[100 Emerging Women Leaders] From dealing with data points to democratising data with Atlan, the journey of Prukalpa Sankar
At eight in the morning one day, Prukalpa Sankar, who had been running the data intelligence startup Social Cops, received a phone call from a cabinet minister.
The idea of Social Cops was to solve global problems through data intelligence. As she had been working for the likes of UN, Gates Foundations, and governments, Pruklapa was used to working with top ministers and individuals, however, she wasn’t prepared for this call.
“He said – ‘Prukalpa, your dashboard is broken’, and when I rushed and saw that there was a 2x spike, which just wasn't possible. And the sad thing was I couldn’t do anything then. Promising him that I would fix it, I got into a flurry of calls to understand what was broken,” says Prukalpa.
The members would operate as data teams and run end-to-end implementation to understand what the problem was. That’s how Prukalpa learnt how complex data can be. As the company started hitting large scales of millions of citizens and billions of satellite imageries, such calls became frequent.
The team started working on building internal structures and tooling that made them six times more agile.
“I realised we had built tools that were more powerful than we had intended, but also globally, we saw that data teams had become a core function within organisations. It is something that happened with products a decade ago. And that led to the birth of Atlan,” says Prukalpa.
Data teams are the most inter-disciplinary teams in an organisation’s fabric. Prukalpa explains that approximately 22 different personas need to come together to make things happen, and each of them has own way of working and are bound by certain limitations.
“When we hit the scale of 500 million, I realised how chaotic all of it can be,” says Prukalpa. She says it was a collaboration overload, with a lot of back and forth on Slack channels on Social Cops. So, she felt the data democratisation tools that they had built will be powerful for all organisations.
As of now,, a data democratisation startup, recently raised Series A funding of $16 million.
The child entrepreneur
Prukalpa isn’t new to entrepreneurship. “I feel like I can introduce myself as a career entrepreneur,” jokes Prukalpa.
Her love and passion for building products began in her childhood. Her mother was one of the early employees of an education company, and they ran their office out of Prukalpa’s home.
“My mother is one of the hardest working people I have met. She would burn the midnight oil, and yet there was so much happiness and energy. She believed in the product and what they were building. In contrast, my father was a career corporate man, and I was lucky enough to see both worlds. This shaped me into what I am today,” says Prukalapa.
She was always interested in entrepreneurship.
“Recently when I was shifting homes, I discovered one of these letters that I had written when I was much younger where I said I was inspired by Indra Nooyi and Steve Jobs, but I want to be like Steve Jobs because he built something from the ground-up. So, from a very young age, I was inspired by the idea of building things up from the ground-up. But it was never supposed to be right out of university though. I was excited by the ability to build products from scratch. I spent my college days reading about startups and products, and watching YC startup videos,” says Prukalpa.
Her entrepreneurship journey began right out after she finished her studies at Nanyang Technical University, Singapore – which was also attended by her co-founder, Varun Banka.
“A passion project transformed into something more. And we felt that most sectors needed to use data effectively,” adds Prukalpa.
Atlan was recently recognised as a Gartner Cool Vendor 2020. Since emerging from stealth, the company has grown rapidly, reporting 16x growth within the last two quarters. It is currently used by teams at large enterprises like Unilever as well as high-growth startups such as Postman and Delhivery. DataOps and became one of the top three companies globally to make it to the list.
Prukalpa adds that the team is further developing and building the product, and is looking for further growth and development soon.
Keep the bar high
“I think I have been extremely lucky and privileged with the kind of support system I have in terms of my co-founders, team, and early investors. I found people who didn’t look at me differently because I am from different gender, hold a high bar,” she narrates.
Having said that, Prukalpa adds that nevertheless, she still had to face biases.
“There have been customers who have sent me WhatsApp messages that they shouldn’t. There are people who are interviewing with me and have behaved in a way they shouldn’t have. I went to a startup event and received strange messages from men saying how my photo on WhatsApp looks amazing. But that isn’t your inner circle. You can control how to react to it, and focus on having a strong inner circle and keep the bar high.”
Citing an example from Social Cops, Prukalapa says,
“We had a powerful person as a potential second customer, and we still were a two- or three-person team then. While we were hoping to close the customer, he started behaving a little inappropriately. I was confused, as I felt I could put up with it, as it would be a big client. But when I told Varun he was adamant that we don’t need customers like that; he was clear that this isn't how we win customers. It was huge for me. Those are the kind of people you want in your lives and surround yourself with. So keep the bar high.”