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SheHacks hackathon at BU promotes female tech advancement

For 36 hours during the last weekend in January, more than 1,000 attended one of the largest women’s hackathons ever at SheHacks Boston.

SheHacks Boston organizer Natalie Pienkowska said that the event was a way to counter the “ridiculous” amount of inequality that remains in the modern workplace.

“Women and non-binary individuals are not getting treated the same way as men in the workplace,” Pienkowska said. “We want to inspire women in technology and in other professions to achieve.”

A hackathon is a social event that brings a large number of computer programmers together to build a new software program, generate ideas or further some social goal. Oftentimes, hackathons are designed to offer participants a low pressure, low stress environment to develop ideas and solve problems.

SheHacks Boston organizers said they strived to make attendees feel empowered and to pursue technology as a class, major, hobby or even career. The event offered more than 50 workshops for attendees and made a variety of mentors available to them throughout the day.

Samantha Provenza of Girl Develop It, a nonprofit which provides opportunities for women interested in software development, has experience with all-female hackathons. She was an organizer for Hackentine’s Day, an all-women’s hackathon held last February.

“It’s really important to have a welcoming, non-judging environment for beginners where they can learn new skills, showcase the ones they already have and gain a huge feeling of accomplishment for creating something,” Provenza said.

Providing role models for attendees is also important, a goal the SheHacks Boston organizers tried to meet by selecting an all-female group of keynote speakers.

“We looked for individuals who were excited about inspiring the next generation of female STEMinists,” said Marla Odell, the head of student innovation for SheHacks. “We very deliberately invited speakers with a breadth of backgrounds, experiences, and expertise throughout the technology sector.”

The stellar lineup featured tech entrepreneurs, academics and students. Among them: Julie Johnson, the co-founder and president of Armored Things, a startup using IoT devices to secure venues; robotics guru Cynthia Breazeal, an associate professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is the director of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Laboratory; and Jesslyn Tannady a computer sciences and media arts and sciences major at Wellesley College. Tannady is already making her mark in technology, having developed an augmented reality application for Microsoft’s Hololens that is on track to serve as a prototype for navigation tools for astronauts on Mars.

As for aspiring women technologists, SheHacks’ Pienkowska had some simple advice:

“The most important thing they can do is be confident and spread the confidence in being a techie as a woman,” she said.

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