Opportunity & Access

Pooja Sankar: Using Technology to Remove Barriers

An entrepreneur launches the Piazza social learning website to reduce students' isolation.

June 27, 2013

| by Erika Brown Ekiel


Pooja Sankar

Pooja Sankar (Photo courtesy of Piazza)

Pooja Sankar is founder and CEO of Piazza, an online tool for students to get help from their classmates and teachers. Sankar studied engineering at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur. As a shy young woman surrounded by mostly male classmates, she was too timid to ask for help when she faced challenges, and as a result, she fell behind. She caught up with her peers by learning on the job as an engineer at Oracle and Facebook, but she never forgot that feeling of isolation. Years later, as a student at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Sankar was inspired to come up with a solution. She founded Piazza Technologies Inc. in 2009. By the time she graduated in 2010, she had raised a few hundred thousand dollars in angel funding, and she publicly launched the company on the Stanford campus the following year. Today, Piazza counts more than 1 million registered users at schools across the country, including Carnegie Mellon, Duke, and Princeton.

In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind your business?

Helping students get unstuck within minutes online.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

The director of admissions at Stanford Graduate School of Business told me, “Believe in yourself, because we believe in you.” I found that so inspiring. He gave me a lot of confidence, and that led me to start this company.

What was the most difficult lesson you have learned?

The most profound period of learning for me was during a three-and-a-half-year traditional arranged marriage, beginning at age 22. It taught me how to live my life to its full potential. I tried to be what people expected of me: a submissive, acceptable Indian wife. Every single day of that marriage, I asked myself what else I could be doing to make it work. After reflection, I realized that was not the life I wanted to live. It took time to understand who I am and what I believe, and to have the courage to live that life. It was very difficult because of societal pressures, but I chose to leave the marriage.

Learning who I wanted to be helped me make other changes as well. I was an engineer at Facebook when the company had 500 employees. People around me said I should stay until the company went public. But I wanted to dig deeper and grow more as an individual. At the time, that meant leaving Facebook, attending business school, and pursuing a startup.

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs on how to build a great business?

You need to deeply believe in the problem you are solving. The last four years of building Piazza have been an incredible journey, but it has also been extremely exhausting. The one thing that keeps me going is the idea that this problem needs to be fixed. We are often isolated by technology. I want to eliminate barriers and use technology to help people help others.

What inspires you? How do you come up with your best ideas?

In my second year of business school, professors would invite successful entrepreneurs to come in and talk about how they built their companies. They would walk through it step by step. Hearing their stories was so inspiring. Once they broke down the process, I could picture myself doing it. Turning my vision into reality was no longer intimidating.

What is your greatest achievement?

Finding a life partner who appreciates me exactly as I am. I know how rare that is. It took time to become confident enough in myself to let people see who I really am.

What do you consider your biggest failure?

Being too timid and shy and not having the self-awareness to stand up to my family. That instinct is now gone, and I have grown into a strong and confident woman.

What values are important to you in business?

Thinking about how to add value to every party involved before making decisions.

What impact would you like to have on the world?

I want to eliminate all barriers to learning.

Why are you an entrepreneur?

I never knew I’d be an entrepreneur. It always seemed too intimidating. After hearing how other people started companies around ideas they believed in, I developed an itch to make an impact. I wanted to take the very best inside of myself and use it to change this problem.

What was your first paying job?

I was a software engineer at Oracle. I worked on the XML database product.

How do you achieve balance in your life?

Balancing involves determining the important things along each dimension of my life. Right now that is my son, my husband, and my company. I make sure that I bring trusted people into my inner circle so that I don’t feel the onus of being on top of everything. We live with my husband’s parents, and I trust them to make the best decisions regarding my son. That allows me to focus on other areas of my life.

What is the best business book you have read?

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries and Principles by Ray Dalio.

What businessperson do you most admire?

I admire Steve Jobs. He was a phenomenal visionary.

What is the most valuable thing you took away from your time at Stanford?

Being confident to know who I am and how others perceive me.

What do you think is the greatest innovation in the past decade?

Everything moving to the cloud. I am 10 times more productive because everything is so accessible on mobile devices.

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