Silicon Valley start-up offers students homework help

May 18, 2012 7:22:59 PM PDT
More than 250,000 university students around the world are getting help with their homework thanks to a young woman who defied tradition and launched her own high tech company.

Pooja Sankar is expecting a baby in July -- at the same time she's giving birth to a new company, a Silicon Valley start-up called Piazza.

Sankar's path to CEO is unusual. She was raised in a very traditional Indian family. They lived in Canada, but when Sankar was eleven, they moved back home to rural northern India.

"A place where my dad had strictly told me 'You never speak to boys, boys never speak to girls,'" Sankar said.

Sankar's father believed in education and she got a good one. She ended up at Indian Institutes of Technology, an elite university. Sankar was one of only three girls in computer science and she struggled.

"I was too shy to ask the boys in my class for help," she said.

She eventually came to the United States and earned a masters degree. She ended up as a software developer at Oracle and later at Facebook.

But her personal life was dictated by her father -- that meant an arranged marriage.

"Three and a half years I stuck through it, trying everything I could, whether it meant changing myself, trying different ways of communicating with my partner, with his parents," Sankar said.

After three years Sankar finally got the courage to get divorced. She was also accepted at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. During a class she came up with the idea for Piazza, which means "a gathering place" in Italian.

Sankar remembered long nights full of homework in college, stuck on a tough problem with no help.

"I started with a very specific problem three years ago of how can a student who is stuck get unstuck at 4 a.m. and we've solved that," she said.

Piazza is a website that links students online. Professors at any university can register their class and then students post questions.

Engineering graduate student Jacob Beatty uses it at Stanford.

"It's like pretty much a big study group; you know, people helping you out all at once," he said.

Students, professors and teaching assistants, whoever happens to be online, can all post answers. The information remains up for the whole class to see.

"It's more helpful to be able to see what previous students have asked, because a lot of your questions are questions that other students have asked," Beatty said.

The idea took off. Piazza is already used by more than 250,000 students at more than 1,000 colleges.

"Students who are logging onto Piazza every night are spending four hours," Sankar said. "So if they are doing their homework on a particular evening, Piazza is open as a third tab alongside Gmail and Facebook."

Sankar now has a team of 10 employees, funded by $6 million from blue chip venture capital companies.

It's still not clear how they will make money.

"Monetization will be a focus of ours a year or so out, but not today," Sankar said.

For now they're just working to make the product better.

And as for Sankar's personal life? She's happily remarried and planning for a new phase of life as a working mother.

Sankar says her family did finally accept her decision to divorce. Her father is delighted by her success, new husband and the grandchild on the way.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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