Pooja Nath Sankar knows what it’s like when students feel isolated and inundated by information from different sources.
To remedy the situation, the Patna native launched Piazza, a free online platform which allows students and instructors the opportunity to post questions and obtain answers in an efficient and clutter-free manner.
According to Sankar, Piazza streamlines the workload and allows instructors to minimize the time tediously spent answering individual questions via e-mail. For students, the platform is a way to interact and view feedback from classmates, teaching assistants, and instructors on various educational topics.
The concept for Piazza came immediately to mind after Sankar spoke to various career professionals and colleagues about potentially creating a support group for women. While enrolled in graduate school, Sankar decided to expand her idea and instead help students who often feel isolated and swamped with assignments. Sankar launched Piazza in 2009 in Palo Alto, Calif.
Much of Sankar’s inspiration came from the experience she had had during her undergraduate career at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur. Sankar remembers feeling isolated especially since there was a lack of women at the institute.
In Patna, during her early school years, she attended an all-girls school and was strictly forbidden to leave her house unattended or engage in conversations with boys for an extended period of time.
At IITK, there were many nights when Sankar would struggle with assignments alone while trying to fix the kinks to an equation as she sat quietly in the corner of a computer laboratory. Sankar would often witness a group of males working on the same assignments, but was too shy to join. It was then that Sankar yearned for a support network, or a place where she would be able to freely ask questions.
When Sankar was 22, she married a man who expected her to be a traditional Indian wife.
“I wanted to be a good wife and a good daughter to my husband’s mother, but I didn’t want to do it at the expense of who I was. And in return, I wanted them to respect me for the woman I was and the woman I wanted to become,” Sankar, CEO of Piazza, told India-West.
The Indian American felt she could no longer live up to her husband’s expectations so she left the arranged marriage and decided to focus on her career and Piazza.
“I decided to recreate the collegial experience that I witnessed among my male colleagues at IITK—a world of connectedness while studying,” she said.
Piazza has grown immensely since 2009. The free program is mostly used by college students, teaching assistants, and professors at universities such as UC Berkeley, MIT, and Stanford University.
“Piazza eliminates the noise of discussion groups and focuses on providing single, high-quality answers to any question. Rather than hunting around for answers, everyone is focused on one answer,” explained Sankar.
With Piazza, instructors can sign up and create a platform for their class where students can post questions, which can then be answered by anyone who is viewing the platform. “The whole experience occurs in real-time, so students feel very connected to their peers,” said Sankar.
Sankar has worked for several companies such as Oracle, Kosmix and Facebook. Her experience enabled her to learn how to ask questions constantly and manage her time efficiently. Those skills came in handy when she launched Piazza. She kept in mind similar techniques while incorporating rich, new ideas that would expedite the learning process.
“From Facebook, I learned from Mark Zuckerberg to remain obsessively focused on the product, and particularly the user experience,” said Sankar.
Piazza is currently focusing on marketing and building a product presence.