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Pooja Sankar

Founder & CEO

Palo Alto, CA

Education is not just about developing the skills to succeed in your chosen field – it is about finding the confidence to persevere.

Before I ever thought of starting a company, I dreamed of becoming an engineer.  This was no simple thing, studying at an all-girls’ school in a small north Indian town.

The academic competition was intense: No girl from my hometown had ever gotten into an Indian Institute of Technologies (IIT) school, and nationwide, only one girl was admitted for every fifty boys. Culturally, women were judged by their domestic abilities, not their academic prowess. While the boys formed study groups, I worked on my own.

After much hard work and dedication, I became the first girl from my hometown to attend IIT. Without the social support that male students enjoyed, I struggled to learn at their pace. It certainly made me a stronger engineer, but I wondered if there was a better way. Meanwhile, I just kept studying, graduating from IIT and earning a Master’s in Computer Science at Maryland. After graduating, I worked for several tech companies, where once again, I was the only female engineer.

Not entirely happy with my current situation, I left my secure tech job and attended the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where I was free to explore all aspects of management and entrepreneurship. Reflecting on the many hours I had studied alone as an undergraduate, I believed there had to be a better way; it was up to me to create it.

Drawing upon my childhood and work experiences, I began prototyping Piazza, a site for students and instructors to embark upon real-time collaborative learning. In a few months, Piazza went from being merely a dream to becoming my greatest passion. But I still was not  sure if, or how, I would turn it into a company.

I asked my fellow students for feedback and sought out potential collaborators, but no one seemed very excited about “ed-tech”; I was essentially creating an industry that did not yet exist. Other students also wondered if a computer scientist could actually build a company. Personally, I struggled with this and doubted myself and my ideas as well. After all, I was going to business school to become something other than an engineer.

I found my courage by relying on a difficult decision that I had made years earlier, when I chose to leave my arranged marriage because I could not be a traditional wife while also being a passionate engineer. In deciding whether to launch my company, I concluded that it was faith in myself that was holding me back; only I had the power to define my role.

I realized I had irreplaceable skills relative to my non-technical classmates. I was the only one who could lead Piazza. I knew it would not be easy but I did not want to sacrifice my dream by playing it safe.

Four years later, my company is thriving. I am privileged to work with a fantastic team, and our platform is used by tens of thousands of teachers and hundreds of thousands of students all over the world. For me, education is not just about developing the skills to succeed in your chosen field – it is about finding the confidence to persevere.  If my company can inspire even one student to lean in, then I will have made a difference.