Finally — A Hackathon for Everyone

BuildHer is Chicago’s first-ever student-run women’s hackathon. Founded and run by students at Northwestern University, the event will be held at Northwestern on April 7–8, 2017.

Image courtesy of BuildHer

BuildHer’s aim is to promote diversity and inclusion within the Chicago area’s tech community, and to provide a space for female, nonbinary, and transgender beginner coders to learn coding in a welcoming environment, with the guidance of other coders. Besides creating a project, BuildHer also wants their attendees to build confidence and community.

“As the former co-president of Women in Computing, I’ve had friends and strangers alike approach me with too-little-too-late attitudes about coding,” said Founder Alaina Kafkes, speaking about her motivation to found BuildHer. “Some felt uncertain if their coding abilities could ever be ‘good enough’ compared to the guys who had been coding since diapers, and others wished they had taken the plunge into coding even though their family, their friends, or the world at large told them that this path was not open to women. After my junior year, my mission became to foster a space for women and non-binary coders (even those new to coding!) to build things together free of these inhibitions.”

Kafkes pitched her idea to WiC co-president Meg Grasse, and they decided to pursue this mission together. They assembled their team based on their applicants’ passion, empathy, and experience, in that order. Marketing team member Kinsey Erickson, who is studying psychology, Middle Eastern and North African Studies, and Game Design, said that although she is not majoring in computer science and felt discouraged from it because of her gender, she applied because she loved mixing what she knows about coding withher other passions. BuildHer’s interdisciplinary goals stem from the mix of majors and experiences on the team.

“We have a lot of different perspectives to bring to the table and that helps us to be really thorough in our accessibility, programming, and goals,” said Erickson. “I’ve done a decent amount of theatre on campus, so my understanding of marketing is totally different than someone who’s knee deep in McCormick programming and business clubs. We wouldn’t be nearly as successful — or fun! — if the entire team came from the same place.”

The team certainly has been successful: BuildHer has reached schools across the nation — all over Chicagoland and the Midwest, Texas, and the east and west coasts. Erickson said she is most excited about BuildHer’s beginner-friendly focus.

“I love the idea of introducing creative and hardworking people to code and helping them incorporate that into their passions and seeing where it takes them. Everyone should feel welcome in the programming community and I love that we’re helping make that happen.”

Kafkes had similar thoughts on what success at BuildHer should look like.

“Contrary to the belief of many hackers, success doesn’t mean winning a prize at BuildHer,” Kafkes said. “Technically speaking, success for a BuildHer hacker means walking away from BuildHer having built something that they did not know how to build before BuildHer. But success for a BuildHer attendee also means befriending and learning from other women and non-binary throughout the event.”

Beyond the hackathon, Kafkes has some advice for aspiring young developers: “Hold onto the connections and memories you’ve made at BuildHer — they matter as much (if not more) than the technical acumen you picked up. Even if you discover that coding isn’t your thing, approach future opportunities with the courage that inspired you to apply to BuildHer.”

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