Pooja Nath Sankar, Piazza, Woman Entrepreneur

BildePooja was introduced to me through email.  We spoke a few times really through email and when I was putting together the panel on education for the Womens Entrepreneur Festival I asked Pooja if she would come and be on it.  I was delighted that she said yes.  Her company, Piazza is a place where students can come together under the guidance of an instructor to learn. I spent most of my time at the festival going in and out of panels but the feedback on Pooja was amazing.  I emailed her to ask if we could schedule a time to talk so she could tell me the story that she told at the festival.  Her story is one that if more woman get educated in third world countries we will hear more of the exact same journey…we can only hope that is in our future.

Pooja was born in India but went to Nova Scotia Canada between the ages 2-8 and then to Cleveland Heights Ohio between the ages of 8 – 11 because her father was getting his post-graduate degrees.  The family returned to Patna India when Pooja was 11.  Talk about culture shock. Boys and girls were not even allowed to talk to one another there.  Patna is one of the poorest areas in India with not only plenty of crime and poverty but very traditional and orthodox in its ways.  Her father was the first of his family to ever leave India and because of why he went he placed a huge value on education.  Her parents pushed both her and her brother to succeed at the highest level in school. 

Pooja went to an all girls school in India.  She saw many girls in her school leave in 9th grade and earlier to get married and never return.  Her parents did not want to her to be married at that age but to finish her education first.  She studied hard and got into IIT, Indian Institue of Technology.  Only 1% of the applicants get in.  It was a tremendous challenge for her because in Punta where she was not allowed to talk to the boys about her studies.  So the boys would study together and she would have to study by herself.  Few girls if any go to IIT.  It was like being in her own echo chamber.  She passed the test and found herself as a freshman at IIT with 400 boys and 20 girls.  Her major had 50 boys and 3 girls.  She figured after the challenge of learning to take the test to get into IIT by herself and being in a school with so few women that anything could be possible.

In college, boys were allowed to talk to the girls and the girls were allowed to talk to the boys but because they hadn't for so many years they never learned how to.  It was awkward for everyone.  After finishing her undergraduate work at IIT she went to the University of Maryland to get her graduate degree in computer science.  Her father was very concerned that she should not wait any longer to get married and found her a suitor the first semester of her graduate work.  She had only met this guy once.  He was living in SF working as an engineer.  The plan was after they got married she would go out to SF whenever she could and eventually move to SF.

Pooja realized very quickly that this relationship was not a good one but she did not want to give up because the stigma of divorce would be so great to her family.  His idea of a good marriage is that she would have no opinions, no thoughts, no ideas, nothing.  She gave it 3 1/2 years.  She lost 30 lbs over the stress, her body was breaking down because she was so unhappy.  Her parents supported her decision to finally divorce him.

At this point Pooja was living in SF too and working as an engineer at Oracle.  She left Oracle when she got divorced and went to work in a start-up of 20 people.  It was thrilling.  She learned a lot and then went over to Facebook to work as an engineer.  She wasn't there a year and she got into Stanford Business School.  She would lose all her Facebook shares is she went to Stanford because she hadn't been there long enough to vest but decided that it was the right move. 

In an entrepreneur class at Stanford, she became so intrigued by everyones individual business ideas.  Pooja really wanted to create a support group for women who were computer scientist majors.  She realized if she broke it down starting her own company was not such a big deal.  That idea evolved into how can she build something that would help students get through school easier.  What kind of support would they need.  She took baby steps by learning ruby on rails and building her own website called Piazza.  It has now been up three years and and they are helping over 100,000 people how to study better with their peers.

Piazza was launched in 2009.  There are now 9 employees and she just closed her series A round after a few rounds of angel investors.  An idea that started in her brothers garage during her two years at Stanford is not a full fledged business.  

On the personal side, two separate people told Pooja that she should meet this guy who grew up as a first generation American from an Indian family that had moved here.  She finally did and they became fast friends.  He is also in the start-up world.  They have been married now almost one year.  He is her mentor and her best friend.  Her parents still live in India and it has become much easier on them since she got married.

What is interesting is that her parents grew up in a very conservative part of India and raised their children there too.  It was her fathers desire to have his children educated before getting married that in essence changed everything.  They raised thinkers and children that challenge the norm.  Pooja is a cindrella story.  She left a life that she was supposed to live and found one that not only gave her the ability to pursue her dreams to transform the way people teach at the highest level possible and she also found someone who she could happily spend her life with.