09/27/11 | OOO

Former Facebook Engineer Launches EduTech Startup Piazza

By Pooja Sankar (Founder & CEO, Piazza)
As a teenager, I never went outside alone, spoke to a boy other than my brother, or wore jeans or a short skirt.

I came of age in Patna, India and that was the way it was. To say I was naïve or sheltered misses how profoundly different traditional Indian culture is from modern American culture.

So when I got to IIT Kanpur as one of only three girls in the computer science program, I was well prepared academically but on a different planet socially. And when I saw the boys in my class collaborating on assignments, I understood that academic life and social life were one and the same. Until I developed the social skills to interact with my professors and my peers, I struggled academically.

Fast forward 10 years to Stanford Business School where I arrived after a long personal and professional journey. Entrepreneurship is in the water at Stanford, but I didn’t think of starting a company until a classmate convinced me that with my technical background, I could actually get a company off the ground myself -– if I could decide what I wanted the company to do.

When I thought about a problem I really wanted to solve, I thought back to my days of fear and isolation as an Indian woman in a man’s world. That was my passion. What if I could build a support group for those women? Could that be a business?

As someone who had worked at Facebook, I was deeply influenced by Sheryl Sandberg‘s contention that even in America, women don’t always raise their hands. So the first step in transforming my passion into a business idea was to recognize that this wasn’t just a developing-world problem. American women, I understood, face similar challenges.

Then I started speaking to more people, including a lot of Stanford undergraduate students, and I learned something that surprised me. Stanford male undergraduates — by my informal reckoning the privileged people on Earth –- often felt the same helplessness and isolation in their educational journeys that I had felt in rural India. And if anything, all of their technology — in the form of laptops for everyone — actually isolated Stanford students more because it removed them from the collaborative world of the lab and left them alone in libraries or dorms.

In education, I learned, everyone is a minority of one.

Now I had found a specific problem that engaged my passions, and identified the common denominator that affects everyone from awkward girls in rural India to future CEO’s in Silicon Valley. So I had a big enough scope – but how did I know it was worth spending years of my life working on this?

I played the field. I tried to get myself excited about other ideas. I talked to others about things that excited them, so that I might absorb some of their enthusiasm. But as much as I did this, I kept coming back to my idea. I couldn’t not think about it. And that’s how I knew it was the right idea.

And thus Piazza was born. It’s an online platform where students and teachers come together to solve problems. Students love it because it removes barriers that get in the way of learning. Instructors love it because it saves them time. It’s grown from a handful of instructors to over 1,000 in just a year!

I’m not a preachy person, and I feel uncomfortable holding my experience up as ideal or universal. But to boil it down for others who are considering starting a business, here are three things I would say about how to choose and evaluate an idea.

Three Ways to Test Your Business Idea:

  1. Start with your own experience. If you’ve lived through the pain of a problem, you’ll be more passionate about solving it, and you’ll probably have unique insights to guide you.
  2. Find a common denominator. That means talking to people outside of your experience and comfort zone to see how your problem relates to them. Better a business idea you grow into than one you grow out of.
  3. Try to live without it. If your idea keeps following you around, you’re committed enough to move forward.

It’s energizing to feel that a problem that really engages me is also a problem worth solving. I hope you can feel that way, too.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.
About the guest blogger: Pooja Sankar is the founder and CEO of Piazza. Pooja went to an all-girls high school in India and was then admitted to IIT Kanpur, India. She was one of a handful of girls in the midst of many boys. She was shy and studied alone, while the boys worked together, benefitting tremendously from the collaboration. Piazza provides a collaboration tool that is better than the wikis and threads currently in use for discussion groups. Pooja conceived of Piazza in in 2009 in a class during her first year at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She has worked at Oracle, Kosmix, and Facebook. Pooja holds degrees from IIT Kanpur (India), the University of Maryland College Park, and Stanford.



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