- Pooja Sankar is the founder and CEO of Piazza Q&A, a social learning platform that serves over 5 million students in 90 different countries.
- During the pandemic, Sankar has been running her business while helping her two children with at-home schooling, and also moved states to help care for a sick family member.
- Although it was chaotic, she says the experience taught her to redefine her priorities and purpose in her professional as well as personal life.
- Sankar says that even after the pandemic, she plans to maintain this new work-life balance, and is also encouraging her employees and colleagues to each prioritise their personal well-being.
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I am a CEO. I am also a mother, a wife, a daughter, and much more.
When COVID-19 hit, it rocked my carefully constructed world, just as it did for millions of others. As states open up and people return to their offices, adjust to flexible work schedules, and inch towards a new normal, I’m reflecting on what that will look like for me, from adapting to new work habits and priorities.
The past few months have taught me a lot about relinquishing some control and relying more on those around me. For me, this has meant letting go of what I thought I should do and focus on what I could do, because now, continuing doing things the way they were always done is simply not an option.
The pandemic was not my first brush with challenge.
I launched and grew my company, Piazza, in Palo Alto, California, in 2011 following the last financial crisis. My husband fully supported me in running my company because he knew how personally I was connected to its mission: a way to equalise computer science classrooms so that traditionally marginalised students like myself could have a safe space to ask questions and solve problems. Once I became a mum, my husband’s parents were extremely supportive of our career goals, and moved in with us to help take care of our two small children.
But nine years later, COVID-19 threw quite the wrench in our carefully built system, as it did for so many others.
I quickly made adjustments for my team to work safely from home, so that they could continue to help professors move courses and students onto our learning platform as universities rapidly shifted to an all virtual learning environment. At the same time, I was working to get my own children set up with their online learning.
Amid the shelter-in-place scramble, we received a shocking blow that my husband’s father, our children’s grandfather, our “Thatha,” was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer. Our focus quickly shifted to ensuring he had everything he needed, from nutrition to doctors’ appointments, on top of still having children to raise and companies to run.
The early days of quarantine quickly became chaotic for our family.
To make sure my father-in-law received the best care for his diagnosis, our family of seven (myself, my husband, our two kids, my father- and mother-in-law, and my brother-in-law) made the move from California to Houston, Texas, to be near the best hospitals for his treatment.
In a new town, we had to quickly learn to balance many fast-moving parts. Our young children, who were home all day now and had been used to being watched by their “Thatha” before he was sick, needed us more than ever, and between caring for their grandfather, and balancing my husband’s work, I continued to lead my company.
To do this, I had to make some immediate, small changes and ultimately let go of anything non-essential. I cleared my schedule of any lengthy work meetings as it was challenging for me to find a consistent, let alone quiet, space in a full house, and to also make time to support my kids with their online schooling. I decided to hold quick 15-minute check-ins with my team in the morning and at the end of each day. I only hoped my colleagues could forgive the myriad of noises, interruptions, and the fact my daughter would jump in on my video calls.
As CEO, I also took into consideration my colleagues’ own challenges during this time, and encouraged them to speak up for additional flexibility to take care of family and personal needs.
I knew I needed to redefine my purpose and priorities.
As all aspects of my life collided, I knew I needed to understand what was really important to me, at my core. At home, this manifested in finding new ways to enjoy being with my family, from doing workouts with my daughter to coding with my son.
On the business side, I learned quickly that my company would adapt and survive in our new reality. Circumstances forced me to shift my priorities, and I found myself leaning more on my team and often asking “What do you think?” or “Can you figure it out?” As a founder, this change was difficult, but I realised I had built an incredible team and knew how enormously capable they were. By stepping back and releasing some of the control I held as a founder, my team felt empowered to go above and beyond in their work.
While born out of chaos and necessity, this new approach had a marvellous trickle-down effect. As a growing company, there’s always a number of initiatives, product updates, and other projects in play at any one time. Working remotely under new conditions forced our team to really hone in on what was most important to pursue. Just as it had in my personal life, this translated to a new level of clarity in business priorities. And equally important, employees started acknowledging each other’s personal challenges in the COVID-19 world.
I’m learning to find a new balance between family and work.
Nothing about life during the pandemic is normal, by any traditional measure. We may never fully know what our colleagues are going through. Work and home lives have blurred in new ways. This made me realise that a new kind of balance can exist, that most workers are trying to perform their best, and that outside of a pandemic there are still circumstances that are sometimes out of our control – whether it’s a sick parent or child, a stressful financial situation, or a personal trauma.
As business leaders, we need to provide compassion and support instead of expecting employees to ignore the unignorable in order to focus on a deliverable.
I have personally learned a lot more about myself and my coworkers (and vice-versa) in a very short time. As businesses all forge ahead while adapting to this new normal for the foreseeable future, it’s my hope that we can embrace “letting go,” and empower one another to step up, have a stronger voice, and share ideas, while simultaneously creating a safe space that encourages others to make any necessary adjustments to accommodate their personal well-being during this time.
Pooja Sankar is the founder and CEO of Piazza Q&A, an inclusive social learning platform that serves more than 5 million students in more than 2,000 universities spanning 90 countries. The Piazza Network also offers career opportunities for students.
India, Sankar became a computer scientist and started Piazza to solve the problems she experienced as one of only three women in her university classes. She holds an undergraduate computer science degree from IIT, India, a master’s computer science degree from University of Maryland, College Park, and an MBA from Stanford Business School.
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