I spent most of 1989 playing games on the Apple //c computer my dad handed down to me when he upgraded to a newer version. In 1999, I took pride in being the first person in my class to code a calculator by scratch using Visual Basic. But at Florida A&M University in 2003, I gave up on computer science.
It was right after the dot-com bubble collapsed, and the stock market crashed. There just wasn’t a lot of trust in tech. Business was where the money was, advisors said, so I traded in my programming hands for the pursuit of corporate fortune and an MBA.
The loss of an interest can be sort of sad, but it’s never too late to get back into what you love. For me, the Hack the Gender Gap: Women’s Hackathon at USC got me back in touch with tech while inspiring me to pursue every passion that’s still in my heart.
The Power of “Me”
When I started grad school at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism (for a second master’s degree), I made the decision to try everything — every event, workshop, and seminar. So, when my interactive journalism professor at Medill invited me to participate in the Hack the Gender Gap event, I was all in.
Heading into unknown territories can be nerve-racking, and I had no idea what the environment would be like once we arrived. There was nothing to be nervous about though. Smiling faces greeted us as we entered, and even though none of us really knew what we were in for, we were excited to give it a shot. I was ready for this new experience.
The Power of “We”
Working on a team with people I don’t know is probably one of my biggest fears. We all have horror stories of group projects gone awry due to a mixture of lazy, unknowledgeable, or bossy group members. I’ll even admit that in the past I tended to be the latter. However, this wasn’t going to be about individual success. We were all there to learn and to give our best shot at winning the competition together so I focused on being a good teammate even before we started.
Although we had a great welcome and reception Friday night, the real work started on Saturday. Hackathon participants were divided into teams named after animals. Each team had a mix of undergraduate and graduate students from across the country.
The assignment, we soon found out, was to pitch a virtual reality idea that would involve both journalism and technology. Like a lot of the attendees, I knew very little about virtual reality, and I knew that it would be necessary to focus on working well in my group. That would be the only way.
I’m always uncomfortable when I’m not in charge, but I soon learned that I didn’t need to be. My team, Team Lion, did an amazing job. Jayson Demers, Founder and CEO of AudienceBloom, wrote in an Inc Magazine article that the first step in working with unfamiliar co-workers is starting off right, and after breaking off from the main group, we immediately went to work. We took the time to get to know each other and then brainstormed a list of ideas. We then took the most viable options and answered these questions for each:
- Who would want to use this?
- What problem would it solve?
- Who else is doing something similar?
- Is it financially feasible?
- Is the technology available for what we want to do?
- What resources would need?
We hashed it all out and challenged each other with questions until we came up with a final idea.
Our methodology put us in position to easily finalize the details of our pitched idea, and when it was actually time to knock out the presentation, we already had a good idea of our individual strengths.
Using every member of our team allowed us to work quickly and efficiently since, in a hackathon, there is no time to waste. I totally let go of my “I must be leader” mentality and listened. If the team was in consensus on something that made sense but was different than what I would have done alone, I didn’t refute it.
I’m proud of the work we did together and happy for the memories we made. We connected with each other and also with our mentor, Jean Truelson, who was a true gem throughout the process. The lessons learned from her leadership and guidance will stay with me for a long time.
The Power of “Us”
Perhaps the most powerful message I received from the entire hackathon was how amazing women are in this space. Throughout the weekend, we heard from speakers and mentors that weren’t just talking about being a force in the tech world–they are running it.
The knowledge and fortitude of these experts combined with the ambition and drive of the participants showed me just how much ‘girl power’ can really do.
And as far as the future, there is a ton of work to be done. Women hold 26 percent of computing jobs, compared to 25 percent 25 years ago, according to a 2015 study by the American Association of University Women. But instead of allowing this number to continue to deflate, we have the collective power to bring it back up. We can be on the forefront of innovation as our society continues to use it to add value to our lives.
So thank you, thank you, thank you MediaShift and USC Annenberg for propelling me forward in just one short weekend. You’ve given me more power than you know.
Arionne Nettles is a professional storyteller—journalist, business writer, and content marketer—who specializes in helping people and businesses share their stories. Consequently, she’s a serial entrepreneur. Her content strategy company, Fourth Concept Media Group, utilizes journalism knowledge to create on-target content and her latest venture, AviBrand, is a branding mobile app and website created specifically for individuals to take their brands to new heights. When she’s not writing, she’s teaching Chicago-area teens the power of words through Write Chicago’s “sicker than your average” writing workshops or volunteering as a mentor. Arionne is also a proud MBA graduate of Florida A&M University and is currently pursuing a second master’s degree at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.