Claire Donovan and Adele Li: PennApps and ‘Conscious Hacking’

For the last three years, Claire Donovan and Adele Li have worked in the logistics and outreach committees at PennApps, the University of Pennsylvania’s first-of-its-kind collegiate hackathon, rising to the executive board, and now both serve as directors of the organization. This eighteenth iteration of PennApps marks the first in which two women have sat on top of the organization. PennApps XVIII is happening from September 7–9 in Penn’s Engineering Quad, where around 1,200 students and 40 sponsors will attend, with over $80,000 dollars in prizes to be given out.

Claire Donovan and Adele Li.

Donovan, director of PennApps, is a junior studying Computer Science and Linguistics. She is also an instructor for Girls Who Code, a nonprofit organization that provides free computing curricula for girls in grades 6–12. Claire also enjoys walking dogs.

Li, vice director of PennApps, a junior in the Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology at the University of Pennsylvania, is pursuing a double major in Computer Science and Economics, with concentrations in Finance and Real Estate. Adele is also the managing partner of Dorm Room Fund, a student-run VC fund backed by First Round Capital.

PennApps teams “hack” together physical projects, as well as programs. This semester, they will be doing so with a focus on positive social outcomes.

PennApps is entering its eighteenth iteration this fall, and over the past five months, our team has worked endlessly to put on the best event yet. It also has the best theme yet: Superheroes. But this isn’t all about capes and tights; we’re proud to host a hackathon with an emphasis on social impact and we hope to challenge hackers to work on interdisciplinary applications of technology with a focus on local communities.

PennApps was founded as the first collegiate hackathon, with the ambitious goal of challenging programmers and engineers to innovate and create a functioning project within 36 hours. Eight years and 18 hackathons later, PennApps has become much more than that. With more than 1,200 students and 40 sponsors coming to PennApps XVIII, the event has established a reputation as the premier collegiate hackathon: a place where hackers can expect a showcase of cutting-edge technology by dozens of reputable firms, as well as a meet-up of the brightest students from around the nation. We take pride in the fact that we’ve been able to democratize and spread the idea of “conscious hacking” — building technology for positive social outcomes.

So what makes PennApps so great? What makes our 36 hours of hacking so memorable? Some might think it’s all of the amenities, the endless snacks, the awesome swag, the hottest companies, the ice-skating, or the unlimited gaming. But for many of us, it’s the community. As freshmen, we both stumbled into PennApps a little wide-eyed and anxious, feeling confusion but also excitement for whatever seemed to be happening. The event seemed to live multiple lives of its own, starting from a recruiting session with major sponsors and transitioning to workshops in topics like AI and neural nets, project ideation and execution, networking with other hackers, and more. PennApps was a proving ground for budding relationships, professional connections, innovative ideas, and some cool projects that have transitioned to reputable companies and platforms that we all know and use today.

We both joined PennApps during the spring semester of our freshman year, knowing that it would be a good opportunity to join like-minded peers who loved hacking and hosting an amazing event. But we both didn’t exactly understand the magnitude of the operation until we joined the executive board.

At PennApps, the stakeholders for our organization are different from a regular club. Although our event is geared towards high school and college hackers, we are also conscious of the needs of our sponsors. Some topics that we specifically focused on this year when we thought about how to enhance the quality of our event were: How do we ensure corporate topics like diversity and inclusion are a part of our application decision process? How can we encourage hackers to work on meaningful and unconventional projects? How can we accumulate the lessons and mistakes that hackers make and share that with our community?

Organizing PennApps has taught us both much more than how to set up an event. We have the privilege of scale, and with scale comes responsibility: the message and values which we hope to instill in this iteration of PennApps have the ability to reach far and wide. We hope our hackers will challenge themselves to learn something new every hour. We challenge our sponsors to meet ambitious students with unconventional backgrounds. But most important of all, we hope that attending PennApps will leave hackers feeling energized by what it’s possible to accomplish when you put a little heart into something ambitious.