Interview with Pooja Nath

May 17, 2010

Series: Entrepreneurial Heroes

Having been one herself, Pooja Nath understands the problems of students studying for assignments or exams. They have specific questions with a lot of context that search engines can't address because the returns are too many and too general. So Pooja built a prototype for Piazzza, an online forum in which students can share knowledge.

Pooja Nath Sankar

Pooja (Nath) Sankar is the founder and CEO of Piazza, the leading social learning platform for students and teachers in higher education. 

She has worked at Oracle, Kosmix, and Facebook, and has degrees from IIT, the University of Maryland, and Stanford. The genesis for Piazza and Sankar's passion for social learning came from her experience as one of a handful of women in the computer science program at IIT in the late 1990s. Sankar started Piazza while studying for her MBA at Stanford, where she failed a class in entrepreneurship because she was too busy running the business.

Pooja Nath Sankar

Transcript: 

An Interview with Pooja Nath CEO, Piazzza

Date: May 17, 2010 [music]

Lucy Sanders: Hi. This is Lucy Sanders, the CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology or NCWIT. We've got another great interview today with women who have started IT companies, and this is a really interesting one. This is a woman who studied computer science, worked in tech companies, is getting her MBA in Stanford, and also by the way, on the side is starting a company. It's called Piazzza and her name is Pooja Nath. We're very excited to have her here. I should mention she's getting her MBA at Stanford, so not unlike other entrepreneurs who have come before, who we know about. Piazzza is all about group learning. It is really interesting to go look at the site. Having a college student myself, I know that often he is studying by himself or he doesn't have the answers to questions, and I must also say he also procrastinates and could really use something like Piazzza, which helps you get answers to questions from your fellow students and from your professor all through a form of social networking. So, welcome, Pooja. We're very glad that you're here.

Pooja Nath: Thank you. I'm very excited to be here with you. That was a very kind introduction. It makes me really happy when I hear other people explain the problem I am trying to solve, because when I hear them explain it so well in their own terms, I know I am solving a simple problem that is very prevalent. I try and explain to people what I am doing. It's like, "Well, students have problems when they're studying for assignments or exams, and they have specific questions that have a lot of context." Search engines can't help much, because there is knowledge out there that is too general. Discussion forums usually can't help, because there is so much lost and so much back-and-forth in trying to explain the context. The way I see it is your classmates or your teachers are best bet to get fast and efficient help, and yet today, so many students when they're struggling are trying to call their few friends they know, or trying to email their few friends they know. There is nothing connecting them to try and get them help when they need it with the largest set of most relevant people, that's their entire class.

Lucy: I think that is absolutely right.

Larry Nelson: Yeah.

Lucy: You have to go to YouTube listeners, and look at the YouTube video on Piazzza. It's very cute, because it calls many of these students, who just like my son, "elite procrastinators." [laughter]

Lucy: I know. It was just absolutely perfect. Maybe just before we get into our set of questions around entrepreneurship, tell us a little bit about where Piazzza is these days, and how you came up with the name, and what's going on with the company.

Pooja: Sure. I was sitting in a finance class at GSB when I was brainstorming on the names, and I asked a student next to me, "What's a term that explains this idea of bringing people together in a common place?" He said, "Piazza."

Lucy: [laughs] Oh, that's very good.

Pooja: Plural of piazza was a great idea, except I don't like the sound of piazze. [laughs]

Lucy: Yeah. Exactly.

Pooja: And since then, coming up with that name 'pizza' just really stuck with me. When I go back to my undergrad days when everybody would be sitting together in the same lab, mostly because they were not in a financial position to own their own laptops or computers, the amount of help people got in there, and the ways in which they learned off of each other was just so beautiful. That was my fruition was to come up with a term that had the same meaning in my mind, which is everyone is in the same spot physically, except I'm trying to now do that online. My inspiration was I was one of the very few female students in computer science in India, not only just computer science students, but IIT, which is the top engineering school of India has very few women overall, so there are about 420 boys. In my class there were about 20 girls, and in computer science there were three girls. So, I would be all alone on the sidelines, too shy to ask any guy for help, and I just wished I had something that would connect me through all my classmates in a way that even myself being the shy student or girl that I was back then, I would still have a way to tap-in to their collective knowledge.

Lucy: Well, I think that is wonderful, and the product looks great. Are you launched yet, or are you still in a private sort of beta, or what is the state of the software?

Pooja: We're private beta right now, but this fall, we're planning to launch openly to Stanford Campus. Because of our team being quite small at the moment, we're taking a very controlled birth approach. The biggest reason for that is I want to make sure I have a very personal connection with all of my users. I'm afraid that if we were to launch too aggressively or too openly, I would lose that somehow down the line. Last summer was when I built the first prototype myself, and then launched to a single class at University of Maryland, College Park, where I did my Master's Degree. I was a professor in computer science. When that started to go quite positively, we launched to more classes at Stanford, and University of Maryland, and Santa Clara, this January, and that went even better. So, the spring quarter, we had a number of classes at Stanford, both undergrad and grad level; MBA, Computer Science, Engineering. The usage on this site continues to grow rapidly, and a lot of that is through feedback, and talking with students and faculty at Stanford, understanding their needs and then watching how you actually use the platform we've given to them, and iterating quite rapidly.

Lucy: It's exciting.

Larry: Yeah. It really is exciting. Wow! I wish I had known about Piazzza a number of years ago, but anyhow...

Pooja: [laughs]

Larry: You have a background in computer science. So, let me kind of ask a two-part question here. How did you first get involved into technology, and kind of bridge that from the past to what do you think in the future is cool technology today?

Pooja: How did I get into technology? Well, my dad is a physicist, and so he generally from a very young age, always would be having us observe things from a very scientific perspective, and have us appreciate technology out there in the world, how it is affecting us in our daily life. My brother is an electrical engineer. So, I guess being surrounded by them, I had this excitement around technology, and studying engineering myself. I come from a pretty small town in India, where no girl had gotten into IIT before me. Somehow just being surrounded by my family in the way that I was, was very motivational for me to start thinking about engineering and particularly, computer science. Coming to your next question, what technologies, and how do I see that today. I love that technology lets us do things in more simple and simple ways. Just to give an example, I remember last summer when I had an idea, and I wanted to act on it. I had a very hardcore of engineering background, in the sense I only used to code CC++ server technology, and stuff like that, and Oracle, and Cosmix, Facebook. It is all back, and stuff. In the summer I said, "OK. I want to build a web app, what can I do?" And I learned more about various technologies out there to build web apps. I realized instantly that Ruby and PHP, and all these other platforms that are out there, they enable us to build a web app in 10 days. I got my first prototype in mid-July, when I only started learning it in June. I'm very impressed at how everything is moving towards making our own life easier, so that we can innovate faster.

Lucy: And do your homework faster!

Pooja: [laughs]

Lucy: That is absolutely the case. So, you are getting your MBA at Stanford. You mentioned you got your Master's at Maryland, and you're also starting a company and really growing organically, and so on and so forth. What made you make that leap from that big company kind of environment into being an entrepreneur? 

Pooja: So, I never really consciously realized I was making a leap into being an entrepreneur. [laughter]

Lucy: That's probably why you're a great entrepreneur.

Pooja: I still way say, though, that I had joined a pretty small startup after Oracle, which was a search engine, building a search engine at the time called Cosmix, and then Facebook, which was very startupish. I still think it is. But again, coming to my motivation to build Piazzza, I never thought, "Oh, I'm about to be a CEO" or "I'm about to be a founder." I realized there is a very prevalent problem, and after having been through a couple discussions around genders and workplaces, and women support groups, I realized that many students, even in the US, are in the shoes that I am, which is they don't feel like they have the support group they needed. All I thought of last January, the second quarter of Stanford Business School, is there has to be something that connects these students in a better and more effective way to all of their classmates and teachers. Step-by-step, and I don't know, I like to think of it as a baby step at a time, I started working toward a solution that I wished I had in my own undergrad that could have increased my learning in computer science for the four years that I was there at a wonderful engineering institute in India.

Larry: Well, with everything that you've been through and are continuing to do, were there people along the way that maybe had a major influence on you and, let's say, maybe even was a mentor for you?

Pooja: I think in different phases of my life I've had different people influence me in different ways and different mentors. Definitely my parents, my brother and his family have been very supportive in whatever decisions I've made. Choosing to do CS as a woman, for example. Or, jumping from the security of a large company to a startup. And, even deciding to say, guys, I'm doing my own start-up over the summer. I'm not going to have a paid internship between my first and second year. I'm going to work on this whatever hours of the day that I think I'm most effective at. [laughter]

Pooja: But, their support. And, a lot of my classmates at the GSB, they understood entrepreneurship. They understood what it meant to try something. I got of support from them in very implicit ways. Then, coming to, I would say, models of leadership, there have been a few people I've really been inspired by. I was fortunate to work very closely and observe how Mark Zuckerberg runs and leads Facebook. He was an immense source of inspiration for me, watching his innate styles and how the company would function in its own powerful and effective way. Today, I've got a few mentors who have helped me these past two years as Piazzza has evolved. Mostly some of the top leaders at Palantir. They've been there. I've had questions. I don't know what to do. Some of them have been through leading a company, growing a company, and they're there to answer my questions. They pose questions in the right way that have me think in the right way. It's not they want to tell me or they have to handhold me. But, they have me thinking in the right way, which has been very helpful for me.

Lucy: That's great to have that kind of advice from people around you. It really does make a big difference in terms of doing things right. And, often, as entrepreneurs tough things happen, too. You see along the way something's been particularly difficult. So far on your journey, what has been the toughest thing you've had to do so far?

Pooja: When I look back at everything that's got me to where I am today, I would say the toughest thing was being confident in who I was while I was preparing as a female for the IIT entrance exam. 200,000 people get that exam each year in India. I think the number's even increased. And, 2,000 people get selected. And, of that, I'm sitting knowing that maybe 50 to 100 women get selected. But, that mindset that I had which is I'm not going to look around me and how other women see this. I'm going to say there are 2,000 people who are selected, and I have to be one of them. Getting into IIT, the four years struggling and often feeling alone trying to understand assignments and projects, were very, very tough. But, they shaped me to a point where today when I'm on this journey where many people say being an entrepreneur is lonely and scary, I honestly don't think it is that bad. Being in Silicon Valley, I think I have a lot of support.

Lucy: That's an interesting observation. I'd like to add something from NCWIT's perspective about this. We hear this a lot from our high school girls who are interested in computer science. They're the only girl in the class. They're the only girl in the school. This feeling of being alone. We've started something around a K-12 award for high school girls. We're going to put a social networking site together for them just to keep them connected. They're from all over the country. Just to give them that sense that they are not alone. I think your point is brilliant which is once you've learned that you can survive alone, that's a good skill. [laughter]

Lucy: I think that's great.

Larry: That's a fact. Well, that's kind of a lead-in to this next question. Right now, if you were sitting down right across the table with another person, a young person, who is maybe going to have an entrepreneurial leaning, what advice would you give to them?

Pooja: I think the biggest advice, I think I remember Derrick Bolton, the Director of Admissions at the MBA program at Stanford, said this once that really inspired me, is believe in yourself because we believe in you and that is beautiful. Today I am able to do my own startup because I believe in myself and I'm content that I can achieve, and I would tell them the same thing. I'd tell them believe in yourself and if there is something that you are truly passionate about, go out there and start it. Don't plan for the day when you will, just jump in and it's going to be hard, it's going to be scary and it will be fun and amazing and fulfilling in a way if I just think, I don't know personally, I feel nothing else could have given this sense of fulfillment.

Lucy: Well and we have talked to you just for a short period of time here but I think our listeners were all ready now that there are certain words that describe you, as entrepreneur. One is passionate, a lovely description about why people would want to be entrepreneurial and, also, confident and certainly persistent in trying to achieve your goals. What other personal characteristics that you have that would make you a successful entrepreneur?

Pooja: In my view, I would say I am optimistic. I don't know if everyone views that as a characteristic that's good for an entrepreneur. But I'm very optimistic and I don't easily get discouraged. I think I have already mentioned this but from my town, when no girl had gotten in, I don't use that dampen my spirits to apply or even the quality with which I put an effort to apply to get the IIT exams. Here in Silicon Valley, the same thing. I know there aren't that many female entrepreneurs. I wish there were. But that doesn't discourage me. I know that I will get a lot of support and when people see a brilliant product, they will support in many ways that I will need to move forward.

Larry: Well, you are doing all kinds of things, building a company, gaining an MBA. Lucy: Going to Stanford. Oh my goodness, frightening right there.

Larry: Yeah, how do you bring balance into your personal and your professional lives?

Pooja: I don't know that I see when doing on my business and school and with my friends as clear lines between any of them, and I think a reason could be that I love all of them. There are times that I realize that I need or I want to spend more time just on my personal friend and it could be a trip somewhere with my friends. I will do that. And sometimes I realize that it is very crucial for Piazzza that a release is coming up and that I will forget about all social activities out of which people must be thinking, "Wow. Really?" But I do give up a lot of social activities and just immerse myself into building the right products for the students and professors I like. I know I hear other people have to find a balance on a daily level that's not something I do and perhaps it's because I love everything that I do so much that I try to figure out what's the right balance I should balance over a certain time period and make sure that I am balancing them all to a level so I'm not giving too much time to any one part of my life.

Lucy: Well, so you are doing a lot and I know we ask our entrepreneurs their next steps. So we already know the next step for you is to get that MBA. We know you are going to launch Piazzza, hopefully this fall, or whenever it's time. What other things are coming down the road for you that you can share with our listeners?

Pooja: I still see myself as a long way to go and achieving my mission that I have for Piazzza. I want to see this in every class, worldwide, and at the first step before that, nationwide. I really think students and professors will get so much value out of this platform that I am just on step zero. It's gone to some classes as a private beta at Standford. It's going to go to more classes at Stanford but, really, I hope to achieve seeing this help every single student so that no student four years out of graduation will have to say something like, "I wished I had something like that."

Lucy: Well, I think it's a great vision.

Larry: Yes, I do too.

Lucy: And we wish you the very best of luck with that and thank you very much for talking to us.

Pooja: Thank you.

Lucy: And I would like to remind listeners, if they can find this podcast on w3w3.com and also NCWIT.org.

Larry: You betcha. And we'll have a link to Piazzza, too.

Lucy: Oh, Good.

Larry: Why not.

Lucy: Why not, let's do it. [laughter]

Pooja: Perfect.

Lucy: Alright. Thank you so much. [music]