Growing up in a rural village in India with no electricity or running water, Pooja Sankar, winner of the 2016 Technology Entrepreneurship ABIE Award, had a unique upbringing. While many of the other girls in her community were being groomed for marriage at a young age, Pooja’s parents encouraged her to pursue an engineering degree and attend the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).
When she was still a baby, Pooja’s father left India to study in the United States and Canada, where he was inspired by his female peers earning degrees and building careers for themselves. When he returned to India, he was determined to give Pooja the same opportunity.
“My dad invested in his education so he could further his career, so that he could give me and my brother a steppingstone; a pedestal on top of which [we could] launch our futures,” Pooja says.
Collaborating Virtually to Build Confidence
Today, Pooja is the CEO and Founder of Piazza, an online educational platform that fosters collaboration so everyone can learn from each other. The idea for Piazza was planted in Pooja’s entrepreneurial mind when she was studying computer science at IIT as one of only three women in her class.
“I remember vividly sitting in computer lab, looking at code and I didn’t know what to do. I would try using Google or public forums, but I wasn’t getting the right answers. I kept getting stuck in the nuances of a problem. I was very lonely through it all,” Pooja recalls. By contrast, Pooja’s male classmates excelled by asking each other questions, collaborating and learning as a group. But as a shy girl, Pooja couldn’t work up the courage to seek out answers from her peers.
Fast-forward six years and Pooja was once again a student, this time earning her MBA at Stanford Business School. Inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit all around her and reminiscing on her days of confusion and loneliness at IIT, Pooja started her own company, Piazza.
“I realized there was a deep, burning passion inside me to help other women studying technical subjects get support and have an opportunity to virtually tap their classmates’ shoulders to ask questions and get help,” Pooja recalls.
Today, Piazza helps hundreds of thousands of students across hundreds of classes to excel in their classes across departments, from computer science and mathematics to economics and chemistry.
Sacrificing Everything for Success
For Pooja, her success as a female founder is directly linked to the sacrifices made by her parents to ensure she and her brother could take advantage of every opportunity available to them.
While her father pursued his post doctorate degree, Pooja’s mother did all she could to save money while building a life for her young family in a new, unfamiliar country.
“My mom would walk to a grocery store miles away and carry back gallons of milk just because it was 20 cents cheaper,” Pooja says. Though money was always tight, Pooja’s mother insisted on staying home rather than working odd jobs to ensure her kids’ grades wouldn’t slip.
Even the smallest luxuries, like enjoying a meal out as a family, were rare in the Sankar household. One special evening in particular stands out in Pooja’s memory.
“[My dad] had saved up just enough money for all four of us to have this one nice meal at a restaurant,” Pooja remembers. “But the whole experience was terrible – the food and the service. I think it was the only time my dad could afford an $80 dinner for all of us. He wanted to give us an experience, and it turned out terrible. It made me think, with everything he’s done for us, what excuse do I have not to work hard and succeed?”
Today, this sense of family and sacrifice still plays a major role in Pooja’s daily life. As a successful female entrepreneur, Pooja says that communal family living is the only way she is able to balance her responsibilities at work and at home.
“We live with my husband’s parents, and they’re the ones who give their all to take care of my two little kids,” Pooja explains. “It’s this extended family living under the same roof that makes any of this possible.”