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San Francisco-based Hackbright Academy offers 10-week software engineering fellowships for women, and last weekend, on October 5, they hosted their first female-focused hardware hackathon called Silicon Chef. Ladies signed up with teams of 5–7 people. Each team was then given one box of parts and one microcontroller with which to come up with an innovative solution to a problem in the world.

The event was a huge success, with 150 women participating. We touched base with event organizers Liz Howard and Christina Liu to find out more. Liz said, “The event was amazing, 20 teams presented hardware projects using Arduino, Leap motion controllers, and other hardware. We were 80% women, and had an amazing group of mentors that removed barriers for everyone involved.” Shannon Spanhake, Deputy Innovation Officer for the City of San Francisco, even presented Hackbright Academy with a certificate of recognition for their work done in empowering women in programming. Here’s more of what Liz shared about the event.

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1. What is the basic premise of the Silicon Chef Hackathon?
Silicon Chef is a beginner-focused, female-focused hackathon promoting skills in hardware. We’re trying to make sure everyone actually works on a hardware-based project, so we’re giving away Arduinos to teams that participate in order to promote learning about hardware hacking to those who might not otherwise get a chance.

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2. What inspired its creation and have you done similar events in the past?
I run a school called Hackbright Academy, which is a software engineering fellowship for women. Christina was a fellow of that program, and she had the idea to get more women into the DIY space. We basically just thought it would be cool, and ran with it.

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3. Why is it important to host female-only events like this? What do you hope to accomplish?
It’s important because it inspires people who might think they don’t belong in the community to join. Building things is way more awesome when people with different perspectives get together to have ideas, and make them happen.

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4. Tell us about Hackbright Academy: how did it get started and what is the goal?
Hackbright got started in response to the male-dominated culture of Silicon Valley. Christian Fernandez, an accomplished teacher, programmer, and maker noticed when women were in a group together they asked more questions, and weren’t afraid of making the kinds of mistakes you have to make while learning. Along with David Phillips, his business partner, they decided to start a school. It was a combination of injustice they’d seen in the past and loving to teach that made them start the school. At this point, Hackbright is driven by the change we’d like to see, which is better gender representation in tech.

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5. What are each of your backgrounds and roles? How did you get interested in engineering?
Christina is a Hackbright fellow. She went through the program and got a job as a software engineer shortly thereafter. I’ve been a programmer for 13 years, and I teach and am Director of Operations at Hackbright.

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6. What advice do you have for young women who are interested in engineering?
My best advice for young women (or any women) who are interested in engineering is to put yourself out there. Don’t worry that you’ve got to ask questions – asking doesn’t mean you don’t know. It means you’re about to. Overcoming the inclination to “not get in the way” is probably the most difficult part, not the math, the logic, the wiring. That stuff is just learning to look things up, learning to dig into things. The hard part is getting out of your own way.

hackbright_academy_silicon_chef_2013_organizersEvent organizers Christina Liu (left) and Liz Howard (right).

Goli Mohammadi

I’m a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

I was an editor for the first 40 volumes of MAKE. The maker movement provides me with endless inspiration, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. Covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made.

Contact me at snowgoli (at) gmail (dot) com.


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