Shaan Kandawalla: Bringing Lessons From a Pool in Pakistan to a Pitch Meeting With Investors

Shaan Kandawalla, a native of Pakistan who lives in New York, is used to challenging gender norms.

As a teenager in Karachi, she excelled at competitive swimming — something only boys were encouraged to do. She qualified for the 1996 Olympics but was not permitted to compete because Pakistani officials objected to a woman appearing in public wearing a swimsuit. She brushed off the disappointment and went to Wellesley College and then to Harvard Business School.

Article By Colleen DeBaise | NY Times

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That background would seem to have prepared Ms. Kandawalla to succeed as an entrepreneur in technology, where she once again stands out in a male-dominated world. In 2012, after years working at Hasbro and Nickelodeon, she started PlayDate Digital, which makes educational apps for kids. A short time later, she found out she was pregnant. And that, she said, is when the tone of meetings with potential investors, partners and clients — most of them male — began to change.

“It suddenly called into question all these things that a man would never have to face,” she said. “Would I be committed? Could I handle the challenge?” In response, she said, she relied on her experience crossing boundaries in Pakistan.

Only 3 percent of tech start-ups are founded by women, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Studies suggest that girls are steered away from computer science at an early age, and those that do pursue tech careers sometimes face bias, lack of access to capital and even blatant hostility. In research from Vivek Wadhwa, co-author of the new book “Innovating Women,” nearly a third of female tech entrepreneurs reported facing “dismissive attitudes” from their colleagues.

Ms. Kandawalla, whose apps feature Hasbro brands like Play-Doh, My Little Pony and Transformers, further stands out as a female boss in the app-making world. While it is hard to find precise data on how many women run mobile-app start-ups, the development world is predominantly male. One study by the mobile-tech company Appcelerator found that 96 percent of all mobile-app developers are male, most between the ages of 20 and 29. Yet market research indicates that women are the app stores’ biggest customers. Women install 40 percent more apps than men, have 17 percent more paid apps and pay 87 percent more for those paid apps, according to data from Apsalar, a mobile-analytics company.

Ms. Kandawalla, 38, started her company after years of working as a corporate “intrapreneur.” At Nickelodeon, she oversaw the network’s digital gaming business, helping develop mobile platforms for preschoolers. There she impressed Steve Grieder, an executive vice president who had been with the network since the 1980s. She told him about her idea for apps that would incorporate familiar characters to teach kids the ABC’s and other basics. He encouraged her to branch out on her own, investing about $350,000 in PlayDate Digital and joining as co-founder.

The two spent about a year setting up the business, pitching investors and securing a licensing deal with Hasbro. (PlayDate Digital sells its eight apps on iTunes and Google Play for $2.99, splitting proceeds with Hasbro.) “I think I was eight and a half months pregnant when I did a final pitch at Hasbro,” Ms. Kandawalla said, winning the business a week before her daughter was born.

Ms. Kandawalla, who has no employees and works from home, oversees the development of each app by an independent seven-member team in St. Louis. She also works with an educational research firm in New York, the Michael Cohen Group, that specializes in technology for children. Hasbro helps market the apps, but she does a lot of word-of-mouth marketing through her own networks, social media, parent groups and “mommy” bloggers. “We were featured by Apple and by Google as one of their best apps, so that’s helped us gain some visibility,” she said.

She times the release of apps to major events. For instance, PlayDate Digital’s Transformer Rescue Bots made its debut at the same time as the movie franchise’s latest release last summer; another My Little Pony app launched during Comic-Con International, where Hasbro toys have a presence. And PlayDate Digital just released an app featuring the My Little Pony character Princess Luna that was timed with Halloween.

She recalls working “day and night” to get partners and teams lined up behind her vision. The subject of her pregnancy, she said, made for “awkward conversations” with many of the men, some of whom told her, “When you see the baby, you are never going to go back to work again.”

The concept of not going back to work seemed foreign to Ms. Kandawalla. “My grandmother set up a chemical manufacturing business in Pakistan more than 60 years ago,” she said. “My mother was the first Pakistani woman to go to Wellesley.” She would tell naysayers, “My mom did it.” Some supported her, while others did not — including a fellow Harvard Business School graduate whom she had expected to manage PlayDate Digital’s business side: “He didn’t believe a woman could do both things, and he decided not to join us in the end.”

The loss of that potential partner created more work for Ms. Kandawalla — she took on the business role herself — and she said she is now “working harder than I have ever worked in my life.”

PlayDate Digital’s growth has averaged 70 percent a quarter, she said, and the company is on track to produce $1 million in revenue this year. It plans to release two more apps by year’s end. Ms. Kandawalla said having a young child, far from being a disadvantage, gives her a “unique insight” into PlayDate Digital’s apps.

Ms. Kandawalla is optimistic that the tech world will become friendlier to women in time, in much the way Pakistan ultimately allowed its first female swimmer to compete in the Olympics in 2004. Groups like Women in Technology, NYTechWomen and Girls Who Code are helping, she said, as are open-minded men who advocate for women in tech.

“Everybody sees the guy with the hoodie,” she said. “I don’t believe you have to be an engineer or a computer programmer to be a woman in tech.” When more women view technology as a tool for fixing problems, she added, “you’ll see that 3 percent figure increase.”