Not Your Usual Hackathon: B-STEM’s We Hack Too

 |   Kevin Wei, MSFT Chicago Civic Tech Fellow

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It’s no big news that there’s a gender gap in today’s workforce. We hear it all the time, that we need to bridge the divide of women in tech and business. So how do we fix that? We start at the most basic foundation of starting any kind of change: we get the foot inside the door! That’s exactly what B-STEM’s “We Hack Too” event did for young girls and women across the world.

On June 24, in Microsoft Stores across the nation (and virtual participants in Bolivia, Finland, and more!), girls had a space to develop their own business plan and get more comfortable working with technology and coding. I volunteered as a mentor and judge, but I discovered that these girls needed no help at all in proving that the next generation of women already have the skills necessary to take on the challenges in taking on the business and tech.

When you first hear of an event called a “hackathon,” a common image is the room filled with college guys drinking energy drinks and eating from scattered pizza boxes while staying up all night to hack government servers. This event challenged this perception in the best way possible.

Besides the obvious aspect that this room was filled with high-school girls, it was amazing to see not only the coding aspects emphasized, but the entire package of what it takes to succeed in the business and tech world: the customer analysis, the marketing, the presentation, and so much more.

We Hack Too recognized that tech skills are only a piece of the puzzle; by encouraging girls to develop a fully-fledged business plan, they communicated that women aren’t only needed as developers or coders, but in every other part of the workforce world (can anyone guess what the “B” in B-STEM stands for?).

Have you ever seen Shark Tank or an 1871 start-up pitch? B-STEM’s high-school girls presented their community solution with an understanding of skills that experienced businessmen and college students still struggle with. You had self-sustaining revenue models, legal considerations, and most of all, confidence.

We Hack Too had a concrete goal to create a solution to solve a community problem, and the quality of the projects that the girls put out were amazing. But under it all, the core principle of this hackathon was to inspire confidence within these girls and breaking down the imaginary wall that had constantly told them that business and tech is solely reserved for men. It was so inspiring to see what successes can happen in <12 hours. Not only did these girls make friends, build valuable hard and soft skills, but they finally became comfortable enough with themselves to say: “I can do this!”

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It’s important to recognize the importance of environment and its role in helping the girls to fail, learn, and succeed in a comfortable environment. Microsoft, B-STEM, Kelly OCG, and other partners took part in making sure that We Hack Too was a space for the next generation of female leaders to realize that not only do they have the skills necessary to compete, but they are needed more than ever. But you know what? Teaching skills and confidence is easy. The hard part is the first step of getting girls through the door and allowing them space to grow in spite of the words “hackathon” and the surrounding business/tech stigma.

There’s still a long way to go, but collaborations between organizations like B-STEM and Microsoft are proving that we have the right people working on workforce diversity.

You can find more tweets at @bstemproject and #wehacktoo.

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