What would compel a technology executive at Facebook to leave such a high-profile, prestigious position to join a startup? For Namrata Ganatra, it was the opportunity to help give young people a chance to invest in the stock market — a chance she could only dream about when she was growing up in India.
Ganatra is vice president of engineering at Stockpile, a Palo Alto-based startup that has made it possible to invest in the likes of Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, Google and Coca-Cola by simply purchasing a gift card for the stock. That’s right — you go down to your local grocery or retail store, pick up a gift card for, say, $25 or $50 or $100, and the recipient of the card owns a fractional share of stock in the company.
In an interview last week, Ganatra, who joined Stockpile just last month, highlighted the appeal of the technology challenges inherent in such a disruptive pursuit:
It’s so hard to open up a traditional brokerage account, because account minimums are high, commissions are high, and people under the age of 18 aren’t easily able to open up a brokerage account. The engineering challenges that come with an innovative product like Stockpile are huge — it boils down to understanding workflow and listening to our customers.
Making it really easy for customers to transact and invest is something that is really exciting, technology-wise. It’s a stock-gifting platform as a service — we are really building a brokerage platform as a service, which is exposing the APIs for our partners to be able to do stock-gifting, buying and selling activities. This technology is challenging, because nothing like this exists right now.
That said, it was clearly Stockpile’s vision that Ganatra found most appealing. I asked her if her family thought she was crazy to leave Facebook to join a startup. She said her family could relate to the decision just as easily as she could:
I was at Facebook for two-and-a-half years, heading all of engineering for payments, and building and scaling a team that built a lot of innovative products. It was time for me to take on new challenges, and to try something different. Stockpile was a great opportunity that came about — a few things really excited me. My family was able to relate to it the way I was able to relate to its mission to make the stock market accessible, affordable, and easy for everyone.
I wish something like this existed when I was growing up in India — it was just so hard to start investing early. So I can totally relate to that mission, personally. ... Only 14 percent of Americans own direct stock, because it’s too expensive and complicated to open up a regular brokerage account — there are too many barriers. We are breaking down all the barriers, to allow people to invest and save much earlier.
Ganatra went on to explain how her work as head of engineering for payments at Facebook prepared her for what she’s doing at Stockpile:
At Stockpile, it’s really building a financial technology product. I have been in fintech pretty much throughout my career. At Facebook, I learned a lot in terms of building and creating an engineering organization with a great culture. I want to apply that learning here at Stockpile.
First and foremost, I really want to build a meaningful product that our customers love, and is of value to our customers. This is not going to be possible without a great team — my plan is to expand our awesome engineering team, and build a great engineering culture from the lessons that I learned at Facebook.
Ganatra encapsulated those lessons this way:
There are lessons in the sense of building a great culture. So now, I have my own version of what culture means to me, and what I’m going to be building at Stockpile. To me, that means an engineering organization that fosters innovation, moves fast, and is built on trust, respect, and consistency. Now, if you look at Facebook, that is definitely an organization that fosters innovation, and we moved really, really fast. That is one of the reasons why I joined Facebook, and I want to build that culture here at Stockpile.
Some of the key principles I’ve learned are first, to move fast, while fostering experimentation and listening to customers. Second, to minimize the operational and manual work — to automate as much as you can, because this is the only way to maintain small teams. This is one of the big things at Facebook — every team is really small, and we could scale because everything is automated. There is less operational and manual work that our engineers had to deal with.
The third thing is to foster innovation through a bottom-up culture. I’m really a big believer that great ideas come from the bottom up. At Facebook, I was in a leadership role, but we had hackathons pretty much every month, or at least every quarter, to get ideas from the bottom up. Many new ideas at Facebook really came from these hackathons in engineering. Fourth, it’s essential to be data-driven. Everyone is the company should be aware of key success metrics, and keep track of them.
Last, but not least, is to hire the best. Facebook is known for hiring the best people, and I have learned a lot of those hiring best practices, because I was involved in hiring the engineering and leadership team at Facebook, from the ground up. So these are some of the key principles I have learned, and that I will apply in my new role.
I asked Ganatra about Stockpile’s plans for international expansion. She said the current focus is on expansion within the United States, to dramatically increase the number of outlets nationwide that sell the gift cards. But she said that while international expansion will be challenging, it’s definitely in the cards:
We have partners who are reaching out to make this available outside of the U.S. We haven’t named a priority list of countries, but we have some interest from countries like Australia, Singapore and India. Those are some of the markets that we are currently looking into, but we haven’t planned anything else yet. Our first priority is really to get this nationwide within the U.S.
The biggest technical hurdle is to understand people’s behavior in different geographies and markets — how people save and invest. Taxes and regulations need to be figured out as we expand. The same product will not scale outside of the U.S., so we need to learn these user experiences and behaviors to be able to expand internationally. Since we have already built a platform that offers the Stockpile stock gift card within the U.S., I don’t see any technology challenge here, other than scaling it nationwide. But international expansion is going to be challenging.
I wanted to get Ganatra’s perspective on the gender issue in technology, so I asked her what challenges she has faced as a female engineer in Silicon Valley, that she doesn’t think she would have faced if she had been male. It was clear that the question struck a chord:
It’s really hard being a female engineer, and a female executive in technology. There are many times that I’m the only female executive in a room full of men. My working style is that I’m very assertive, driven, and hyper-focused, just to get the work done. So sometimes I receive feedback that I’m 'too aggressive,' or I’m 'intimidating,' because I’m just really focused and opinionated.
Getting that feedback is so hard, because it’s just my working style, and men usually don’t get that feedback. We have made a lot of progress for women in technology — I was part of a lot of initiatives at Facebook to hire women in leadership. But challenges remain. I’m the only female engineer (on the engineering team at stockpile) right now, and my plan is to hire more.
Ganatra is also the only female on Stockpile’s senior leadership team, and I asked her if that matters. Her response:
It doesn’t matter in terms of the work that I do — everyone on the leadership team, and everyone at Stockpile, all really deeply care about the mission. So the biggest thing that matters to me is for everyone that we hire to be really deeply ingrained in our mission. Diversity is definitely one of the things I care about — I would love to hire more female executives, and we’re really making that effort. But overall, my first priority is for everyone to believe in the mission, and to be passionate about making it possible.
In terms of how it is to be the only female executive, as I said, it’s hard. But everyone here at Stockpile is super nice to me, and they welcomed me with very open arms. So I really love working here.
Turning back to her vision for Stockpile, Ganatra closed the conversation by highlighting another dimension of that vision:
Aside from being a gifting platform, and a brokerage platform, we also serve as a financial education tool for kids — that is another aspect of Stockpile that really excites me. Twenty percent of our customers are under 18, and Stockpile works with non-profits, like Junior Achievement, to help educate kids on the stock market. We are able to give kids the opportunity to buy and sell stock, which will hopefully be a learning experience that will help them throughout their lives.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.