04/05/12 | Uncategorized

Ms. Sankar Goes To Washington

On practicing her startup pitch and meeting the Vice President of the United States.
By Pooja Sankar (Founder & CEO, Piazza)

Vice President Biden, Pooja Sankar, Dr. BidenAt first I thought it was a phishing scam.

I received an email with an image attachment inviting me to meet the Vice President and his wife Dr. Jill Biden at a reception at their official residence in Washington, DC. All I needed to do was RSVP with my social security number. Hah! What kind of idiot falls for that?

But whoever put this together had done a nice job on the invitation, which looked very professional and contained none of the usual misspellings. So I showed it to my husband Shyam, who knows a bit about computer security and the ways of official Washington. He pronounced it legitimate. I trembled.

Above all else, I am a software geek. That means I’m an introvert by inclination. And I generally keep my head down. Before I got the invitation I could probably… maybe… have named the Vice President, but I couldn’t have picked him out of line-up. The fact that I lived in this country for many years without actually being a citizen was something of a blessing since I could avoid voting.

I have the classic engineer’s aversion to politics: why can’t they stop arguing, agree on goals, and figure out how to solve problems efficiently? So politics combined with cocktail chatter are not exactly my happy place.

And yet, my colleagues and advisors told me, you really can’t say no to the Vice President. And it could be really fun. And you might meet some interesting folks. And you wouldn’t want to offend whoever invited you. (And you ought to at least get a blog post out of it).

Now is as good a time as any to come out of the closet about something really personal and important: I am pregnant. And so I thought to myself that I’d be able to tell my son that he came with me to meet the Vice President. And that he was practically the only guy there, since this was an event to celebrate the achievements of women. The invitation said ladies only, but I couldn’t very well check the fetus at the door.

So I decided to master my fear and do it.

First thing: get a dress. Not so easy when you’re six months pregnant and don’t know how to shop. So profound is my aversion to shopping that I did almost all of our Series A fund-raising meetings (suffering from morning sickness, by the way) wearing stretchy yoga pants and a sweatshirt from my husband’s company, Palantir. Phil joked that it was actually very stylish attire in the Valley because it’s a successful company. But if our friends at Bessemer thought that was a la mode, the Bidens surely wouldn’t. So I hired a shopper, she showed up at the house with a crate of dresses, and we were done inside of half an hour. See what I mean about engineering efficient solutions to problems?

Second thing: prep. Fortunately, Shyam was also headed to the DC area that day, so we booked a plane together. I rely on Shyam to help me through these moments. He always knows the right thing to say, and because he’s so loving and patient, he’ll practice it with me until I sound convincing. He advised me to condense everything about myself into one sentence, in case I got a snippet of time with Vice President Biden. For whatever reason, though, Shyam didn’t want to practice The Sentence with me over and over for five hours in a plane packed with strangers.

So we deferred that until after we got to Washington. I had to put my foot down when Shyam suggested a walk around the Mall (“for inspiration!”) instead of helping me with The Sentence. Because honestly, who would rather read “with malice towards none, with charity for all” at the Lincoln Memorial when he could listen to me intone, “Hi. My name is Pooja Sankar. I started a company called Piazza that is used by students and teachers at all the top universities in the country to help them learn and educate better?”

Yes, that was The Sentence. That’s it.

Believe it or not, The Sentence was the hardest, most nerve-wracking part of the whole experience! How to condense my life for the past three years into a dozen words? Even though I’m a product person, I understood intuitively that Vice President Biden doesn’t really care about how Piazza is different from Moodle.

I decided, ultimately, to aim for the general and comforting rather than the specific and revolutionary. I would have felt like a poser saying, “Hi, I’m Pooja, building Piazza to revolutionize education using social technologies!” And I didn’t want to say, “I have a start-up company called Piazza” because, while that sounds really cool in Palo Alto, I get the feeling that in Washington people might wonder why I didn’t have a real job.

So I practiced The Sentence.

Next challenge: getting there. I hired a town car to take me to the Vice President’s place, which is not really convenient to the Metro. Maybe this is kind of a metaphor, but the Vice President’s house is actually remarkably hard to find. There’s no neon sign that flashes, “The Bidens –>” There are a number of gates. My driver wasn’t the kind to stop and ask for directions, which come to think of it would have been kind of funny. So we missed the turn.

When we finally got in there, we had to pull over for a fairly involved security procedure involving a guard who was protecting the barricaded area where cars were supposed to go. My driver seemed to take the security as a personal affront and began to argue with the guard! Hello? I’m going to meet the Vice President, someone is kicking my bladder, I’m trying to remember The Sentence, and I do not need this!

So I decided that once we were at the barricade, I was just going to walk the rest of the way. It turns out some of the other women had the same idea, so we walked together. That was really nice. One of the other women teaches with Dr. Biden and is apparently a regular visitor because she said something about it being nice to see the Residence during the different seasons. It is lovely and leafy, but by this point, pregnant, nervous, and teetering in unaccustomed heels, I was most interested in seeing the bathroom.

But it was nice to get in there. Once I was through the metal detectors and reunited with my purse, I was given a drink and ushered into the reception area for some serious mingling. I have never known quite what to do with a drink at a business reception. If you’ve got a drink and a purse, it’s really hard to shake hands, trade business cards, and keep from tripping on your high heels. What’s more, if you’ve got a drink and you’re visibly pregnant, you can almost feel the tut-tutting. I abandoned the drink.

The first person I spoke to was the CEO of the the Girl Scouts. I tried The Sentence out on her, and my delivery was awful. But part of the problem was that as soon as I heard who she was, I started to think about the cookies. I was trying to decide whether to bring up the cookies, or whether everyone always does that and consequently she’s heard every cookie joke in the world. I had this line: “You know, my business wouldn’t work without cookies either,” but I figured she might not be tech savvy enough to get that. I left it alone, but you heard it here.

I did finally get to the bathroom. And let me tell you — nice! They have separate men’s and women’s bathrooms there, which (oddly) hadn’t occurred to me because I had sort of envisioned the VP’s house as just a big house, and no house I’ve ever been to has separately gendered bathrooms. For that matter, neither does the Piazza office. Anyway, they have cool little towels with the Vice Presidential seal on them. And it’s a quiet place to practice The Sentence. If you’re ever there, use the facilities even if you don’t have to go.

Soon enough, I found myself on the reception line. This was my favorite part of the evening, because I was sort of forced into talking to the people around me on the line. I honed The Sentence, but was also able to have a nice conversation with some TV reporters and the incoming president of Brown. The reception line moved pretty swiftly, because they needed to give all of us a photo-op with Vice President Biden and Dr. Biden.

Just a few feet away now. Remember The Sentence.

Finally, I got to the front of the line. Fortunately, Dr. Biden was right there, and she’s an honest-to-goodness educator who’s kept teaching even though she’s the VP’s wife. I told her how inspiring that was for me, then I laid The Sentence on her. You’ll be relieved to know that my delivery was excellent. Dr. Biden understood The Sentence and seemed to appreciate it. Vice President Biden took my hand, smiled warmly, and thanked me for coming. It didn’t seem like he was interested in hearing The Sentence, or maybe he’d already overheard it. And just like that, the photo was snapped, and I could finally forget The Sentence.

So what were the Bidens like, you might ask? How could I really tell? Well, a few observations, at least. One is that Vice President Biden does not appear to be all that worried about being a heartbeat away from the presidency. I don’t think I looked at him once and saw anything other than a smile on his face. And when he looks at his wife, he beams! My knowledge of politics is scant, but I think I can tell when a man looks like he feels lucky to be married to his wife, and Vice President Biden gave me that impression.

Vice President Biden appeared to feel very comfortable around women. He gave a brief speech in which he quoted Margaret Thatcher: “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.” I thought this was something of a gutsy thing to say, as a man giving a speech to a room full of high-achieving women. From where I was standing, I couldn’t sense any irony.

Freed from the tyranny of The Sentence (“If you want something said, ask a man,” is totally true in my case!), I enjoyed the speeches and my further conversations with the other participants, all of whom were interesting and distinguished. I could learn a lot from these women, and perhaps I will – from a few of them.

The hour grew late. I didn’t want to leave last. My driver got lost again, and I walked to the barricade to meet him. Once I got to the car, I could finally take off my shoes.

This post was originally posted at Piazza’s blog.

About the guest blogger: Pooja Sankar is the founder and CEO of Piazza, an online gathering place where students come together to ask and answer questions in an open, collaborative environment under the guidance of their instructors. 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. 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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