Six years ago, Anupama Vaid founded ParentSquare, an online platform for busy parents to stay better engaged with their children’s schools. Anupama and three friends worked from her house, taking business calls from her kids’ bedrooms.
Today, the company’s took over the top floor of a downtown Santa Barbara, California office building. ParentSquare is now serving 1,000 schools and counting, across 35 states.
Anupama spoke about being an entrepreneur, what start-up life means for her family, and how her company helps schools getting ready for the future.
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
When you took some time off from work, you became intensely engaged with your children’s school activities, which led you to building ParentSquare.
When my youngest one started kindergarten, I thought, OK, now I have some time where both of my children are in school. I can go back to work, or I can do something on my own.
At the same time, I realized the difference between a working parent versus a parent who can go talk to the teacher at school. I thought, there has to be a way where teachers can connect with parents, even though parents cannot show up at pick up or drop off. I took the idea to the then principal of my child’s school, Kate Ford. [Ford became the Area Superintendent of a number of Aspire Public Schools.] I went to her and she understood what I was trying to do; she assigned two teachers for me to built ParentSquare.
What is uniquely ParentSquare?
For me as a parent, the school is one entity. There is no difference if the school, the teacher, or the PTA is asking me for something. For me, it’s something I’m doing for the school. So for us, it’s always been that. If you want that community to flourish, you need to take school as an entire entity — one big family.
All the information that I, as a parent, was getting, were via different means of communications. Some teachers were using email and some were using Google Groups. Or it was just too many emails. Putting everyone on the same platform and making it a collaborative community was very powerful. At that time, nothing like that existed. In the last six years, the industry has naturally moved to more products, but we purposefully do not just do: “come adopt a fair” because then you’re just operating at that micro-level. We are sharing the conversation that happens in your child’s classroom.
You are now in 1,000 schools across 35 states and one foreign country, which is Canada!
Yeah, one foreign country, which is Canada. [Laughs.] The reason being that Canada can also do texts and voice in the same way as we do in the U.S.
How did you go from working with two teachers to building a nationwide product?
I was fortunate enough. I have a tech background. My husband is also in technology, so we understand how to build products. Plus, back in India, I was with a consulting company and my main role was to translate business requirements into technical requirements.
It’s very difficult for people out in the field to even articulate what they want. So you need to ask the right questions to understand their requirements. Then to convert them into a form in which the technical people can understand.
You were used to building technology that were solutions driven.
What was the main question you were raising: how do parents get better connected to their schools?
Yes, and for all kinds of families, not just families who know how to use technology. But for families who shy away from technology and for some families who don’t even know what the use of technology is. Even in this day and age, there are programs to provide free computers and very low cost Internet service to families. But families don’t know what to do with it. “You want to put a computer in my house? Why would I need it?”
Why is even more parent-teacher engagement needed?
In today’s age when there’s so much changing. Today’s kindergarten kid will be ready by 2036 in the workforce, 85 percent of those jobs are yet to be invented and 47 percent of today’s job will be exposed to automation. We don’t even know what new jobs will be created.
As a school you need to partner with the parents. It’s become even more important to make sure that learning happens everywhere. That parents help teach a child how to learn. You need to break those boundaries that learning only happens where school is. Learning is also for your entire lifetime now.
What has been a surprising learning for you building a company?
We started with just three friends, but now we are a 15 people company. People skills are definitely good to have in a company!
Within education, in general, is tough to bring about change. The current education system came about in the 19th century. It was built for producing factory workers, teaching to conformity. You’re five years old: this is English and this is math. This is how you take a test. There’s no regard for children’s interest or ability or anything. Even in high school, you are being fed stuff.
Nowadays there’s a lot of emphasis on post-school learning. Education in general, it’s a bureaucracy; they find it tough to even deal with the present, forget the future.
What was particularly challenging?
Education teaches us about these latest technologies, but the system itself is hard to change. There were teachers who walked up to me and said, “Hey, I’m never going to use this. This is adding on to my work. I already am not being paid enough.” And they have become converts and totally embracing it. We have a 70 years old teacher who is using ParentSquare, and those who didn’t use technology before.
There are still people who don’t know why they should use technology. If you ask them, “Hey, log in here.” They just crumble right there, “I don’t even have an email, how do I log in? And why do I need to log in to see things?”
We took those things out of the equation. We learned that not everyone is familiar with the tech world. We are helping everybody access technology. That was a big learning, and we’re still learning.
What did you need to do specifically to help people get on board?
Listen. That’s where the first step is. Listen, and find out what’s working, what’s not working. The greatest thing is that they’ll tell you what’s not working and then you take it back and brainstorm — how can I make this simpler?
Is it true you had to steal your husband from his day job because you needed his help at ParentSquare?
It was definitely a change, he was leading the engineering team of around 120 people at Citrix. At one point, we realized that even working on ParentSquare on nights and weekends was not enough anymore. The company was getting attention from many people and schools. He decided two years ago that he wanted to move over. It’s very satisfying to be at a place that is a social capital company. One of our employees said, “I want to move to a company with a soul. A place where you make a difference in people’s lives.”
What would your advice be for couples that are also business partners?
It is a little rough road at the beginning, but you’ll find ways to work together!
What has been a challenge besides working all the time?
Yeah, I’m very bad at following that advice of finding balance. We are working 24 hours a day. My husband, Sohit, and I walk the dog in the evening, and that is still a work meeting.
I feel we’re not spending enough time with the kids. But the kids are learning a different lesson. Even though you’re not spending those multitudes of hours, they’re learning that lesson about holding on and keeping at it. When Sohit switched from Citrix over to ParentSquare, we were a startup. We were not drawing any salaries. While Citrix payed very well. You lived in this lavish lifestyle and you come to a point where we cannot really buy new clothes as often and other things your teenage daughter cares about. [Laughs.]You’re watching the money that you’re spending. That’s a good life lesson.
What is next for ParentSquare?
The vision is to work more with different communities and informing parents about things that are going on in their child’s life at school. This is for parents to have better conversations with their children. This is not just at the elementary level, but up to high school level as well. Apart from notices such as “There is a school event that you have to come to” we want those conversations about learning, getting the parents a window in the classrooms, so that they can extend the learning at home.
You’d like people to use it more for content, not just for logistic matters.
Yeah, and then realizing that teachers are busy, parents are busy, and not just expecting them to pull that information. Schools are becoming really good about their website, and putting everything up there. I am one of those culprits; school tell us that you should check your child’s grades every week. I don’t. I feel bad about it at times, but I am busy, I forget, “How about you send it to me? Yes, I’ll read it if you send it to me.”
How about your experiences with raising funds for the company? What did you face when you started raising money.
We got quite lucky. What I would say is, networking is really important. I went to a networking event and talking to various people. One of them happened to be an angel investor in town. He wanted to know more, we had a meeting, and he introduced me to two other people. It is surprisingly a man’s world. I did not come across any women angel investors in town. I feel overall women talk more holistically and men get more to the numbers.
Do you think it helped that this is a tech company?
Yeah. We did get push back, we heard a few funders say that they don’t invest as much in education, because with education, the returns are lower. Whenever you invest in education it’s for a long haul. You don’t see the results right away.
We were fortunate enough, the first rounds of fundraising, we got more than what we wanted to raise, which is always nice. We went to Pasadena Angels, and they invested as well.
Sohit is the CEO and he is a numbers guy. He understands finances much better. I’m more the product person with the vision for the company. It worked out very well. We have our own divisions that we do as a husband and wife.
Did you come across funders that would not invest in a husband and wife?
Yes, some people said, “Hey, we have a policy not to invest in a husband and wife team.” I guess they think we’ll end up fighting. [Laughs.]
Who has left an imprint on your professional DNA?
At a recent conference, I met a lot of cancer survivors. One of the things they were telling me was that the doctors tell you you’re going to die and how they survive that is through healthy lifestyle and through love. How you’re loved is what gets you through.
I was realizing that back in India you have so many more people who you love. I’m just as close to my uncles and aunts, and so many other people, as to my parents. I feel that’s what my kids are missing in the U.S. Your aunts and uncles, they scold you if you do something wrong. If you’re getting a divorce, you have 20 family members standing right there. They are in you life. It’s just crazy the amount of love that is flowing.
I have had so many mentors within my family. If I have this problem, I’ll go to this person. If I have an issue or accomplishment, then I want to share it with that person, and so on.
Who has formed you as an entrepreneur specifically?
I feel so happy my husband played that role. He never ever — even the time when I quit work — he never made me feel that he is the bread earner in the family. It is always “us” and everything is “ours”. I’ve had interactions with women friends where this is not the case.
Then, my mom encouraged me — my mom is a double major in political science. She left all her studies to be a homemaker. During the times when I had taken a sabbatical from work, she kept saying, “You have to get back to work. No matter how connected you feel with the kids.”
Why did she say that, you think?
Maybe she feels that being a homemaker was good, but she probably felt that she could have done more. Maybe she sees the respect women get, also from within themselves, when they work outside the house.
It was a very special period, though, don’t get me wrong, I used to throw acorns in Stevens Park with our kids. Who finds the time to do that? [Laughs.]
What are the tools for you to balance family and work life, because being an entrepreneur never ends, right?
It never ends, yeah. Even though you work a lot, you have to say, “I’m going to find time to drive my kids around and not just rely on carpools.” Because the conversations that happen in the car with a teenager are the precious moments, literally.
Especially for women I feel it’s tougher, because of their assumed roles and responsibilities in society. And we are harder on ourselves.
What does it take to be an entrepreneur?
As much as it is that you need hard work and be dedicated, you also need some sort of intelligence as to where you are going along with that hard work. And don’t be afraid to ask for help is something I learned along the way. I’m a big believer in treating everyone as my peer, and not like, hey, I’m the boss. For me that helped. You can see that I am the one sitting in the open space closest to the entrance. [Laughs.]
How will people know that they got themselves in a rabbit hole?
You listen and talk to people. Listen to yourself, your intuition as a woman will tell you that something’s not right. Constantly evaluate yourself against your vision. For instance, when you’re working with schools, there are many times that they ask you to do things. They say things like, “OK, we don’t want parents to respond. We just want it to be a one-way communication channel.”
We have said, “Then maybe you’re not ready for ParentSquare.” Because we are there to build a community and trust cannot be built if the communication is one-sided. When you’re adding [product] features, you’re always tempted to do things that the market demands.
It might not tally with your vision. But then you need to turn these people into converts. Schools are so scared; it takes one person to spoil the party for them. If they’ve had one bad experience with a parent who raised their voice and said bad things, they just want to shut it down for everyone. You will have to slowly teach them not to be afraid of the two-way communication.
So it’s pretty gutsy for schools to be signing on.
It is forward thinking and we have built controls in place to manage it. “Now that you have used it for some time, let’s open this part up.” Everything we do, we evaluate: is it helping families get closer to the schools?
Getting on ParentSquare is the first step, it’s like they’ve raised their hand. They don’t know how to be on that journey, so each one of our schools is on that journey with us. We learn from them, just as they learn from us. That is very important to us.