Hackathons: Idea Competitions To Find the #RightProblem

In a city of immense technological entrepreneurship, “hackathon” is a common word in San Francisco. Ranging from a few hours to over a weekend, hackathons are events, hosted by a company or organization, comprised of solving a challenge, creating a prototype, and presenting your results. Many hackathons participants are, unsurprisingly, students, eager to add their ideas, and code, into the professional world.

One active hackathon participant and leader within the Minerva community of hackathoners is Bani Singh. Unofficially dubbed a hackathon “rockstar” by her classmates, Bani’s experience with hackathons is actually somewhat limited. “I could probably count the number of hackathons I’ve participated in on my two hands,” she jokes. Before coming to Minerva she entered her first hackathon, the Siemens Women’s Hackathon, unsure what a hackathon actually entailed. Joining a team of women, with experience in the hackathon circuit, she quickly realized that it was essentially an idea competition. After a full day of intense prototyping, iterating, and problem-solving around the challenge of how they could creatively utilize Siemens’ cloud platform, her team won the grand prize, proposing a product ideation for Siemens IoT platform that would improve product and customer service.

That win, the intense work it required, and the thrill of generating ideas with others in a confined time frame bolstered her passion for hackathons. And when she arrived in San Francisco for her fall semester where hackathons are hosted on almost any given weekend, she continued to participate with her Minerva cohort. Bani and other students from the Class of 2021 began self-organizing around hackathon opportunities and in September, a group of eight students won second place and the social media category at the AT&T IoT hackathon. In October, four Minervans won the regional Singapore Airlines hackathon in Palo Alto and the first place prize in the final international round in Singapore with their mobile application which improved a smart travel mobile app to make customer journeys more personalised. By November, Minerva teams swept first, second, and third place in the Hodo Soy hackathon, winning a unique prize in the form of bounty of tofu products. Then, in December students placed first, third, and fourth at the NCSV Innovate hackathon.

Bani at the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Hackathon

Bani attributes Minerva students’ successes to two attributes, the first being student-teams’ diversity. “Having a team member who really understands business and one person who really understands coding can be incredibly useful” she says. By leveraging and optimizing on individual strengths, each team member can focus on their areas of expertise, bring forth their contributions, and collaboratively address the various challenges within each hackathon.

The second Minerva advantage is students’ ability to uniquely approach the challenge — a skill directly linked to one of the learning objects of the Foundation Year curriculum — understanding and solving for the right problem. With limited time and bandwidth, a team’s ability to quickly realize the judges’ expectations in order to create a relevant solution is critical. In theory, this a simple enough concept; but in practice, this is where most teams miss the mark.

“When [Minerva] was in Mexico at the TalentLand hackathon, we saw that a lot of people did what they were asked to, and that was to make cryptocurrency. They wrote in their terminal, they showed it, and they pitched [their prototype]. And it worked fine, because they did what they were supposed to.” Bani explains. “Minervans, however, have always added relevance to the solution by connecting it to real world problems. So when we pitched our idea, we started with a really good problem.”

The Minerva team went beyond the basic prompt and transformed their cryptocurrency prototype into a accessible platform that utilized blockchain technology as a solution to the international challenge of waste reduction. By connecting their prototype to the real world, they made their solution relatable, easily understandable, and significant, all of which differentiated the Minerva team from the rest of the competitors. And while the team did not win the grand prize, by incorporating the global challenge of recycling and waste reduction into their proposal, their project stood out to the judges. From practice in class to performance in the real world, “Minervans are really good at understanding the right problem for gap analysis,” describes Bani.

“We’re very good at looking at how the world is today, and seeing how we can make it better using the formal tools that we have, like programming and pitching, to get our message through.”

While winning hackathons and collecting prizes is exciting, perhaps, the experience is validating within of itself. Practicing critical skills, such as effective communication, user-focused design thinking, and teamwork prepares students to be competitive in the workforce post graduation. Participating and interacting at hackathons also exposes students to possible professional opportunities. When asked about one of her favorite aspects of hackathons, Bani shares, “You meet incredible mentors at hackathons… really passionate people who want to engage with young people and know their interests. If there’s anywhere to go to talk to [industry] professionals, it’s probably there — they want to listen to you.” In the future, Bani hopes that she too can become a mentor to young women who want to enter the hackathon and technology space.

This is Minerva’s mission and purpose in action — instilling students with pragmatic skills and knowledge which they can successfully apply to any challenge that they may face.


If you connected to Bani’s story and are seeking a college experience that will teach you valuable pragmatic skills that will enable you to change the world, apply to join the Class of 2023 today.