From Hackathon, To Solving A Crisis Through Entrepreneurship

Like most, when I thought of summer, I thought of all things vacation: hot days, swimming pools; pretty much anything eventful outside the office. Looking back at my summer I noticed my view has changed of what this gloriously warm time of year is all about.

I now think of summer as an opportunity to let new things into my life. Granted this isn’t a new concept. Take my new friend Kyle for instance. He’s a web developer I had the chance of working with during the YesWeCode Hackathon in July at this year’s Essence Festival in New Orleans. He dropped his job, picked up a backpack and went on a tour through Europe. Sure, travel is a great way to embark on new things. But this summer, my mind traveled further than anywhere I could physically go, and it happened at that same hackathon where I met my backpacker buddy.

When I first heard of the hackathon I thought I might not have any business being there. Not only was I drastically wrong but I’m so glad that I applied. I was accepted to mentor young people of color as we set out to build apps intended to positively impact the communities where they come from.

This was my first go at so-called “hacking.” I know how these kinds of events work but actually participating was way beyond what I had expected. Here’s a quick rundown of how I ended up on a team called Potluck:

On day one the kids were encouraged to pitch an idea to everyone in attendance. Each idea was then written on a huge post-it with a simple title. We were all given stickers to place on the ideas we liked the most. There was one that I was particularly fond of because my buddy thought up a similar concept many years ago and pitched it to my friends and I. His idea never saw the light of day but I saw parts of my friend’s concept in this bright eyed 10th grade girl named Alex from Memphis, Tenn. She was interested in creating an app for social bartering.

Alex

“At first I did not think I would like it and tried to get out of it when my mother told me about it” she explained. “I was very nervous of my presentation but I thought that the people seemed interested.” Consequently she earned my vote of confidence.

Following voting was a consolidation period where ideas that were similar or played well with other’s could combine. “The Barter app” saw an opportunity to partner with a “Food Desert” idea that sought to address the crisis in areas with fresh food shortages. We figured there might be an opportunity to create a system where low income people living in food deserts could barter services in exchange for fresh, locally grown food. We combined forces and were off to the races.

Just like that I found myself at a table sitting with two passionate people (a kid and an adult) with great ideas, and a few specialists. The food desert concept was the idea of a passionate woman from Atlanta. Kyle brought his developer expertise. Marshall was part designer, part marketing strategist. Melonee brought her skill in Marketing and her presentation abilities and I was the lead designer.

team1

We had only days to conceptualize, build, test, shape and refine our concept into a presentation pitch for a panel of judges. The pressure was on, but the deeper our discussions went, the more we all began to believe in the idea and the more evident it became that our concept could be a real solution.

Meanwhile it was also occurring to me the work I was doing was far from my regular journalistic grind I’m so accustomed to, yet the meaning of my efforts made me feel just as good. Mentoring Alex on how to plan a user interaction and watching how drawing wireframes was opening doors in her mind tugged at my heart. She took our concept and turned it into a real working prototype on paper and did an outstanding job thinking through how each screen of our app would function.

building

Alex pointed out “The group was ok – we had our rough moments but we made the best of them. My favorite moment was when we finally tested the app and it moved perfectly.” She added, “The top three things I learned were how to create an app, how to pitch my idea, and how to semi use photoshop.”

Coming away from our last huddle I was totally fulfilled and proud of the work we had done as a unit and we were ready to share our prototype with the room open to questioning by the judges.

What happened next was beyond me.

team2

presentation

We came out with 3rd place! Prizes included Beats by Dre headphones, facebook gear, a chance to pitch our app to facebook, and we scored a 30 minute consultation with Matt Candler of 4pt0.org who will help us fine-tune our vision.

By joining a hackathon, I hacked my way into making a difference. The work I’ve done (and will be doing) is part entrepreneurial and part humanitarian and I’m absolutely passionate about the difference our app will make. We’re actually planning to bring this thing to life beyond the hackathon and develop it for both iPhone and Android devices – though it was originally created for Android which was pretty cool.

team3

Android

I got my hands on a copy of Android Studio and I’m excited to start getting funky with development in that area. Working with Xcode should be pretty darn fun as well. Development aside, I think team Potluck realizes the real work is in bolstering support, operating as a business, and thinking through ways building a sustainable business model that has longevity. After all, we didn’t go into this to fall short of making a difference. We understand app development alone won’t make us viable. As we solve our own problems I’ll be happily writing about our trials and tribulations along the way.