What we can learn from the largest and most diverse hacker community on running inclusive hackathons

Amra Naidoo
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#tech4good #hackathon #womenintech — familiar with these hashtags? From the startup world to small businesses, non-profits, large corporate foundations and multinationals, everyone is getting in to the hackathon space in some way.

Now I’m no hackathon expert, but I’ve been to a few. And while I was at UN Women Singapore, I led UNited We Hack, a hackathon to promote financial literacy and economic empowerment for women around the globe. The hackathon was run in partnership with AngelHack and attracted MasterCard, DBS, Microsoft and HP as major partners, with startup eco-system partners like local accelerators and tech communities such as GeekGirls, Startupbootcamp Fintech and 1823 Ventures.

There were four winning teams for each category (financial literacy; micro-lending; crime & abuse reporting; and, ‘tell her story’) receiving cash and in-kind prizes, such as mentoring and the opportunity to access accelerator programs to further their ideas.

All sounds great, right?

Well, in the interest of encouraging reflection and learning for the success of future events, I want to highlight two things for consideration: sustainability of hackathon ideas and gender diversity at hackathons (and more generally in tech).

Sustainability of hackathon ideas

As far as I know (as I’ve since left UN Women), three of the four winning teams didn’t end up continuing on with their ideas. This was due to unforeseen circumstances with the teams, but also areas that we could have been facilitated better, now knowing more about running this type of event, in this sector. After speaking with many people in the space, apparently this was not a unique situation.

This was a few years ago now and looking back, if I was to lead another hackathon, would put more emphasis on some kind of commitment from teams who want to see their ideas through, rather than just building solutions for the sake of building them. Also, acknowledging that ‘builders’ and ‘creators’ are not necessarily the ‘doers’ or rather, the people that go on to operationalise things.

So, there should be more space to link these creators, with the people or organisations that perhaps are already established and looking for tech solutions, rather than an emphasis on a winning team going on to start up a business

For example, at the same time as UNited We Hack, I was leading Project Inspire, and noticed that many of the submissions that we were receiving were looking for funding to build tech solutions. These are already established social entrepreneurs from around the world, and so I saw a great opportunity to link them with hackathon participants, who most likely would have the experience to ‘hack’ the right solutions for their needs. Connecting these two groups just seemed to be a much better use of resources AND could also be done in the form of a hackathon.

Gender diversity in tech

What was most impactful to me was that the hackathon ended up attracting 33 per cent female participation. And, for a lot of the women that participated, this was their first time at a hackathon. I remember hearing of and receiving so many messages from women who were excited at attending this type of event for the first time. We even had women come from neighbouring countries like Malaysia and Vietnam just to participate. For some context, we had heard through the grapevine that in Singapore, the highest percentage of female attendance for an event like this was 4 per cent, hosted by a large multinational. This is not surprising as I later found out that 4 per cent is about average around the world.

Despite increasing awareness around the  lack of diversity, in this case gender diversity, in the tech industry, progress to change this has been slow, sometimes  even backward – Diana Biggs (Fellow @Anthemis, Advisor @UCLCBT, Founder @ProofofPurpose)

Personally, I was hoping for 50/50 gender ratio but I guess 33 per cent is pretty good if you’re looking at global statistics.

Let’s look at the hackathons that AngelHack runs

For a recent episode of the Doing Good Podcast, I interviewed Sabeen Ali, Founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Angelhack — who claims to be the world’s largest and most diverse hacker community. In the interview, she told me that most of their hackathons reach close to 50/50. However, at the end of 2016, AngelHack held one of their 20 global Lady Problems Hackathons at the Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG) accelerator, and 83 per cent of the participants were female — this is AngelHack’s highest female participation to date (and probably is the highest of any mixed hackathon, ever).

Whoa. Impressive, huh?

“AngelHack, a female-owned, female-majority company helps drive open innovation of tech products, platforms and brands with extraordinary smarts, scale and speed via tech education, marketing and hackathons.”

Prior to AngelHack, Sabeen founded (and then sold) her own leadership training and organizational development company, Team Building ROI. She has also consulted for companies like Yahoo!, and Cisco. Sabeen is someone who I very much personally admire. I especially love how she is working to bridge the gap between the tech world and the social world, which have up until quite recently been very separate.

Also read: Woomentum is bringing women-focussed crowdfunding to Vietnam

Even today, the social world can be very slow to adapt new technology, much to the sector’s disadvantage. Sabeen is also someone who is very much a role model for getting more women in to technology and is also a champion of making this happen quicker. AngelHack is actually one of the case studies that I use quite often when people tell me that it is too difficult to have more women at a tech event or in their organisation.

“We’ve been focusing on expanding the skillset of the people in our community and broadening their own understanding of what technology can do and what it can accomplish, and that’s brought us to a lot of inclusivity and social good events” Sabeen Ali (Doing Good Podcast, Episode 14, 05:45)

If you find this interesting, you can check out the podcast interview that I did with Sabeen here. I asked her about the key things to think about when running a hackathon: How to attract and retain women in tech, how AngelHack does this with their hackathons, and of course, finding out how they facilitate the sustainability of the ideas that come out of the events.

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UNited We Hack 2.0 (happening April 29-30 at General Assembly Singapore) will look into barriers preventing female entrepreneurship in 4 key areas: Health; Safety; Economic Empowerment; and Culture. The 2-day challenge will also include a General Assembly masterclass session and a screening of the award-winning documentary CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap.

We have also opened up 20 free passes for your community with the code: UWH-e27. Register here: eventbrite.com/e/united-we-hack-20-tickets-33103819415

Participants will also receive a chance at getting a complimentary delegate pass to Echelon Asia Summit 2017 in Singapore this June 28-29 to take their ideas to the next level.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Featured Image Credit: Sing Suen Soon / UN Women Singaproe

 

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