I’m working with Jay Bensal on 54, a three-day event where the brightest students at the University of Illinois come together to create a sustainable, innovative business under the mentorship of industry leaders.
I’m choosing the words I use to describe this event very carefully. We take a lot of inspiration from the hackathon and Startup Weekend movements, but describing 54 as “a hackathon, except …” hurts our cause by planting assumptions in our attendees’ heads even before they hear our value proposition.
I consider a hacker someone who uses their intimate knowledge of a subject to create interesting things. This, however, is not what most people believe the word means. As an example, my mother would say hackers break into bank websites and steal passwords. Most wouldn’t consider Fred Eerdekens a hacker, but take a look at his art and tell me that it doesn’t impress you more than the vast majority of mobile apps do. I believe that calling an event a hackathon instantly demotes non-technical people to second class citizens, narrows the prospective pool of attendees, and results in a homogenous crowd of mostly CS majors.
There’s nothing wrong with this if the goal of the event is to engage CS majors in competitive hacking, and if the event’s sponsors are looking to hire new software engineers from your attendee pool. It’s not so great if the goal is to create sustainable companies who are still making money a year after the event is over. If we believe that the best startups are at the intersection of art and technology, and that cross-pollination between different disciplines leads to new and exciting value propositions, then calling ourselves a hackathon severely diminishes the odds that an interdisciplinary group of students will come up with an innovative and beautifully crafted product that solves an interesting problem for an underserved market.
The goal of 54 is to create a welcoming environment where high achieving students of all disciplines have the resources and mentorship needed to develop sustainable businesses.
Thanks to Jay Bensal for reviewing an early version of this post.