten thousands of students are taking advantage of free online platform. Piazza has got seed funding of 1.6 million and lot of media attention. Get to know Pooja as he talks to our team on all things bay.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. When did you come to bay area?
I was born in India, but my family moved to Canada when I was two so my father could complete his PhD in physics, then we moved to the United States for his postdoc. When I was 11, the family returned to Patna in Bihar, where I had to assume the manner of a traditional rural Indian girl, which was quite a culture shock for me! My father tutored my brother and me for the IIT entrance exams, and we were both able to study at IIT Kanpur, my brother in EE and me in computer science.
After college, I moved back to the United States to get a master's degree at the University of Maryland. Then I moved to Silicon Valley and worked at Oracle, Kosmix, and Facebook, and finally I attended Stanford's Graduate School of Business (GSB), where I started Piazza (Piazza is a free online collaboration platform that allows students and instructors to help each other quickly find high-quality answers to difficult questions).
What inspired you to start Piazza? What is the story behind the name?
I was inspired by my time as one of only three girls in my class at IIT. When I arrived, I saw that my male peers benefited tremendously from studying with one another, but I as a traditional girl was not able to collaborate with boys -- so I fell behind. Until I overcame that hurdle I had terrible problems as a student, so when I thought about what problem I really wanted to solve, I wanted to do something to support women studying STEM subjects. It was only when I really started thinking about Piazza that I understood that my experience as a woman from rural India made me particularly sensitive to a problem that's faced by almost every student to some degree or another.
The name comes from the Italian word, and I chose it because in Italy, a piazza is a place where everyone comes together, and I felt that this expressed best my aspiration that the software provide a supportive meeting ground for everyone who wants to learn.
Did you always wanted to become an entrepreneur?
No! In fact, it was something I was quite scared of for a long time. My time at GSB really changed me in this respect. First, I was exposed to a large number of entrepreneurs through guest lectures, and their enthusiasm was infectious. Secondly, one of my classmates told me that with my engineering background, I could actually start a company on my own, which gave me a sense of confidence that I might not otherwise have had. So I don’t consider myself a natural, and as a result work quite hard at it.
You used to work at two large software companies, Oracle and Facebook. What was valuable about those experiences?
Well, Facebook wasn't actually that large when I worked there! I understand that it's grown a bit since then, though. From Facebook I learned from Mark Zuckerberg to remain obsessively focused on the product, and particularly the user experience. From Sheryl Sandberg, who arrived just before I left for business school, I learned that it’s common even for talented and powerful women to feel a lack of self-confidence, and that sometimes we need to compensate for that. And I was particularly inspired by Matt Cohler, an early employee at Facebook and LinkedIn who's now a VC at Benchmark, because he managed to combine intense intelligence and energy with a remarkable humility. These are examples that I try to bring with me to work each day.
At Oracle I was privileged to have some wonderful mentors who taught me the difference between programming in school and developing commercial software. I also learned to ask for help when I needed it. Even with all the smart people at Oracle, people didn’t think less of me when I asked a lot of questions. I take that lesson to heart in my management style today.
How can technology change the education sector? Do you think we are taking enough advantage of it?
Technology can definitely improve education. I wouldn't be in this business if I didn't believe that! I don't think we are taking as much advantage of it as we could be, in part because technology in the education business tends to be forced down on instructors and students rather than selected by them to meet their needs. To me, this is the biggest problem with educational software generally – it has often been a drab affair, with a top-down adoption model where students' learning is the last priority. At Piazza that's the first priority. That's why we're different, and it’s why we’ve gone from a handful of instructors to over a thousand in less than a year.
Piazza has got lot of media attention from Forbes, The New York Times, TechCrunch to The Huffington Post; how does it feel?
It feels great, but also humbling. The other day I was on a panel at the New York Times headquarters with a professor from Harvard, and a couple of senior executives from global corporations. I said to myself, "What on earth is a girl from Patna doing up here?" But I think I held up okay.
What are the top 5 tips for budding entrepreneurs?
- Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions. Entrepreneurship is about learning as you go along, not pretending that you know everything.
- Don't be afraid to ask for help. Especially if you're blessed to live in Silicon Valley, there are many helpful people. Get help and then help others in return.
- Follow your passion. You'll work harder and smarter if you're really passionate about what you're doing. Better still if this passion is based on your own experience.
- Experiment a lot. If some of your experiments don't fail, you're not taking enough risks.
- Don’t overthink the future. It's great to make big plans, but if you spend too much time worrying about what's happening three years from now, you won't be effective in what you have to do today.
What are challenges you are facing?
The biggest challenge is to maintain focus. There is so much excitement, so much opportunity, so much potential for growth. And yet – if we don't maintain focus on what really makes our product useful for students and instructors, none of the rest of it will matter.
How do you manage balance between personal & professional life?
I have a very understanding husband who is also extremely entrepreneurial and has been involved in a high growth company (Palantir Technologies) almost from its inception. So we support one another completely, and he's been a great help to me in starting Piazza and growing it to this point. In fact – we actually met when a mutual friend "set us up" to talk about Piazza. So you might say that I manage the balance between personal and professional life by combining them.
What does future holds for you?
I have an abiding passion for Piazza and the problem that we're trying to solve, so for now almost all of my thoughts about the future involve growing the company and helping more people in more places learn more. That's a big and important mission – and if I think too much about how big and important it is, it’s difficult to function. So I think much more about what I need to do tomorrow than what I’ll be doing in the future.
Do you feel local “desis” have been supportive of your endeveour?
A lot of my friends are local desis, and I couldn't have come this far without their support. My extended family, who are desis, has also been very supportive in ways that only family can be.
Has being a South Asian affected you in either good or bad way in achieving your goals?
I think my position as a person living between two cultures has affected me deeply. When I moved to India as an 11-year-old girl, I felt a tremendous sense of culture shock, and my sense of feeling like an outsider became particularly acute when I was one of only three women in computer science at IIT. That experience was so important in formulating Piazza, and it's difficult to imagine that I would have had the same set of experiences had I not been a South Asian woman. On the other hand, the idea that became Piazza only emerged fully when I was able to take that specific experience and apply it more generally to anyone of any nationality.
Do you feel being in the Silicon Valley accelerated your career goals?
Absolutely! Silicon Valley is an amazingly supportive environment for entrepreneurs, and there is such a tremendous wealth of talent here that it provides an opportunity to learn from the best. Right now, I can't imagine being anywhere else.
Apart from work, are you involved with any other organizations / non-profits? If yes, can you tell your involvement with them?
I'm not deeply involved with other organizations at the moment. One day, when I have more time...
Who is your role model?
I guess I would have to say my mother-in-law. She has a sense of calm and warmth about her that is impossible to describe.
Which is your favorite places to eat? Activities? Places to go?
My favorite places to eat are Saravana Bhavan, Shalimar, and Evvia. My favorite places to go are places where I can relax and be contemplative – the Stanford Dish and Half Moon Bay are two particularly good places for that. As far as activities, I can sit for a long while just peacefully watching the waves. When I need more stimulation, you can find me playing with my little niece.
What is your favorite dish?
What is your favorite go-to outfit?
Jeans, a top, and a pashmina. To call that my go-to outfit understates it.
If you had one piece of advice for South Asians, what would it be?
To realize your potential to its fullest, believe in yourself, then follow your passion to bring out your potential.
How can people learn more about you & stay connected to you in future?
Believe it or not, I’m not a huge Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn kind of person. If you want to “follow me,” it’s probably best to go to www.piazza.com and check out the site, which will keep you up to date on what I’m doing. If you have feedback on the product or want to get in touch, I still read just almost every e-mail that comes through our contact form. Really!