Poornima Vijayashanker: Femgineer & Top Ten Woman to Watch in Tech

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Poornima Vijayashanker is a software engineer and serial entrepreneur.

She was the sole female engineer at Mint.com, a startup based in down town Mountain View, which was acquired by Intuit in 2009.

Post acquisition she decided to leave Mint and launched her own startup, BizeeBee, helping fitness studios and other membership based businesses across the world grow their business.

Her new project is Femgineer, a campaign to encourage and empower more women to go into tech and science. It started as a blog, but now Poornima teaches workshops at San Francisco tech hubs such as General Assembly, Parisoma, and HackBright. 

Poornima, who graduated from Duke University with a double major in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science, was recently named in Inc Magazine’s 10 Women to Watch in Tech in 2013.

We spoke to Poornima about how she turned her blog into a business; how she empowers more women to enter the field of tech; and the coolest piece of code she's ever written!

TNW: What key lessons did you learn during your time with Mint.com and then apply to launching and running Bizeebee and Femgineer?

PV: To be comfortable with people coming and going whether they’re customers or co-workers.  You stay focused, keep building, and offer value to those who want to stick around, whether it’s a product or an opportunity to work with you and learn.

I also learned that despite having a lot of capital it just takes time to go from servicing early adopters to mainstream customers. 

Part of the challenge is building awareness, another is credibility, and the last part is people being comfortable with adopting your product. In the end, simplicity in product design and marketing win people over.

TNW: Are you still involved on a day-to-day basis with Bizeebee?

PV: Yes.  One of the things I like to do with both my businesses is have a direct pulse on customers.  I believe that knowing how customers are doing, and how they feel about your product determines if you’re building a worthwhile business. 

I spend anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours each day talking to or emailing existing customers, and prospective ones.

TNW: Tell us a little about your decision to launch your new project, Femgineer. How did this evolve from a blog to a business?

PV: Femgineer became a business out of necessity.  The necessity was that I had used up most of my savings building the BizeeBee product; we had customers and revenue, but weren’t quite at break-even.  I needed to start thinking about generating revenue to stay in business!  I knew that it was going to take a bit longer to build awareness for BizeeBee to get us to profitability.

In the meantime, I was getting a lot of offers to speak and teach.  A lot of what I was speaking and teaching on was related to Femgineer.  I turned down a pretty high paying full time job offer and numerous acquisition offers, and instead decided to run an experiment by advertising my own online course to Femgineer readers, and it worked! 

After six years of blogging on Femgineer, I realized that I had built up an audience that was getting a lot of value out of my knowledge and expertise.  And in the last 6 months I’ve figured out how to package it up into a product they want to purchase.

TNW: What is the essence of your approach to empower more women to enter the fields of tech and science?

PV:

I believe education is the best form of empowerment. 

Women entering STEM need two sets of skills: hard skills and soft skills.  Hard skills are like coding.  There are a lot of people who are doing a great job teaching hard skills right now. 

My focus is to teach the soft skills: such as communicating and learning how to build confidence (yes, it’s actually a skill that can be taught and improved upon).  Without these two it’s hard to make long-term progress with just hard skills, and it’s especially easy to get demotivated altogether.

TNW: What can attendees expect from a Femgineer workshop?

PV: Enthusiasm and putting their knowledge into practice immediately! For me teaching is a highly energetic activity, so whether I’m online or offline I want people to feel motivated to want to learn.  One of the best techniques to motivate students is to be a teacher who is highly energetic.

It’s easy to sit through a lecture, and then forget the material the next day, week, or month.  In my workshops I make people practice their new skills immediately, present, and get feedback from their peers. Being amongst peers, and getting feedback from a supportive and nurturing environment is a unique experience. 

The students might not be amazing at the new skill (that’s after all part of the learning curve), but they’ve made one very critical step in the direction of learning, which is the application of new knowledge.

TNW: Have you come across any exciting new technology recently? What did you like about it?

PV:

I’m eagerly awaiting the release of a programmable robot made by Rethink Robotics.  It’s supposed to come out next year.  When it does I do plan to try to program one.

TNW: Tell us about the coolest piece of code you’ve ever written.

PV: Wow that’s a tough one.  I like knowing that I have contributed to products that are changing and improving lives of people everyday.  So for me building alerts in Mint was pretty cool. Customer know when they’re running out of money or when they get charged a fee; it’s super simple, but pretty powerful and useful! 

With BizeeBee, I built the thank you email receipt functionality. So now I know that every time a business makes a sale, the customer gets a thank you email, which is a simple way of thanking a customer for their business.

TNW: Who is your own personal female hero in the world of STEM?

PV: She’s a little old school, but I actually really like and admire Marie Curie. 

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you would like to share with our community?

PV: Engineering school is tough, and it was probably one of the most challenging periods of my life.  But the education I received was invaluable. 

It taught me how to be rigorous, creative, and think systematically.  Those are three of the most important traits you need to have when you run any type of business. 

Also building a business is an ongoing process that takes patience, determination, and above all else perseverance! You cannot expect things to happen overnight or even in the course of a few years.  You really have to think in terms of milestones, and always look back to give yourself credit on how much progress you have made!

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