It was very much a typical startup, with typically young males. Everybody else was all males, all of their execs, Most people weren’t married, and didn’t have kids for sure. So it was just, I guess, being in a culture where what you needed or what you did was so different from everybody else, that there wasn’t even a common term that they could understand. That was the most challenging part.
Prasanna Krishnan is CEO and co-founder of SmartyPal, with a 4-year-old son & expecting her second child.
We talked about her experience as a pregnant employee at a startup surrounded by young guys, and now that she runs her own company building a contextual learning app platform for children’s stories, whether her strategy has changed for her second pregnancy.
Download the MP3: Episode 14: Prasanna Krishnan
- SmartyPal: Educational Stories, Videos & Games that Grow with Your Preschool/Kindergarten Child
- @smartypalapps on Twitter
- SmartyPal on Facebook
KATHRYN: This is episode 14 of Motherboard. I’m Kathryn Rotondo, and today’s guest is Prasanna Krishnan. Prasanna is co-founder of SmartyPal, a company creating a personalized and contextual learning platform built around children’s stories. With both a masters in computer science and an MBA, her broad experience includes roles in venture capital, at large tech companies, and startups… that last one while pregnant, twice. Prasanna is based in Philadelphia and has a four-year-old son, and is expecting a baby girl this spring. Hi Prasanna!
PRASANNA: Hi, how are you?
K: Good! How are you?
P: Great, thank you.
K: So we’re talking in early January. Are you back at work after time off?
P: Yeah, very much so. We just submitted a new big release, so we’re back at work just the day after Christmas, working through New Year’s.
K: Wow. Yeah, I’m finding this week so challenging. It was a tease for me, it started with… Monday was a daycare day, then Tuesday wasn’t, it was a holiday here. And so it was just this tease, I’ve been waiting to get back to being productive on my own stuff, after the holidays, and it’s a little bit hard getting back into it.
P: But I hope you had a good holiday season?
K: It was awesome, actually. A friend came and visited from the states, and that was really nice for me.
P: That’s great.
K: Alright, so tell me about your release, and your job now. What are you up to these days?
P: We’re working on SmartyPal, and the way we got started with SmartyPal was—we were all parents who started this company—and the way we got started was that my husband and I read a lot about screen time, and what does it mean for kids. But at the same time, as technologists, we knew that technology used the right way can be beneficial. And so, as we started looking into this, we teamed up with early childhood development experts, and we learned that there was really an opportunity to do something where technology was used to personalize the learning experience for children, and really make it an active learning experience. And that’s how we started SmartyPal.
What SmartyPal is is really a platform that takes children’s stories—because a lot of education research shows that having context, which the story provides, is really important for the learning to be really deep—and what we do is really build a platform where you can have a contextual and personalized learning experience around the children’s stories. What I mean by that is the child will do different tasks and activities over the course of reading a story, and the story itself could be a video or an ebook-format story. As the child does this activities and tasks, they move the story forward, so they feel like they are really part of the story and they’re helping moving it forward. The tasks can work on very different things, ranging from more math and reading type of skills, to critical thinking, creativity and compassion, and those kinds of skills.
We are also working with several content creators. So we are providing the technology platform, and working with the content creators who are using this to create the personal and contextual learning around their stories. We built a platform that really makes it easy for them to add these in without having to write code themselves. So that’s one of the key pieces that we’ve been building the past several months. We’re actually doing this big launch in the next week or so. And so this is really an exciting time for us.
K: As you know, although listeners maybe don’t know, I also have an interest in developing apps for kids, and so I find this really fascinating. Especially, as you said, with some of the content focusing on things like creativity and compassion. I feel like there are so many apps out there that are, and not that these are bad things, trying to teach kids to read or teach kids math, and trying to do that before they hit kindergarten in the United States. I kind of trust that my kid is going to learn to read, and I trust that he’s going to learn math. But I don’t necessarily trust in things like compassion, that that’s going to get taught at school.
K: So that makes me feel good about apps. And actually, I just read, oh where was the article from? I just read an article this week that was some research on how screen time can actually help boys learn to read. Like using apps… the researchers showed that trying to teach a boy the same thing outside of, or inside of, an app, the boys were generally more engaged with the app, which was kind of interesting to hear too.
P: That’s really interesting. Huh.
K: I’ll have to send you the link!
P: That would be great, I’d really appreciate that. It’s kind of interesting, all of this stuff is so new. If you look back in history, I was reading this—I think it was a paper somewhere—about how 2000 years back, when books were first invented, like written text first came about, Plato and Socrates were very concerned that now that you were writing things down, you would stop using your memory. Socrates also felt that books say the same thing to every person. So they’re not really teaching anyone. Obviously today we can’t imagine education without books, and we know how important it is to read to kids, and all of that. But I guess it’s just that every new technology raises concerns, and it has pros and cons.
K: Definitely. I also feel like the idea of “screen time” too, it’s all-encompassing. There are so many different things you can do on a screen. Of course, even me, when I’m at my own screen, some of the things that I do are good for me, and some of them are just wasting time. Right? It’s kind of that way with kids too. I don’t think all screen time is evil.
P: Right, exactly. There’s a big difference between passively video, whether it’s on a TV or on another screen, and just kind of zoning out… to doing something that’s really active and creative and helps you develop some of these additional skills that we discussed.
K: I’m in total agreement. So this is a company you started with some other parents. How did you go about that?
P: So it really started with me and my husband. My husband has also got a background in business and technology, he’s a professor at the Wharton School where he teaches things tied to technology entrepreneurship. And so we’ve always bounced ideas off of each other, we always wanted to work together at some point, and as parents we saw this opportunity with our son and his friends being drawn to these devices, and trying to find a better way to use these in a very positive way.
And so we started this company. It was the two of us initially, and then we got connected with one of my friends from college—who is also a mom—and she also really loved the idea and she joined us and she does a lot of our iOS/mobile side development right now. And then we grew in our team, we have a couple of other folks who are really wonderful, so things have been growing well from there.
K: That’s fantastic! Did that involve jumping out of a corporate job?
P: So I was already in the startup world, which was kind of interesting the way I first went into the startup world with JetSetter. JetSetter was an online travel company, it used to be part of the Guild Group, and JetSetter got acquired by TripAdvisor. So I was in the startup world, and it was a good transition point for me. But when I took up my first job at JetSetter, it was a jump from a bigger company, and I was doing it in the third trimester of my pregnancy, and so that was quite an interesting experience, which we should talk about at some point.
K: Let’s talk about that now! So you were in your third trimester, and you changed jobs?
P: Yes, so I had been at Comcast, and it was a new group at Comcast that was really bringing together TV and online content. But I always had the startup bug, and I had been in touch with JetSetter, the CEO there, and we’d been discussing this new business line for JetSetter around travel planning, and building a service that made it easy for people to plan travel. So we finally kind of felt there is an opportunity here, and I decided to take up the offer. And that was right at the beginning of the third trimester of my pregnancy. So I was at Comcast, which would have been normally what we would have continued at that point, given that I was… But I really was excited, and I always wanted to do a startup. And this was, I was going to start up a new business line, and then grow it, so it would have been really as close as I could have come to starting my own business at that point. I didn’t know that the second time around, when I would start my business, that I would be pregnant again! It didn’t happen when I started, I guess… it happened a few months later.
So with JetSetter, I started at the beginning of the third trimester. And I used to commute, because we were in Philadelphia, and JetSetter was in New York, so I used to commute back and forth to New York a couple times a week. Sometimes I would stay there one night, at a friend’s place that she didn’t use. She had an air bed, and in the middle of the night it would run out of air.
K: Oh no!
P: So it was quite funny. And then, sometimes I would come back to Philly at 10pm, and leave again at 6am the next day to be back at work. So I think that it was quite challenging. And then after my son was born, I went back to work within about six weeks, and we actually moved to New York at that point. My husband was in a sabbatical and we just said, we’ll move to New York so that it’s easier for me, and so we did that. So that was interesting too, when he was six weeks old, we moved and I had to get back to work—not that I had been off of work, even during maternity I was kind of plugged in all along, because I had just joined JetSetter and just started building my team. I had hired the first person then, and so I had to call in and be in touch, I couldn’t just be signed off. And it was actually funny, even when I had to go to the hospital for my son, I hadn’t even packed, and my husband had to get the car, and I was still sending emails to this new person I had hired, because I wanted to make sure he had everything. My sister who was at home was really worried. She was saying, “shouldn’t you be packing instead of sending emails for work?”
K: Wow. That is a lot to have going on at once: a new baby, a new job, not being able to even really unplug during your leave… How was it? Were you well? Were you able to handle it? Did it get overwhelming?
P: No, I think it was… I don’t think I felt overwhelmed in the sense of everything that was going on. I think it was definitely a lot going on, but I was able to handle it fine. The thing that was also different at that point than it is now, is the culture that I worked in. It was very much a typical startup, with typically young males. Everybody else was all males, all of their execs, Most people weren’t married, and didn’t have kids for sure. So it was just, I guess, being in a culture where what you needed or what you did was so different from everybody else, that there wasn’t even a common term that they could understand. That was the most challenging part.
So you know, little things, like there was no room to pump or whatever. And so I would have to take a fifteen minute break… luckily I lived close to the office. So when I would rush home for lunch, I would be eating and pumping at the same time. Because it was a big startup office, right, it was an open office, and the only conference rooms we had had glass doors, so that wasn’t going to be a good idea.
K: I’ve been there. It’s awful.
P: Exactly. So things like that. I also decided, “I want to nurse my son.” We didn’t really do formula with him, because they were initially concerned about some allergies, which were wrong. But all of that put together, there was a lot of pressure, but I think dealing with it kind of taught me a lot of things. I also knew that when I start a company next, it would be something that I would really want to think about and make part of the company culture. So that is something that we’ve given a lot of thought to, with our current startup, in terms of making sure that the company culture is family-friendly, and we understand that being a parent doesn’t mean you become any worse at your job. You just have to juggle different things.
K: Amen. My goodness. I think in some ways, no, I was a good employee before I became a parent, but in some ways, my time is so much more precious now, that I feel like I’m more laser-focused, you know?
P: I completely agree with you. You just become so much more efficient and better with not doing things that are just a waste of time.
K: Right. OK, so you worked in this office full of young guys; did they even have a policy for parental leave? Or did you have to work with them to make it up?
P: We kind of made it up, I guess. No one else had taken maternity leave before, so they didn’t really have a policy as such. They said, “I know you need to take time off, but of course, come back as soon as you can.” But you know, they were nice about it. I went back to work at six weeks, or seven, something like that. Which was, I guess, kind of the least I could have taken off.
I also had a pretty rough delivery, with having lost a lot of blood, and I needed a blood transfusion and stuff. So the first week I was really wiped out. But after that, I was back up on phone calls, checking emails and phone calls. I think I was just so excited to be a parent, and have my son… it was just so exciting, that I feel like I somehow just got the energy to do all the other stuff.
K: Wow, I’m impressed. You’re some kind of superwoman.
P: I’m sure you had to do the same.
K: Well, I… I don’t know… I didn’t have a hard delivery. I have friends who just went through a hard delivery, they had a 57-hour labor. And I think my 23 hours, was nothing in comparison. But I was really sick, I was really physically sick. And they didn’t figure it out, until seven weeks, and then I had a surgery. So to me, the idea that at the same time that I’m having this surgery, you’re back at work. You’re on fire! It’s just hard for me to comprehend. I’m just in awe.
P: I was fortunate that I didn’t have something like that happen, which obviously is very difficult. You know, if you have to go back into surgery after seven weeks, when you have a seven-week-old at home, it’s really hard to even think of work at that point. But luckily, I didn’t have that then, so that helped for sure. And also, just my parents and parents-in-law… being Indian, I guess it’s kind of cultural that they come and spend a few months with you, and that was really helpful. So we had someone helping out until my son was almost six months old, and that gave us time to have a nanny lined up, and all of that.
K: Oh that’s really great. And that sounds like the thing that people in New York do, with infants, is have a nanny?
P: Yeah, I guess that made it easiest. Because my work hours were long, and it was easiest to have a nanny, so that I didn’t have to worry about having him in daycare at a certain point.
K. Ah, right. So you went to New York for this job, and you’re back in Philadelphia now?
P: Yeah, we are.
K: How long did you end up staying in New York?
P: I was in New York for a year-and-a-half, almost two years I think… a year-and-a-half actually, and then I moved back to Philadelphia. We knew we would be moving back eventually, at some point. New York is just crazy, especially with a kid. You know, it’s hard to live in the city. But then, when I was going to start my own company next, we figured we would do it out of Philadelphia, which had multiple advantages I think. One, my husband was back at work, and Philly also has, definitely, a lower cost-of-living than NYC. In fact, one of the other things that really helped is we bought a house, and our house has an office attached to it, with its own entrance. I guess someone who lived there before had done it that way, maybe they were a doctor or something and had an office. So that was really helpful, that we could use that as our startup office. That really helped save a lot of money early on.
K: Wow, I’m envious. I kind of wish, because I work from home, I wish that I had a different door I could go in, and be separated from the rest of the house. That’s really cool.
P: Yeah, and we also have others come in and work here, so it was also convenient for them. They had their own entrance, and it felt more like an office.
K: So, I’m a really risk-averse person. The idea of starting my own company is terrifying for me. Was it scary for you, to leave one startup and start your own?
P: There was always that question, even when I took up JetSetter from Comcast. Obviously Comcast was a bigger company, unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon, go away or disappear. And there was always a concern with startups. But I think it was just something that I felt like I’d really wanted to do it, and I was ready to take the risk. And I also felt that the more that I delayed, the harder it would be for me to take the risk and do it. I think for me it was more being excited about the particular opportunity that I had. With SmartyPal, I was interested in education. When I was in VC I invested in the education space, and then as a parent it was something that I was doubly interested in now, and spent a lot of time, especially early education. And so being able to do something that would have an impact here was exciting for me. And also, after JetSetter, I felt like I wanted to work on something that would not just be a good business but also could have a positive impact on society. JetSetter was luxury travel, it was hard to claim that would have a positive impact on society. But education can obviously have a huge impact. And so that was one of the reasons that I was also really excited about what we were doing at SmartyPal. And I felt also that it was good I was working on something that I was excited about, because I knew there were a lot of risks, but being so excited about what I was working on made it—I was focusing less on the risk, and more on the impact we could have here.
K: That makes sense. I’m just so impressed.
P: No, no, I’m sure you’ve done a lot of the same things. Thank you though
K: I don’t know, I’ve worked on my own projects, but not set up as a business.
P: It is a lot more responsibility and pressure when you set up as a business, when you have a team, and you are now responsible for other people. You want to set a good culture and have a good work environment, and more importantly, make sure they have jobs and they’re excited about it. I feel a lot more burden on my shoulders. At the same time, I feel like, if we can do what we’re trying to do—which is we want to make learning both fun and more meaningful for kids—and that is a big vision. I think that if we can do that, it can have a really good impact.So that has been exciting.
Also, over the course of doing the startup, it was interesting that I did this as a parent myself, because I felt I was also learning stuff that I could directly apply as a parent. For example, one of the big pillars that our startup is built on, is that the approach is grounded in education research. So we work with early childhood development experts here in Philadelphia. We work with Professor Kathy Hirsh-Pasek at Temple University and her collaborator, Professor Roberta Golinkoff, for instance. Every time I speak with them, and read their papers, and see some of the cutting-edge thinking in this space, I feel like there’s stuff that we apply to SmartyPal, and that same stuff I can apply myself as a parent as well. So it’s kind of rewarding that way too, both personally and professionally. So that’s one of the advantages of working in this space, where we’re building technology for early childhood education.
So things like, the stuff that we learned around using stories as context, and also personalizing it. One of the things, with SmartyPal, is that the child has activities to move the story forward, so they become part of the adventure, and learning becomes fun for them. But the activities also change each time, so the storyline and the activities change a little each time you read it, because there’s an adaptive learning engine we built, that kind of tailors the difficulty level, as well as which specific skills or tasks you’re working on. It tailors that to each individual child. So there is always something new that the child is learning, and making sure that they have breadth and are not just doing one thing. So the education research behind this was also really fascinating for me to learn. Ultimately, our hope is that kids will learn to love learning.
K: You mentioned a little earlier that in setting up your company you wanted to be sure that it would be family-friendly. I’m curious how you’ve done that so far.
P: That’s a great question. So, a few different things we’ve done. One is, so Lakschmi, my co-founder, she works from New Jersey. She lives in northern New Jersey, so she doesn’t come in every day. She works from home and comes in every couple weeks or so. That’s something that gave her the ability to manage her kids and her personal time. Her kids, once they’re off in school and daycare, she was working. But the fact that we didn’t say, “you have to come in to a particular office” I think gave her flexibility and was also helping her manager her work and family life.
The other thing is that we are also quite flexible about exactly when you work, as long as everyone is working and getting stuff done. We understand that sometimes you might have to step out a bit earlier, because everyone has different childcare options, and different timings, and so on. So for example, I wake up really early in the morning, I work for a couple of hours, and then, back at work, in the office… I take a break for an hour, when I get my son ready to go to school, and then I’m back at work. And then I need to leave around five, when my nanny leaves, but then I continue working after that at night, and then again early in the morning I wake up at like six.
And that’s also true with everybody else on the team. They have the flexibility to balance their work and family life. So I think that is something we were very conscious about. That’s actually been great, because it helps people to feel like “I have the ability to balance both, so I can really do my best on both.”
K: I think those are both really important: the remote piece, and the flexible piece. How do you communicate with each other, given that you might be working at different times of day?
P: We have one developer in India, but otherwise most of us are here on the East Coast in the US. So at least there’s a good chunk of the day that we are working together, and we are always on GChat and Hangouts. I almost feel like calling on Hangout has now become as simple as walking into someone’s office, or turning around and speaking to someone. So it has kind of become seamless that way. We also… it’s not too hard to meet in person, which we do.
Recently we had the big push for submitting our big release that’s coming up, so my co-founder actually came over with her family and her kids, and we were working from the home office. It was nice that her husband had a couple days off so that he could, and my sister was visiting and they were watching the kids. Because our office is connected to our home, it’s also very family-friendly in that sense, that when I step out to grab lunch, which I just grab out of my fridge most of the days, I also see my son. And you know, I’m not taking any more time than I would to grab lunch anywhere else, but this is kind of nice that I also see my son and he’s having lunch at the same time and I can eat with him. So those kind of little things.
And the same way, when my co-founder came over and we were working on this crunch period, trying to launch this product, we would periodically also take breaks during the day, with three kids in the house. Sometimes that’s great, and sometimes that’s hard, because everyone’s crying, so you have to go look at that. But then you come back and work at night, after everyone’s sleeping. It almost becomes like, family and work kind of meld into one, but gives us a chance to kind of balance both.
K: I think that’s really interesting, the idea of on-site daycare. Which, it’s kind of funny to describe it that way when we’re talking about your home, but I remember earlier this year when… oh no, there’s no “earlier this year”. Last year, 2014, when the news came out about Facebook’s egg-freezing benefits, I remember people being like, “but they don’t even have on-site daycare!” And I do think it’s true, it makes such a huge difference. I mean, your kid’s older now, but when they’re still breastfeeding, if you can just walk down the hall to the daycare and breastfeed your kid instead of pumping milk, that’s so much better. And, oh, I hope more workplaces offer on-site daycare in the future.
P: Yeah. Speaking to my friends who are also working moms, I think that clearly would be a huge benefit that any employer can offer. Because so many times, especially when people have commutes, and they’re spending 45-minutes or an hour each way commuting, if you can have them do that with their child, and they can bring their child with them to work and see them during the day, I think that just helps so much.
K: I think so too. Alright, so you are now expecting your second child. That’s so exciting, congratulations!
P: Thank you very much. We are very excited.
K: She’s coming in the spring. So are you second trimester, or third already?
P: Just finishing up second. So she’s due at the end of April or May 1, so I’m just going to be going into my third trimester shortly.
K: So how have you been feeling, this pregnancy?
P: Fortunately I think with both my pregnancies that during the pregnancy I’m thankful that I didn’t really have sort of medical complications or anything that made it hard. Just the little things, like the first trimester was a little hard. I usually wake up early, I like to work from six to eight in the morning, so I wake up at 5:30 and I try to work from six to eight. And that was a little hard when I was really nauseous in the first trimester. But I think it was manageable. And also I feel like the second time around, at least I feel like I’m a little bit more aware of what’s going to happen next, and so I knew it was for a short period, it will get better. Just physically, it has been tiring, and also managing a little kid at home, and a startup, but I think that it’s been good so far.
K: Good! So what are your plans, when she comes? I’m guessing, just from hearing the way that you’ve talked about your first pregnancy, that you’ll work right up until the delivery?
P: I guess I will! And this time around, my hospital is literally a walk from my house, it’s like two blocks from my house. That makes it even easier. I’ll probably take the first couple of weeks off. I think it’s just hard, for anyone, to physically be at their best, at that point. But after that, I’ll be plugged in. And my co-founders are all great, and I’m sure they’ll be keeping the ship running, and my colleagues are great, so I think that’ll keep it going. And then, I’ll lead back, soon.
At least for the immediate future, we’ll continue working out of our home office. We can have about five people work out of that office. Given that one of my co-founders doesn’t come in every day, we can easily continue out of that office at least for another few months until we grow and then we need a bigger space. So I think that’ll also make it easy. Like you said, in terms of just go down and feed the baby, instead of pumping milk and those kind of things, when I’m back at work. So I think this time around it’ll be a lot less stressful than it was for me the first time, I would say.
K: Will you have relatives coming again to help you?
P: Yeah. My parents, and then my parents-in-law, will be helping out. So again we should have folks helping us until like August or September, so when she’ll be at least four or five months old. And then we already have someone we’ve spoken to, who we really like for a nanny, so she should be able to help us well after that.
K: Oh great. And will your son start kindergarten, or is he another year off from that?
P: He’s born in December, so he’ll be starting Pre-K. But the Pre-K that we are looking at for him is pretty much a full-day program, it’s 8:15-3:30. So I guess he’ll be occupied all day. So he wouldn’t need much daycare or any additional kind of arrangements.
K: OK. It’s funny how you say full-day, and then it’s like, until 3.
P: I think they do have after-school programs, as most kids do, because it’s a school in the city, and you said, 3:30 is an odd time to finish up. But I was assuming that he would stay there until like five, which is when most kids stay, until 5:00 or 5:30.
K: So do you feel like your plan for this birth is, without the New York part, the same as last time around? Or are there any things that you want to do differently?
P: That’s a good question. All of it, this time around, I think is better planned out because we’re not moving. So it’s not like we need to find a place to move to, and I already have a lot of the stuff that I would need for the child, so I don’t have to worry about buying things. I feel more in control this time, since I know. At the same time I do feel there’s, from a work perspective, it’s a lot like last time. Last time I was in charge of my business line, and this time it’s the startup as a whole, but I think that that’s something that I just luckily have had an opportunity to practice once before, managing the two. So things should be smooth this time.
K: That’s really cool. It’s always nice to hear of people for whom it kind of works smoothly together. It’s not always that way, but it’s really nice to hear about it, that it can.
P: Yeah, it can. And I feel like also this time, because with my company I know that everyone—except for Alex who’s not a parent, but he’s gotten quite used to the way parents work, so when he does become a parent it will be a piece of cake for him—everyone else on the team is a parent, and they can understand it. That takes a lot of pressure off of me, because I felt like that was the biggest source of stress and pressure for me. It was not as much, physically, my having to do two things, but the fact that no one else around me or on my team really understood that. So you always felt like… well my nanny used to stay to 6:30, but just because I am leaving to be home by 6:30 doesn’t mean that I’m working less. I would work again at night when my son sleeps. It’s hard for someone who is not in that mindset to understand those kind of things. So just the fact that we have this culture, that we have folks who are parents and understand what that means, actually I think that is going to make things a lot less stressful this time around. That’s my hope.
K: I hope so too! My fingers are crossed for you. It sounds like you’ve set it up really well. I’m thinking back to when I had… so not the job I was working at when my son was born, but the one after that when he was very little… there were a couple of other dads, but even with dads, they only ever took maybe two weeks of paternity leave, and then came straight back. And I felt like there was maybe… I don’t know. I have a hard time believing that when those dads came back after two weeks, that they were well-rested, and performing at their best. I think there’s kind of a funny thing in the tech industry where, well, I think guys should get more leave, basically, when they have a baby. Even if you aren’t working with young guys who haven’t had kids yet, even if you are working with guys who have kids, their experience is so different from going straight back to work.
P: Right, that is true. Very true. I remember reading somewhere, Bill Gates had mentioned this I think… I remember reading this book a long time back, when I was in high school, it was called Microsoft Secrets, that talked about how the company’s culture as a whole changed when… it started off with all young people, obviously, and then they had kids. And then the company’s culture as a whole changed when they became parents, and the company matured as well, I guess, as the people matured.
K: That’s really interesting. You were reading books about Microsoft in high school?
P: I remember reading two books. This was one of them, the other was The Road Ahead which was by Bill Gates, and the other one was a book by someone else who worked at Microsoft, called Microsoft Secrets, and I can’t remember which one I read this in. But I do remember thinking that that was kind of interesting.
K: I’m impressed that in high school you were reading this stuff.
P: It’s kind of funny, but the way that I got into technology was almost coincidental. Into computer technology I mean. In high school I was always very interested in science, and I was very interested in genetics and bio sciences. In high school I wasn’t really thinking that I would do programming and become a computer scientist. But in India, after high school, you have to pick your major right there, because medical school is separate from all these other schools. So you don’t really have an opportunity to go in, and then try out and pick your major. When I got into medical school, I felt like being a doctor is a really noble profession, and I shouldn’t do it just because I got into a good medical school, I should do it because I really want to be a doctor. And so I decided I would give that up and not do that. Then I got into a really good engineering school, and my dad kind of said computer science was a hot thing, and he was like “why don’t you give it a shot, and if you don’t like it, you can always…” you know, there was an opportunity in that school for me to switch back to bio sciences if I wanted to. So I said OK, and then I took it up, and then as I started learning and programming, I started enjoying it, and then I guess I just ended up doing it. I did do a project with genetic algorithms, which was kind of bringing together my interest in programming and genetics. And maybe down the road, if I had another opportunity, I would love to do something with more bioinformatics kind of stuff. But I guess I just kind of enjoyed technology as I started doing it, and ended up doing a Masters, and staying with technology all along.
K: Cool. You know, I’m slow thinking tonight, so I’m like two topics ago. You talked about the idea of companies growing up, and I want to dig into that a little deeper. Companies like Google for example, that have a big campus, or Facebook that have their Main Street, and you can do anything you need to there… you can run your whole life there. You can do your laundry, get your hair cut, have a massage, whatever, you can do everything on the campus. Do you think that those, and this is just total opinion, but… I think those are great places for twenty-somethings to work, and to have their socializing at work, and have their life be kind of insular there. What’s your prediction, do you think that those sort of workplaces will end up over time being more family-friendly because those twenty-somethings will stay there as they become thirty-somethings and forty-somethings? Or do you feel people will self-select out of having that kind of lifestyle, and that those workplaces will always remain young?
P: That’s actually a really interesting question. I worked at Microsoft, so I kind of know firsthand there. I didn’t work at Google ever, but I know a lot of friends who worked there, when I was in VC in the Valley. I think that whether people stay on… I think that you’re right, that when you have this kind of a campus environment, it’s clearly younger folks hang out there, and they’ll have dinner there, but someone who’s a parent wants to go home and have dinner with their child. And so you’re unlikely to go to the gym and have dinner and hang out till the late hours of the night. I guess it really depends on how these companies support people who have kids. Like with Microsoft, when everyone started having kids, the company also evolved into being more supportive of flexible hours, and the work-life balance stuff. But if the companies don’t evolve that way, then I think it’ll end up being more of, people self-select out, like you said. So it really depends on how the companies react, and do they add new benefits and support for people whoa are parents now, or not. I think that as companies do that, people will stick around. I feel like if the company is doing well, the work is interesting, and if they’re able to offer these benefits, there’s no reason that people would leave and move out. But if the companies don’t, then I think that there will, yeah, be a self-selection, because just the overall culture is more geared toward a certain demographic than a parent.
K: I’m very, very curious to see twenty years from now, what does the workforce at Google look like.
P: I feel like most companies have grown to the point where, if not the whole workforce—if it’s a big company, if they employ 50,000 people—it’s hard to get all twenty-somethings. So they do have, as a company grows, they do have things to support both. So people who are young and want to have that playing ping pong and eating at the cafeteria at night and hanging out in the office, they can do that. And then they also have enough people who are in the other bucket of being parents and having to go home at a certain time and then they might log in from home and work, you have enough people in both buckets. I feel like what I see from friends who are at Facebook and Google and all these companies, there is both. When the companies are big.
I think when they are startups, then it’s a little trickier because it’s such a small company, that it tends to be a startup where it’s either all young kids out of college and they’re all working together, or in our case we made a conscious effort—and also the area we are working in is one where it is kind of beneficial to be a parent, and so it’s been fine for us. I feel like with startups it’s either one or the other. It also depends on the execs, or the founders. I know startups where the founders are parents, and then the company has very much in its culture to support parents. But if that’s not the case, if the founders and the main execs are twenty-somethings, then that’s the predominant culture for that startup. Because it’s a smaller group, I feel like that’s how it turns out with startups. But in big companies, I feel there is an opportunity to support both groups.
K: That’s a really good point, that maybe the effect is more amplified in a startup, because it then really does depend a lot more on the founders.
Well, before I let you go, I want to ask you if you have any advice that you would give expecting parents or new parents.
P: I would say two things that I’ve learned—and I don’t mean this as advice but just things that I have learned, that I feel could be valuable for other parents. The first is, and we didn’t really talk about this, but I think that even for my son, and now hopefully for my daughter, just the fact that they’re exposed to a startup—a parent who is running a startup, and a startup in the house—I feel like my son has been learning so much about startups and entrepreneurship and building a product and stuff like that. It’s been a great learning experiences. He’s the first tester of every build that comes out. But he knows so much, he’ll say “oh, there’s a bug, I need to go tell Alex there’s a bug in this thing.” And he’ll say, “can you take a screenshot? I need to go show this to Alex.” And so I think he’s also learning so much about what it means to run a company and build a product. I kind of weave it into conversations with him, so you know we’ve talked about doing samples, and eventually charging people, and why you need to do that, and those kind of things. And he was the other day talking about what happens if you charge people more, you know, increasing price versus… and he kind of got it. We charge more, you could make more, but less people might buy it. It was kind of interesting for me. So I think that that’s been a very valuable and tangible benefit, that was not something I had explicitly planned for when I started this company. But I feel like being a parent, starting a company, and having my son be closely involved, he’s absorbing a lot of this too. And I definitely hope with my daughter, that especially where you grow up not seeing very many women doing startups and technology startups, that it will be something that she would grow up seeing, and something that would actually be something she would learn from. So I think that that has been a great intangible benefit. Obviously, there’s pros and cons to everything, but this has been a great benefit, I think. As a parent I’m glad that my son and daughter will have that opportunity to kind of imbibe seeing this.
The second thing I would just say to parents is, a lot of times parents worry about sticking to a schedule, and I think that it gets overwhelming when you’re trying to manage a startup and a job and a kid. Sometimes you just have to be a little flexible, and I think that that’s fine. My husband would joke that my son was the last kid to sleep in Manhattan, he’s just a night owl, he’s always been a night owl. But I think that… I can never make sure that his life is perfectly planned. And so right from the beginning, he’s been exposed to dealing with things that are not perfectly planned. And I think that’s OK, because I’m hoping that I can teach him how to react when things don’t go according to a perfect plan. Which I think is a valuable lesson. So I think that, just take it easy, it’s OK if everything is not running on a perfect schedule, as long as they’re spending time with you, and you are making memories and learning, it doesn’t really matter.
K: I think that’s fantastic. It helps me feel better, because I am kind of… I have been notorious, over the past couple of years, for getting my kid to daycare late. And you know, I understand why they want him there by a certain time, so that he can start playing at the same time other kids start playing, and he doesn’t have to enter into a game that kids have already started. I understand that that’s socially difficult. But I also wouldn’t trade all of the lazy breakfasts that we’ve had together for anything.
P: Right, you’re absolutely right, exactly. He’ll play with kids, and he’ll pick that up. But he’ll definitely, sort of in his subconscious, treasure the lazy breakfasts that he had with you, I think, way more.
K: I hope so. Thank you so much for talking today, Prasanna! It was great to hear about your experience, it’s really inspiring. I should talk to more entrepreneurs, because wow you’re so together, and I think a lot of people will benefit from hearing your story.
P: Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity. You’ve been really kind with your words, but I think I’ve done nothing that all other moms who are in the same boat—whether they are working at a big company, or a small company—are facing and winning over each day. But thank you for giving me a chance to talk about my story, it was really nice talking to you.
K: Thank you!
That wraps up this episode of Motherboard. To see pictures of our guests, get the details on our creative commons license, or to support the show, visit motherboardpodcast.com. Lastly, all views expressed on the podcast are individual opinions, and not representative of any company. Thanks for listening, and best wishes for a happy work life, and happy parenting.
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