The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from SayItForward.org in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.
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The masterminds behind these tech solutions are the 900 teens and young women who recently flocked to the University of Maryland for Technica, an annual weekend of fast-paced learning and a technology jamboree.
As an all-women and non-binary hackathon, Technica encourages females to combat the gender imbalance and imposter syndrome associated with STEM fields. With the message of “Go Beyond,” organizers celebrated the fifth year of the event with an outer space theme. Guest speakers included CEO of WayUp Liz Wessel and supermodel and entrepreneur Karlie Kloss, who encouraged the girls to push past barriers.
“We really want to emphasize that our participants can go beyond everything, every expectation and every limitation set on them,” co-executive director Shruti Das told Ms.
At hackathons, participants form small groups and spend 24 to 36 hours creating hardware and software applications geared at solving real-world issues, from food security to gender equity. At the end of the hacking period, they present their creations to a panel of judges for the chance to win prizes, scholarships and recognition from talent-scouting companies.
Rather than a rankings-based system for winners, companies sponsor individual prizes. Technica 2019 hosted over 35 sponsorship prizes, such as Cisco’s Best Security Hack and Facebook’s Best Community Building Hack. At the recent event, high school senior and third-time participant Celina Wu and her team created three apps to help users exchange business cards via QR code, prepare for interviews and build a professional portfolio—winning Tenable’s award for Least Vulnerable Solution.
The beta products aren’t sucked into black holes once the hackathon ends. “I know so many people who have started a hackathon project,” web development expert and React developer Cassidy Williams told Ms., “and then turned it into a successful startup.”
While hackathons are a great way to find tech opportunities, the majority of events are male-dominated. “My biggest obstacle [as a rising female web developer] was just people not liking a girl who wears pink being able to code as well as them because that’s not what they expect,” said Williams.
With over 200 hackathons under her belt since college, Williams used the networking opportunities to land positions at Venmo, Amazon and several startups. She noted that building a community is critical to feeling comfortable in a field. “Going to these all-female events, going to any sort of events that support a minority demographic in tech,” Williams said, “is amazing because you finally get that community that you don’t automatically get by just being in the industry.”
Technica was inspired by founder Amritha Jayanti’s own experiences as a computer science major. “I was one of five girls and in our class of 100 students, and it made it harder to engage in class discussions,” she remembered. “I went to my first hackathon at the end of my freshman year, and I thought it would be great to have that in a super safe space.”
The female voice is crucial to the tech world, bringing a new perspective to the table that drives global innovation to cater to a broader audience. “Women in technology is not diversity for diversity’s sake,” Jayanti explained. “It’s bringing a lot human experiences into the thoughtfulness of how we research and develop technology.”
To ensure everyone has the resources they need for their project, Technica hosts beginner workshops. “It gives the opportunity for our hackers to learn in a place where they know that they’ll be supported,” Das said, “and not not judged for not knowing something.”
These opportunities have contributed significantly to Das’ confidence in being able to create a product for social good. “Technica is pretty much my outlet for exploring all of my interests,” she said. “It really encouraged me to learn new things, especially since there’s so much help available.”
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