Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

This is hackathon harassment

I was nervous about my first hackathon, but not for the usual reasons.

One year ago, I left the industry because of negative experiences with tech culture. This hackathon was my first time dipping a toe back in, and I was doing so with trepidation.

Nine years in the industry means you lose track of all the harassment. That’s what makes this confession all the more revealing:

What I experienced after my first hackathon was the worst harassment of my career.

This situation extracted a massive emotional, psychological, and professional toll over months. And it’s not the harassment alone, but lack of support from various mentors, coaches, and organizers.

I went from experiencing one person’s harassment to seeing just how deep the issues went at one small event.

This is my Startup Weekend experience.

The Weekend

With only a few hours into Startup Weekend, I already could tell that my partner and I weren’t a good fit.

Things started out great — I pitched an idea, people voted for it, and Mark* volunteered. I shook his hand, excitedly welcoming him to the team. But, while he seemed nice at first, the situation quickly deteriorated.

Now that we were working together, Mark’s intensity, which initially seemed like passion, was an issue. He was difficult to work with, confrontational, and frequently derailed.

As project leader, I worked hard to keep us on track, but he veered off course: obsessing over winning, arguing irrelevant details, and challenging everything. When mentors stepped in and unknowingly made suggestions identical to mine, Mark instantly flipped to agreement.

I once overheard him tell one of the mentors that I was humorless: “She never smiles or jokes around.”

I decided to make the most of the weekend, bad partner fit notwithstanding. I focused on doing my best work, learning from mentors, and using as much advice as possible. After all, it was only 54 hours; at the end of this, I’d never have to see Mark again.

My strategy of staying focused and incorporating feedback worked even better than expected. In fact, the project won first place.

Winning was an incredible feeling, but my stomach immediately filled with dread about Mark. The prize was three tickets to Productized and Alpha Web Summit, including a project booth. The conferences were in the fall, but I didn’t want to work with Mark until then — or at all.

With the weekend over, we didn’t make any agreements. I simply told Mark I needed to figure out next steps. This was true, but what I really needed to figure out was how to fire him.

The Firing

Right after Startup Weekend, the onslaught began.

I told Mark I’d follow up in a week. Instead of waiting, he sent a long list of action items. And then he kept emailing.

Maybe my instructions weren’t clear, I thought, and again asked him to hold off. He quickly agreed — then immediately continued working and sending emails.

This flagrant disregard for boundaries just reinforced what I already knew: Mark had to go.

After consulting with mentors about my rights as project leader, I followed through in the least ego-bruising way possible: thanked him for his work, explained that the partnership wasn’t a good fit, and reassured him that he’d still get tickets.

I was really proud of this email. It was difficult to write, but I thought it struck the perfect balance between kindness, tact, and directness.

A screenshot of the email thanking Mark for his contributions, letting him know I was moving on, and saying he’d still be receiving a prize.

At first, Mark even seemed to accept my decision — he said he would “quietly move out.” I breathed a sigh of relief. That was easier than I thought.

The Intimidation

Except not. An email soon arrived with his first demands.

When I “fired” Mark, I naively thought he’d be happy to still be getting tickets.

I was wrong.

In his email promising to “quietly move out”, Mark asked about the other two Web Summit tickets and booth. When I didn’t respond quickly enough, he sent another email.

While I understand the original idea was yours, I need you to understand that the prize we won together. […] That exhibition booth […] is as much mine as it is yours.

The tickets being offered were exactly what he would have gotten as a team member, but Mark insisted we split the booth so he could show side projects — something which wouldn’t have been possible, even on the team.

I considered: what would a CEO do? I was pretty sure they’d object to a former employee demanding “company” resources for personal projects, and a mentor confirmed this. (Techstars, the organization behind Startup Weekend, doesn’t have official guidance here, which complicates matters.)

I replied briefly, letting Mark know that the project would need the remaining two tickets and booth, then wished him well.

He was furious.

He demanded that I split the booth, or give him five percent of the project.

The threat was between the lines: if I didn’t comply, something worse might happen.

The shift in tone was immediate: he went from friendly to venomous, hurling the word “unilateral” like a slur.

He accused me of stealing his time, energy, and ideas — even though he willingly and unconditionally volunteered, just like any other Startup Weekend participant.

Complying didn’t seem like an option. I could just imagine sitting in a tiny booth beside a bitter ex-project partner, chatting with investors against the backdrop of his deepening fury. Could I even take bathroom breaks for fear of sabotage? And as for five percent, well — there was nothing to give him five percent of.

Another email arrived before I could respond. It was the worst yet. Mark had contacted the Startup Weekend organizers, asking them to split the booth. When they told him it wasn’t possible, his rage turned back to me.

Now he wasn’t a two day project volunteer — he was apparently a “cofounder”.

His demands increased to all three tickets and the whole booth, or five percent of the project.

And if I didn’t capitulate, Mark said he wouldn’t leave the project, period.

If the answer to both questions is No, I simply do not agree with your unilateral decission [sic] and I will continue being part of [Project] as CMO. I will be at the booth in WebSummit, representing [Project] and solving investor’s doubts. […] By the way, I have designed some cool [Project] t-shirts. I will be wearing mine at the booth. If you tell me your t-shirt size I can make you one too.

He was acting like an employee who refuses to leave after being fired. Although it may seem ludicrous, his email is a perfect example of how someone can be terrifying without outright fury.

He didn’t use all caps. He didn’t swear. He didn’t yell. All he did was calmly… threaten. Subtly… insinuate. And distance himself from reality, little by little.

This t-shirt thing sounds like a trap.

The Recap

It’s hard to have perspective on this, even now. What’s it like from the outside looking in? Does he sound silly? Frightening? Unhinged? I honestly don’t know. All I know is what I thought at the time:

“He wants me to be afraid. He wants me to feel powerless.”

As much as I resisted, I did feel all of those things: afraid that he might sabotage the project before high-powered investors; powerless to stop him from invading my booth at the conference.

He felt entitled to behave this way after just two days at a hackathon.

Strangely, he even knew the partnership wasn’t working out that weekend. He told me several times, “When this is over, you can kick me to the curb.” I couldn’t help but wonder: if the project won, was this always his plan? Or was this just how he handled any perceived slight?

He closed his final demand with this appeal:

“Let’s not fall into bad vibes because of this bitter begginning [sic]. Going to WebSummit is pretty exciting and a huge opportunity and we should enjoy it and make the most out of it.”

His detachment from reality was so great that he viewed himself as a generous peacemaker, and me as a bitter aggressor. Yet, he always had the choice to peacefully go to Web Summit and “make the most” of the situation.

It reminded me of how abusers often twist themselves into magnanimous protagonists or hapless victims, even in the most reprehensible situations. The only person making the situation bad was Mark, and Mark alone.

The Mentors

Mark wasn’t the only person whose behavior stood out. Startup Weekend bills local mentors as one of the event’s biggest selling points:

“A key part of every Techstars Startup Weekend is the valuable advice and assistance provided by the event’s Speakers and Coaches.” — Techstars FAQ

It’s true that many mentors were helpful during the event. Two coaches even gave advice that was fundamental to the project’s win.

But mentorship goes beyond Startup Weekend. Many mentors added me on social media for ongoing support. When the harassment began, I reached out. Yet, almost every person I contacted actively fueled a sexist garbage fire.

As a person seeking help with an abusive situation, suddenly I saw the toxic pervasiveness of harassment apologism among the event’s staff and volunteers.

It was abundantly clear to me that none of the mentors were appropriately trained to deal with harassment. (One mentor even posted disturbing sexual content on Facebook.)

When I reached out to a mentor for help immediately, he told me to empathize with Mark — to “overlook his bitterness”, “try to feel his pain”, and “make him happy”.

I understood his pain, I explained. Yes, being fired sucks. But Mark’s reaction wasn’t okay—

The mentor brushed it off: “everyone reacts differently.” Then he told me something I’ll never forget: “karma bites back.”

In other words, I’d be sorry if I didn’t appease Mark.

I’ve heard some pretty horrific, victim-blaming shit. But I’ve never been told I’ll be karmically punished for not appeasing a harasser.

Key quotes: “[His anger] is usual.” /// “Try to feel his pain.” /// “Talk to him and make him happy. Karma […] always bites back.” /// “Without him […] [Project] wouldn’t have been born.” /// “You 2got together the baby [Project] was born.”

Another Web Summit mentor/organizer asked me to justify my “early [partnership] split” when I sent him the same heads up message as other mentors.

“I am not trying to be too invasive in the reasons, but would like to know the reasons of the early split.”

This mentor said he wasn’t trying to be invasive, but he was. On its own, this question might seem innocent. But repeat times five, ten, or twenty, and it gets exhausting — especially when people don’t need to know.

For a point of comparison, here’s what trust looks like in the same situation:

“Thanks for letting me know, [I’m] sure you had good reasons and I’m glad to hear that you’ll continue on with [Project].” I love this response.

Beyond this, I was baffled. Why would a two-day project automatically become an extended obligation? Even Techstars clarifies this:

Whether or not you continue to work on the idea with some or all of your team is completely up to you. Approximately 25% of Techstars Startup Weekend participants continue working on their idea with all of their team. — Techstars FAQ

So, it wasn’t an “early split” after all. Unfortunately, neither official guidelines nor organizers had clear ideas on how to proceed.

The Mental Calculus

Meanwhile, I considered Web Summit. With an ex-partner threatening to show up at my booth, could I could even go?

While Mark eventually backed off, I didn’t know if the peace would last or trust he’d be willing to drop it.

I seesawed for close to four months.

“If I stay home, am I letting a harasser win?”

“If I go, how dangerous is he?”

“If I stay, am I just one more woman who was scared away from important opportunities?”

I was so concerned I even did a The Gift of Fear threat assessment. This attempt to predict violence was inconclusive, which only deepened my anxiety.

I was being forced to choose between personal safety and professional opportunity at the world’s biggest technology conference.

The choice of “will I be safe at this tech event?” is not something anyone should have to consider. Yet, this is in fact a mental calculus which women have to do all the time.

Ultimately, it was just too stressful. I cancelled the trip at my own expense. “Winning” against a harasser wasn’t worth my safety.

The Tickets

Four months after Startup Weekend, I disavowed myself from the prize winnings and donated them all. My only hope was that people who aren’t normally represented in tech would go instead — then this awful experience could be reclaimed into something positive.

Everyone I talked to was supportive of this plan, including the one incredible mentor who helped me throughout.

Just do whatever you feel like, they’re your tickets. I guess my only advice would be to give them to deserving people who would greatly benefit from the Web Summit. I’m sure you’ll find the right people.

I took my mentor’s advice to heart, and I definitely found the right people.

However, one local organizer saw a Facebook post about this. He was short on information, yet suddenly very long on opinions.

Translation: I have zero information about this and I didn’t see anything bad happening so it obviously must not be real.

The thought of educating another clueless mentor was exhausting and

I

Was

Over

It

Yes, I could explain it again.

Yes, I could dredge up the screenshots.

Yes, I could re-litigate the entire thing.

But it was three in the morning. It had been four months. And I was so very, very tired.

He was already familiar with the issue (and admitted as much). If he was truly the kind of person who cared about harassment, he could have said,

“Wow, I had no idea it was this bad. That sounds completely unacceptable. We can figure out the right thing to do with the tickets after we get this harassment sorted out.”

But that isn’t what he said, because he’s the kind of person who believes everything from an “early split” to harassment must be proven to him, a jury of one. (On LinkedIn, he later said I was welcome to “show evidence” of the harassment. Translation: I don’t believe you. Prove it.)

One of the best things a therapist ever said to me was, “This isn’t a court of law. The public isn’t a jury, and you don’t have to prove yourself.”

I’ve dealt with people like this mentor in the court of public opinion; I already know how that conversation goes. No mountain of evidence is enough. No argument is sufficient. His mind was already made up; anything I did or said would reinforce his confirmation bias.

So, I blocked him and went to bed.

And so he messaged the other Startup Weekend organizers.

He conveniently omitted the harassment he’d known about for months, yet clearly articulated his deep and abiding concerns about prize allocation.

He even invented a Hong Kong Startup Weekend for me to attend that weekend. Now, this was news to me. (And I still don’t know why my fictional event attendance was relevant — after all, I wasn’t the one harassing people.) But I do wish I was in Hong Kong. Then I could at least rage-eat soup dumplings.

Is “Personal discussion” what they’re calling “harassment” these days?

The Solace

There is a light at the end of this tunnel.

When I saw the WhatsApp message from the mentor above, I snapped. I was officially done with everyone and everything who had anything to do with that Startup Weekend event.

Because there’s a problem when organizers are more concerned about prizes than harassment.

There’s a problem when mentors defend harassers and post sexually explicit content.

There’s absolutely a problem when organizers outright lie.

I did it: I sent in the official Techstars harassment report. And, so far, they’ve responded quickly and taken these issues very seriously.

As they should. Even setting aside the harassment and sexism I experienced, everything that happened with the mentors, coaches, and organizers in this situation was outrageous.

Harassment created a negative and stressful experience, but the mentors made it worse.

I trusted those mentors, coaches, and organizers to be my allies, but they weren’t.

I discovered obvious policy loopholes create grey areas where harassment is more likely to occur.

And I learned a Code of Conduct is only as good as the people enforcing it .

Most importantly, any person who goes to hackathon staff or volunteers should know that they’ll get consistency and compassion. No one knew about the harassment form, nor did they know that deliberate intimidation violates the Code of Conduct.

Tech harassment — and harassment in general — isn’t just sexual. Sometimes it’s stalking. Sometimes it’s bullying. Sometimes it’s intimidation. I know too many people who’ve been impacted by workplace harassment related to their gender, sexual orientation, appearance, race, and more.

No matter what form harassment takes, and no matter where it happens, we need to do better.

Kimberly is a writer, photographer, and former technologist. Startup Weekend was her first public hackathon. She may eventually go to another, but probably not in “Hong Kong”.

*Name changed