Back home in India, Pooja Sankar studied engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, where she was one of only a handful of women in her class. She kept to herself, hesitated to ask for help, and often felt isolated.
“[I was] a shy girl from an impoverished region trying to succeed in a school full of boys, who seemed better able to cope because they could work together,” Sankar says.
Out of that isolation and wish for more informal collaboration came an idea that Sankar is building into a thriving business, Piazza, which allows students to collaborate online in real time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sankar describes it as a virtual version of the late-night study sessions that used to take place in libraries.
After stints as a software developer at Oracle and Facebook, Sankar founded Piazza in 2009, when she was a student at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Today Piazza Technologies has more than one million registered users and is growing quickly. It’s in use at Stanford, Duke, Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan, and the University of North Carolina, among others.
Sankar says that leaving an arranged marriage when she was 26 helped her develop the inner drive and focus that she’s needed to build her company. “When I decided to leave, for the first time in my life I did something because I needed to do it,” she says. “That act gave me much more of a sense of my own autonomy and personal strength. These are very helpful things if you’re going to start a company.”
“If [an] idea keeps chasing you around even though you’re nervous about it, that’s a great sign,” she adds. “Building a business that’s personally meaningful to you is incredibly inspiring.”