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5 Takeaways from Winning a Hackathon as a Female Business Student

My cofounder and I are two business women, and we attended our first hackathon — with no technical skills. Yes, it was intimidating, but we won 2 awards and learned so much more than we were expecting. These are our 5 key takeaways for both engineers and business students.

1. Being interdisciplinary ignites innovation

Hackathons are not only for engineers, in fact business students (and I’m sure students from many other disciplines) can add a lot of value to what is built. The reasons for this: They bring in a different perspective. Innovation being combinatorial, the collision of diverse points of views is more likely to spark it. Also, while engineers can really understand tech and the product, non-technical students tend to have better insights on the users (more on the importance of this in takeaway #3).

In our current environment, business students do not associate or feel inclined to be part of these events. They do not realize that there is so much to learn. Meanwhile, engineers often disregard the business students not seeing the value that these can offer beyond simply presenting at the end of the hackathon.

Both sides need to be more open minded and understand that in the real world — we need each other in order to advance society. This way we can cultivate mutual progress and build things to bring to market in a way the users will adopt it. I am positive that if these silos were breached and bridges were built in place, a lot more innovation would come out.

2. Every industry is going to be disrupted by tech

Business students, this one is for you.

Tech is not an industry. It is not something you will be able to ignore just because you are not an engineer or computer scientist. Tech will come in and disrupt every industry, it is already doing so.

You need to have a basic understanding of how it works, and how to integrate it with what you do in order to thrive in the world we’re going to live in. Thus, I invite you to explore it, go to hackathons, play and familiarize yourself with it. You don’t have to learn how to build all these things, but you definitely need to find how you are going to add value to the process to integrate yourself in a very real and a very near future.

Honestly, it can be really fun. My cofounder and I have stepped into this journey and are having a blast learning about different concepts while brainstorming how we can utilize them to solve human problems — after all, isn’t that what we biz people love to do?

3. Design thinking approach is the best approach

Our hack won the Best Design award, and while the interface was indeed nice and clean, the reason we won lies mainly in us going out and talking to our users, validating our idea, understanding their needs and designing based on that. Nobody else at the hackathon did that. They built based on assumptions, and unfortunately, that is not how design works.

User Experience is more than just whether the tech is easy to navigate. You have to understand your user’s needs and design to meet them — you have to be 100% user centric. One of the ways you do this is applying design thinking: empathize, design, create. It all starts with the research, empathizing with your users in order to meet their needs later in your design. If you jump in without doing this, you are bound to find many of your assumptions were wrong later.

4. Storytelling is crucial

The winning hacks all had a story to tell. It is not enough to build something cool. As much as we love tech, I must state the obvious — we live in a human world, therefore, must connect in a human way. Connect what you built with the human needs it meets, what is the “why” behind what you built? We used a very simple problem-solution-implementation format, making sure that when we demoed, people understood and related to the problem we were proposing a solution for.

Otherwise, what is the point of making something that has no applicable use? What is the point of hacking 36 hours on end, if it will go nowhere? If hackathons were framed more towards this mindset, can you imagine the possibilities that could spring out of there? The ideas turned reality? The potential companies? The solutions to so many problems?

5. Trust

Build a great team dynamic and then trust the expertise within the team. My cofounder and I are complete control freaks and we felt uncomfortable at first giving the reigns of development to our new team member. However, we let go as we saw his receptiveness to our ideas and work and the respect became mutual instantly.

We would brainstorm, strategize, design, all the while communicating it with him to get his feedback. Then he would develop something and run it by us; I was surprised he didn’t hate us when we made him change little things in the design an infinite amount of times — this demonstrated his trust in us though, and that made all the difference. Through this system of collaboration and autonomy with communication being key, we were always on the same page.

Business students — go to a hackathon, get uncomfortable, make something, and learn even more.

Engineer students — be open minded about bringing on business students onto your team.

After all, our team of two business ladies and one engineer took a vision and made it a reality almost overnight…and now we aim on launching it in the very near future.

We want to thank:

  • StartupFIU, especially Bob Hacker, for giving us the right mindset in approaching this competition.
  • The Honors College for teaching us the value of interdisciplinary learning.
  • FIU MangoHacks for hosting and coordinating this wonderful experience.

Tara Demren is a social entrepreneur & insight capturer who is fascinated about startup culture. Tara is also the host of Tea Time with Tara, which curates high quality content for aspiring entrepreneurs and shares life takeaways for all.