Shaan Kandawalla '98 Shares Story of Launching a Tech Startup with New York Times Blog

December 3, 2014
Shaan Kandawalla at center of table in meeting with several others

In a New York Times blog called You’re the Boss: The Art of Running a Small Business, a recent article profiles Shaan Kandawalla ’98, founder and CEO of two-year-old PlayDate Digital, a company that produces educational games for small children.

In the profile, with its accompanying video, Kandawalla speaks about some of the assumptions she faced as a woman launching and running a tech startup, especially when early in the process she became pregnant and had a child. As the Times reports, she was working “day and night” to get partners and others lined up behind her vision. “I think I was eight and a half months pregnant when I did a final pitch at Hasbro,” Kandawalla tells the Times; she clinched the deal a week before her daughter was born.

Many of the men with whom she met during that time responded dismissively, saying she would never go back to work once she had the baby. That did not sound like her. As she told the interviewer, “My grandmother set up a chemical manufacturing business in Pakistan more than 60 years ago. My mother was the first Pakistani woman to go to Wellesley.” She herself was a national record-setting swimmer in Pakistan, who qualified for the 1996 Olympic Games. So, unsurprisingly, she continued with PlayDate Digital, not set back but empowered by newer understanding she gained as a mom. The company has recorded huge quarterly growth rates with strong projected revenues for this year.

We caught up with Kandawalla shortly after the article ran to talk about the role of the College in her life and career.

Wellesley: Given that your mother went to Wellesley too, did you always know you wanted to go there? 

Kandawalla: I always knew that I wanted to go to a small liberal arts college but it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I knew that was Wellesley. Since my mom had gone to Wellesley, Wellesley had been part of my life from an early age. I grew up in Pakistan, but we spent many summers in Boston. I had been to reunions with my mom ever since I can remember and have early memories of rolling down Severance Green and sitting by Lake Waban. But it was when I was a senior in high school that I realized the value of all the friendships my mom formed with her Wellesley friends over decades, and saw that bond remain through time and distance. That is ultimately what drew me to the College.

Was there a particular course, professor, or organization at Wellesley that in retrospect feels especially relevant to your career?

There were many classes that I enjoyed and organizations that I was involved with, but I can’t say that any were directly related to my career today. I think that’s the beauty of a liberal arts education. What Wellesley taught me was an approach to learning and, most importantly, gave me a “can-do” feeling. Surrounded by so many diverse, smart women was inspiring to me and gave me the confidence to believe that no dream was too crazy to pursue.

What advice might you give students today, as they look out from the halls of academe toward potential futures and careers?

I believe that a liberal arts education is a great preparation for the “real world.” You can learn most if not all of what you need to learn “on the job” in most corporations. Also industries and technologies change so fast that it’s more useful to have a set of tools that carry on with you forever—the ability to think and act and recognize opportunities. 

Have you worked with other alums, or has the Wellesley network played a role in your work life?

The Wellesley network has never ceased to amaze me. Whether it was my first job at Goldman Sachs, or my time at Hasbro or Nickelodeon, Wellesley alums have been mentors and a constant source of inspiration and guidance to me. Even outside of the companies I’ve worked at, alums have played an instrumental role in my life. They have helped guide me, connect me to others, and been an incredible sounding board through my career. Currently, one of my advisors in PlayDate Digital is a Wellesley alum and former executive at Nickelodeon.

Do you still swim?

Just recreationally. My time in the swimming pool these days is spent on mommy and me swim classes with my two-year-old daughter, where we play games and sing songs in the water. :)

Photo: Story Exchange