All-women hackathon promotes diversity

Photo courtesy of Kelly Lampotang

Kelly Lampotang hacks — and she wants to see more women take a crack at it, too.

Lampotang, a sophomore majoring in computer engineering and computer science, founded AthenaHacks after participating in hackathons her freshman year and realizing she was frequently the only female team member.

“Every single time, I was always the only girl on my hackathon teams,” she said. “The friends that you would usually go to hackathons with were always guys. There aren’t many women in hackathons.”

Less than 20 percent of hackathon attendees are women, according to Lady Problems Hakathon, an organization that examines issues regarding women in technology. A hackathon features developers of varying skill levels banding together to cultivate technology solutions to issues in everyday life.

After attending an all-female hackathon in the Bay Area, Lampotang was inspired to host one for Southern California and expand the idea of an all-female hackathon to the region.

“I expected it to be really great, but it was not as great as it could have been,” Lampotang said. “I wanted to make something for SoCal that was as great as a real hackathon, but also all females.”

Fellow Viterbi undergraduates Catherine Chung, Ilona Bodnar, Sampurna Basu and Yingyu Sun joined Lampotang as the five co-founders of AthenaHacks. They then recruited 10 other women to help plan the event and work toward their mission of supporting and nurturing women in tech.

Yingyu Sun, a sophomore majoring in computer science, is one of the five founding females of AthenaHacks. She also recognized the need for such an event to take place.

“This is something that’s pretty rare,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of all-female hackathons in the country even.”

In addition to hosting the hackathon, AthenaHacks will host a slew of skill-building, social and professional workshops for all who identify as female. According to Lampotang, the workshops range from introduction to programming to advanced skills and technical specialty workshops; however, they are normally for beginners.

“These are usually geared towards people who haven’t been to a hackathon before,” Lampotang said. “Find something that you want to work on, gain some basic knowledge, then go in with your actual team and build something from what you learn.”

Sun also said she wanted AthenaHacks to focus on beginner’s workshops.

“Hackathons can be pretty scary to start, especially if it’s your first time,” she said. “What we really want AthenaHacks to be is a way for beginners to learn more about what they can do and have that support system there for them to do what they want to.”

Corporations such as Facebook will send representatives and host a workshop. Others, like Zynga, will sponsor prizes.

Marsela Sulku, a sophomore majoring in computer science, stated that the accessibility of companies surprised her.

“It’s cool to know how connected we are,” she said. “It opened my eyes.”

According to Lampotang, a diverse array of companies were willing to help.

“A lot of companies are excited about the idea [of having] an all-female hackathon for the diversity aspects,” she said. “And I think that they recognize that there’s a huge imbalance right now in how many women currently attend hackathons.”

Sulku and Sun both acknowledge that they have seen this imbalance recently. They were the only two girls in a group of six for a group project.

“I think people use girls in tech almost as a token of diversity,” Sun said. “But I think there’s more to that than just having them be there. People need to realize that we’re not just there to make things diverse.”

Sun credits faculty and staff from USC for helping bring the vision to life and rallying for their cause.

“People are really responsive, and if they can’t do anything, they’ll forward us to someone else,” she said. “It’s nice to know that people out there care.”

The hackathon will also be providing free feminine products and donating money to local women-centric charities in the hackathon’s winners’ names.

“I think AthenaHacks provides an area where everyone’s on the same boat,” Sulku said. “It’s the first step to feeling more comfortable in this industry, which is important.”

AthenaHacks will be held from April 8 to 9. In addition to undergraduate and graduate students, high school girls are also eligible to participate.

“The whole goal is to get more women to go to [AthenaHacks],” Lampotang said. “Maybe they’ll see that it’s a good environment, be less intimidated by the whole thing and go to more hackathons.”