Hackathons: The Ultimate Entrepreneurial Challenge

Are you curious and passionate?  Do you enjoy working on a team to solve problems and develop ideas that can have a concrete impact in your community? Are you trying to assess whether your entrepreneurial idea is applicable to the real world?  Hackathons may be the perfect opportunity for you.   

E@D sat down with Tech Events Manager Ami Stuart to discuss Hackathons as platforms for entrepreneurial growth and catalysts for innovative thinking. 

What is a hackathon?

The basic concept is to bring together a diverse group of people for a weekend to come up with a solution for a problem. Our hackathons have a little bit of a twist in that we don’t focus solely on the coding aspect of a hackathon, but rather on a fully developed solution–meaning we bring together students from across the university to form really holistic teams.  Your goal is to create a product that would be consumer ready or feasible to achieve in the real world. It’s more than just an app for a game that you can play on your phone.


Students researching during the 2016 Health Tech Hackathon at Cornell Tech

Ami continued to give E@D an overview of the initial stages of a hackathon.  This includes the teams gaining access to a number of resources such as application program interfaces, tech talks, research, or speakers relevant to the specific focus of the hackathon.  After, students with an idea pitch to the rest of the participants.  From there, participants choose which student they would like to work with for the remainder of the weekend.

The second stage of the hackathon is interacting with mentors and project managers to fully develop your solution alongside your team. The mentors are nearly all professionals in the workplace; a hackathon is usually comprised of about 125 students and 60 mentors. On the last day of the hackathon, the projects are reviewed by a panel, the top 10 teams do a four-minute pitch and Q&A with the judges to the entire audience of participants, and then a winner is selected.  Ami notes that regardless of the result, all participants’ pitch decks are featured on the website and available to share via Linkedin and social media.  Ami then continued to provide insights on hackathons and entrepreneurship. 

Why are hackathons a beneficial opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Some people come into a hackathon with an idea – something they’ve always wanted to try or something they want to make a company out of.  They use the hackathon as an opportunity to get feedback from the judges and mentors to understand if their idea could actually work.  Let’s say you’re a business student with an idea that you don’t know the feasibility of from an engineering or computer science perspective.  A hackathon could give you that answer.  Hackathons are great trial runs to help students refine their ideas because they get to collaborate with other students, discuss with mentors and ultimately get critiqued by judges to see if their ideas are applicable to the real world.

 What is the biggest struggle that students encounter with hackathons?

The number one thing students struggle with is not signing up at all.  Many think to themselves, “I don’t know any coding-how could I ever contribute to this, no one will want me on their team, I bring no value,” and that’s just not true.  There truly is no perfect student in a hackathon.  As long as you are curious, energetic, passionate and love new experiences you will be an asset! There is a level of vulnerability for everyone involved and there’s this kind of understanding that a hackathon is a learning process.  It’s not like there’s a million-dollar prize on the table. It’s meant to be a fun experience where you can learn new things from other people such as what actually goes into building a website or app, what goes into a marketing plan, how to do customer research or what goes into a pitch deck. Everyone has something unique they can contribute; having diverse perspectives on a team is really crucial to coming up with the best solutions.

What entrepreneurial skills do you think an individual develops during in a hackathon?

  1. Pitching.  You have to be able to pitch your idea to recruit other
    Students giving updates on their projects at the 2016 Health Tech Hackathon

    Students giving updates on their projects at the 2016 Health Tech Hackathon

    participants to be on your team.  You also need to narrate your idea in a way that the mentors can understand so that they can help you and in a way that the judges can fully see your vision.

  2. Thinking on your feet.  You learn how to absorb lots of brainstorming and feedback and then use that to iterate and pivot. There’s a lot of pivoting that goes on during the event; you can start with one idea, move on to another and even completely start from scratch.
  3. Team work. You learn to navigate different skillsets that you need to build a team.  Once you’re on a team, you begin to understand how important fit and personality are. You might really like a person, but you might not work well together.  Instead you might need someone who will challenge you and constantly ask you “but why, but why, but why.”  It’s really interesting the way 4-6 different people, strangers, work together.  There’s a special bond that happens when you’re in a hackathon because in the hackathon environment, you just have to step right into trusting people.  You’ll be vulnerable, but you’ll find that people are amazingly honest and transparent yet also respectful and encouraging.

If you’re interested in participating in a hackathon, the next event is a Fintech hackathon focused on services and products to aid the underbanked population and combat money laundering on November 11 in NYC.