Digital Indians: How Ruchi Sanghvi engineered her rise

  • Published
Ruchi Sanghvi
Image caption,
Ruchi Sanghvi came from a family of entrepreneurs

When Ruchi Sanghvi arrived at the Facebook office in California for a job interview in 2005, she found a menu card outside saying: "Looking for engineers."

The start-up was located above a Chinese restaurant in downtown Palo Alto. It was a modest-looking place filled with gawky engineers, black sofas, lava lamps, and walls covered with murals and movie posters.

Earlier that year, the computer science engineer from Carnegie Mellon University had fled a job with a bank on Wall Street after three weeks. "I had panicked. I wanted to be in a business that was dependent on my core skills," she says.

She had flown out to California, been interviewed by Oracle and started out there, when a friend had told her about Facebook.

"I didn't know much about them. I didn't even know that they had moved to California. I thought they were still in Boston working out of Harvard dorm rooms," she says wryly.

Scooter culture

We are sitting in the hip Dropbox office in downtown San Francisco, where Ms Sanghvi, 31, works as a vice-president of operations.

Employees at the online storage firm whizz through corridors on skates and office scooters, some take time off to play pool and video games, and a plush music room is ready for a karaoke contest.

But, for the moment, we are talking about how Ms Sanghvi got the job at Facebook and became its first female engineer.

"When I started out in Facebook, it had only 20 people. I saw it grow to a thousand employees and from five million users to over a billion users. I saw it evolve from a service that served college students to one that served the world," she says.

"It was extremely chaotic, but it was a wonderful experience. I learnt everything there."

At Facebook, she was part of the team that developed the news feed.

How was it, I asked, being the first female engineer at Facebook?

Ms Sanghvi says she was used to being in a minority: at engineering school, she was one of the five female students in a class of 150.

But at Facebook, she says, she truly came into her own.

"You had to be opinionated, you had to make sure your point of view was heard, you had to ask questions. Sometimes people would tell you were stupid and you'd start all over again," she says.

"But it was, by and large, a meritocracy. It had one of the best environments for learning."

Media caption,

Ruchi Sanghvi: Silicon Valley’s pioneering woman

Facebook was also where she met her future husband, who was the first Indian engineer the company had hired.

I ask her for a story about Mark Zuckerberg, one of the founders and chief executive. She frowns, thinks hard, and says she doesn't quite like talking about Mr Zuckerberg. Then she relents.

It's a story about how the news feed launch outraged users and nearly killed it.

"We had less than 10 million users when news feed arrived. Mark was at a press conference [announcing it] and over a million users began protesting against it," she says.

Last year, Ms Sanghvi spoke about the time in vivid detail.

"Groups with names like 'I hate Facebook' and 'Ruchi is the devil' had been formed. People camped outside our office and demonstrated. But we realised the very people who hated it were able to spread the word because of the news feed," she told a talk.

But Mark Zuckerberg stuck to his guns, Ms Sanghvi tells me.

"Typically in any other company if 10% of your users decide to boycott a product you are obviously going to reverse the changes or do something about it. But Mark was really adamant about his vision about the potential of news feed."

Image caption,
Mark Zuckerberg was adamant about his vision for Facebook, Ms Sanghvi says

When Ms Sanghvi left Facebook in 2010 after an itch to start her own company, the social networking site had more than 1,500 employees and more than 500 million users.

As a young girl growing up in India's industrial city of Pune, she had dreamt of taking over her family business.

Her father, a second-generation businessman, runs a heavy engineering company. Her grandfather ran a stainless steel business. "We are an entrepreneurial family," she says.

But now, she was in the US, having studied computer science and worked at Facebook. The world beckoned.

So she went ahead and set up her own company, Cove, with her husband in 2010. There, helped by a team of engineers, they made "collaborative software" for communities and networks.

"The journey from employee to entrepreneur was a complex and taxing one for an immigrant like me," says Ms Sanghvi, who has been lobbying US authorities to ease immigration laws.

"When I started Cove, I spoke to three immigration lawyers who gave me a long checklist of things to do before my company could hire immigrants."

Diverse roles

Two years later, in February 2012, Cove was bought by the cloud-sharing service Dropbox.

At Dropbox, a six-year-old company with more than 175 million users, Ms Sanghvi has diverse roles. She has led hiring - "only great people can make great products," she says - and managed marketing and communications.

I ask her if she plans to do anything back home in India.

"I'd love to do something if it was easier to do it. It is difficult to do exciting things in India. There are a lot of issues and barriers, simple things like a good internet line to the office," she says.

"It doesn't seem as easy as Silicon Valley where you have an idea you can simply execute it with hard work. But I admire folks who are doing things in India. It requires a lot of grit and determination.

"You know I think I have had it pretty easy here in the US actually," she adds, with a laugh. Then she skates away for her next meeting.

Ask the innovators

On 25 September at 20:15-21:00 India time [02:45-03:30GMT], we will be holding a final hangout of the series with some of the digital Indians you have met so far, including Ruchi Sanghvi.

This hangout will provide the opportunity for you to put your questions to the experts.

You will be able to watch the hangout live on the BBC India Google Plus page.