THE WOMAN IN THE PIAZZA
INDIAN-BORN CEO TAKES UNCONVENTIONAL PATH
San Jose Mercury News (CA) - Friday, January 6, 2012
Author: Peter Delevett, firstname.lastname@example.org
Pooja Sankar is a woman who defies convention.
Six years ago, she extricated herself from a marriage pushed on her by Indian tradition. Three years ago, she left a job developing one of Facebook's most popular features to attend graduate school at Stanford.
And today, she's chief executive of a social media startup called Piazza , which more than 100,000 college students around the world use to collaborate on tough classwork assignments. On Friday, the company will announce it has landed $6 million in its first infusion of venture capital, led by Bessemer Ventures.
Its blue-chip investors - which also include Lotus founder Mitch Kapor, Ron Conway's SV Angel and venerable Sequoia Capital - buzz about the company's Facebook-like growth. Piazza launched a year ago this month and is now used by professors at about 1,000 colleges and universities, including UC Berkeley, Harvard and the University of Illinois.
Admirers say the site's clean, simple interface makes it easy to get hooked. Half its users log on every week; a quarter do so every night.
"The engagement level of the users is astoundingly high," Kapor said. "All the signs are looking very positive for this to go big-time."
But while Piazza 's look and feel are a study in simplicity, Sankar's story isn't sketched in straight lines.
She was born in Patna, capital of the northern Indian state of Bihar, and moved to Canada at age 2 so her father, a physics professor, could continue his studies. The family later moved to Cleveland, and Sankar remembers neighborhood kids delivering whoops and war dances when told she was Indian.
Then at 11, Sankar moved back to Patna with her family. Suddenly, the girl her American classmates had derided as foreign was a stranger in her own land. Some people thought she was putting on a phony Western accent.
But with help from her father, who began a college tutoring business in his garage and grew it into a thriving practice, she was admitted to the Indian Institutes of Technology, her country's most prestigious university. Sankar was the first girl from Patna - a city of nearly 6 million people - to attend.
She also was one of only three women enrolled in the computer science program, and her male counterparts weren't exactly welcoming, Sankar recalls. Most, steeped in non-coed schools, ignored the women . Some vandalized their bicycles at night.
"I was too shy to seek help from my classmates," said the petite 31-year-old, who in jeans and a colorful Pashmina scarf could be mistaken for one of the undergrads her company was hatched to help. To keep up, she often staggered home from the computer lab at sunrise.
Sankar gutted it out and, after graduation, returned to America to earn her master's in computer science at the University of Maryland. A friend introduced her to a young Indo-American man in California, and they began trading calls and emails.
When Sankar's dad heard of the long-distance flirting, he insisted the couple marry.
Sankar understands his decision, saying that in Patna's ultraconservative society, word would have spread of the dalliance and left her unfit to wed anyone else. But after three years, she told her father, "I can't do this anymore." (It was several more years, she said, until others in her family would speak openly about the divorce.)
Sankar's professional life, meanwhile, was humming along. She'd become a software developer for Oracle and by 2008 had moved on to Facebook, where she helped develop the popular News Feed feature. Then that fall, she again made a bold change in direction, ditching Silicon Valley's hottest startup to get an MBA at Stanford.
"It was very clear they were going to be a huge success," she said of the social networking giant. "But money's not my focus; it's, 'How can I get better?' "
It was at Stanford, where entrepreneurship flourishes like poppies on the campus' famed Oval, that she found the answer. A professor challenged her and her classmates to solve a problem they were passionate about, and she thought back unexpectedly to those lonely undergraduate days in India.
"When students need help, they text or IM the handful of friends they may have made in the class," she said. "But what if those people don't know? In a computer lab, people can overhear your questions and chip in . But nobody goes to the computer lab anymore; they all have their own laptops, and they're working in their own dorm rooms."
Naming it the Italian word for a central gathering place, she designed a system of collective, Wiki-style documents in which students can post questions, then add to and amend one another's solutions.
She launched a private beta version of Piazza in fall 2009 for Stanford students. By December 2010, she realized she could no longer keep it down on the Farm. Today, any college or university professor can create a Piazza page for students in his or her courses.
"I've been quite happy with it," said MIT computer science professor Charles Leiserson, who tried the site after Sankar approached him at a friend's recommendation. He's used it for the past two semesters, "and I intend to use it for any course I teach in the foreseeable future."
He said his students "like being able to see what others are asking." And the system saves him work because "when I respond, I'm responding to the whole class."
So how does Piazza make money? It doesn't, at least not yet. "We have lots of ideas," Sankar said, including rolling out beyond colleges and universities. For now, the 10-employee firm bustles along in Palo Alto, where Sankar and her second husband live.
The couple are still newlyweds, having married last March. Shyam Sankar heads business development for another buzz-heavy startup, Palantir Technologies, which was launched by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.
"I hope she's a great example for other folks from diverse backgrounds who want to come to the valley," Shyam said. "We both really appreciate what it means to be in Silicon Valley. The opportunity to solve problems is something on an entirely different scale for a girl who grew up in Patna."
Asked how her father feels about her success, Pooja Sankar paused for the briefest of moments.
"Dad's very proud of me," she said quietly. "He never imagined I'd do something like this."
- WHAT IT DOES: Provides Facebook-style forums that college and university professors can set up for students in their classes to help each other solve tough problems.
- HOW IT WORKS: Students post questions and, if they choose, can receive an email when an answer arrives. Students can edit each other's responses to avoid having to scroll through a discussion. A typical question is answered within 25 minutes.
- WHAT IT ISN'T: A forum for cheating. Instructors can see every message posted and can comment to the threads themselves.
- HOW IT'S GROWN: After launching a year ago, it now has users in dozens of countries.
- TO LEARN MORE: Go to www.piazza.com.
Contact Peter Delevett at 408-271-3638.
Follow him at Twitter.com/mercwiretap.
Copyright © 2012 - San Jose Mercury News. Reprinted with permission