As a computer science major at Stanford, Akshaya Dinesh’s future felt pretty much laid out: “I thought the next step for me was to become a software engineer and get a job in tech,” Akshaya recalls.
Akshaya, 22, grew up in the New Jersey suburbs and learned how to code at her parents’ suggestion the summer before high school. She became a prolific hackathon participant and had her sights set on working for a major tech company like Facebook or Google someday. “I kind of revered the Silicon Valley stereotype,” she says.
In college, Akshaya immersed herself in the tech world and landed coveted internships at Microsoft, Bloomberg, and even a flying car startup. But as she got closer to her goal, something felt missing: “I wasn’t really feeling the impact of my work,” Akshaya says. “I was building a super tiny feature in a huge organization where I couldn’t interact with my users.”
So Akshaya decided to make something of her own. In March 2020, she built Ladder, a networking app for Gen Z professionals who were struggling to find tech jobs and internships during the pandemic. Ladder took off among her peers and, through a startup accelerator, attracted high-profile investors like Tony Xu of Doordash and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. At 19, Akshaya dropped out of Stanford to pursue startups fulltime.
“Being able to create your own vision and see that come to reality is something that is so rare in the workplace in so many different careers,” Akshaya says. As an Asian American woman occupying a predominantly white male space, she’s had to cope with her share of “small hurdles” and microaggressions as a founder, she says.
Akshaya is already onto her next company, Spellbound, a B2B product that incorporates interactive user experiences embedded inside of the body of emails. “My goal with the company is really to build an extremely successful large business and sort of prove to the world that you don’t need to be a white man to accomplish the same types of success,” she says.
Here, Akshaya shares how she fell in love with coding, how she copes with impostor syndrome, and her advice for developers who have entrepreneurial aspirations, too.
How’d you learn to code?
“The summer between middle school and high school, I just was super bored and had nothing to do. It was my parents who encouraged me to try to learn a new field. They basically were like, ‘Here, try to learn Java. Just pick it up and it’ll be a good skill in your toolkit.’
My parents weren’t developers, but they worked at companies where they saw that programmers were getting so many opportunities. They witnessed that there was clearly a huge demand for programming. I really owe it to them to give me that initial push. At the time, I was super against it: I never wanted to be an engineer; I thought it was not the right role for me. I’m very outspoken, and I wanted to do something where I could interact with people more.
Why did you stick with it?
“The reason why I ended up falling in love with computer science was through hackathons. I saw a hackathon sticker on somebody’s laptop, and I googled, What is this hackathon thing? I discovered this crazy world of these 24-hour events where it’s like a fun sleepover, you get to meet totally new people, and just go build a product. It was only until I had started to apply my skills in coding to actually building real-world applications that people could use that I started to see how insanely powerful it was. I became absolutely obsessed.
Throughout my four years of high school, I ended up going into about 45 hackathons, which was a lot of sleepless nights and traveling across the country — even the world. Attending these events all by myself put me very outside of my comfort zone. At most of these hackathons, I was one of very few girls there, so I felt very, very lonely.
If it wasn’t for Codecademy and attending hackathons, I would have quit after day one, because it was just so boring to me at first. Writing if statements and while loops, I was like, This is pointless. Getting to see how cool it is when people build a real-world application is what inspired me to keep going.”
What was it like launching your first company?
“I ended up starting my first company, Ladder, by accident. When the pandemic happened, everybody was sent home from school, and a lot of internships and job opportunities also started to fall away. It started out as just a simple side project meant to help my fellow students get new career opportunities and mentorship. There was so much demand and interest that it turned into a product that could almost resemble a new type of LinkedIn for that demographic.
The hardest step was getting something in the hands of users and getting their feedback. At most of the hackathons where I built all these cool projects, I never got to the point where I was confident enough to actually put it out into the world — they were all just works in progress. I was always worried like, What if they find bugs? Or what if they don’t like it?
It was super intimidating. There was a huge learning curve for me to dive into startups and understand how this entire world works. I had no idea how to raise [venture capital] funding or how to hire someone — I was barely a student myself, because I had only done 1.3 years of college.”
How’d you cope with that impostor syndrome?
“What I realized was that the most successful founders have an insane amount of confidence in themselves, their story, and the product that they’re building. Even if that confidence isn’t yet totally deserved, I think portraying that competence is honestly what gets people excited about your mission.
The female founders in my network — like, friends who I’ve helped fundraise or introduced to my investors — the first thing I tell them is, ‘When you enter a pitch meeting, just assume that you’re also a white male, and you have all the same privileges.’ You can warrant the same ruthless confidence that anybody else has.”
Did people treat you differently as a young woman of color?
“There are small biases and micro-patterns that I notice. At my last company, I had a male co-founder, and sometimes if we didn’t have our titles on LinkedIn, people would reach out to them as a default, or they would assume that I was a non-technical co-founder. There’s always the assumption that I don’t know how to code and I had somebody else that’s helping me on the technical side.
For some reason, when I fundraise for my company — even though it’s a totally normal B2B SaaS company that has nothing to do with women — I tend to only be introduced to the female partners at VC firms. That was a really weird thing for me to encounter, because I’m pretty sure other founders aren’t only getting introduced to a certain demographic of partners.”
What advice would you give someone who wants to build a product and launch a startup like you did?
“The first step to being an entrepreneur is getting validation in your idea. A lot of programmers become very obsessed with making the perfect product, fixing every single bug, and building every single feature. They spend six months building this incredible product, and they launch it only to realize that nobody actually wants to use it because they weren’t solving a real problem. For everything that I’ve worked on, I’ve always tried to validate before I even write a single line of code.
For Ladder, I ran some no-code experiments using existing platforms to try to mimic some of the functionality and see if I could get engagement out of my users. Only once I had seen the really positive signs of success in those early experiments did I then go and write my first line of code and build the real product. Probably the biggest pitfall that programmers turned into entrepreneurs have is they tend to write code a little bit too early.”
Interview has been edited for clarity.