Interview with Sharon Lin, Winner, White House Champions of Change

By Women 2.0

Women 2.0 takes a moment to catch up with Sharon Lin, a Senior at Stuyvesant High School, who recently founded two non-profits to encourage girls from marginalized backgrounds to learn computer science. She's a winner of the White House Champions of Change program.

W2: What were some of the factors that led you to become an entrepreneur? How has your past experience gotten you to where you are now?

SL: I've always been interested in taking on new projects, whether they were technical challenges or community-based efforts. Combining my passions into an organization that could help serve other students seemed like the best possible way to share computer science and entrepreneurship with students in New York who would otherwise not have an opportunity to showcase their talents to the greater community. From volunteering for organizations such as Key Club and working as a state officer in the Technology Student Association and CTSOs, I've gained a number of important leadership experiences and lessons that have allowed me to execute my project in an effective and successful way.

W2: What problem did you see that inspired you to start your organization?

SL: I started attending hackathons my sophomore year of high school. After competing at around a half dozen or so, I started noticing a pattern - not only were there usually few girls present at these events, but there was usually a huge lack of diversity among attendees. I didn't often see students from underprivileged backgrounds, even though these hackathons were almost always free and available to all students. This realization led me to start a diverse student-focused hackathon that would allow additional opportunities for students to discover their passions for creating projects and programming, and to develop these skills alongside other talented and motivated young individuals who would be able to help them develop a community surrounding these activities.

W2: Who do you serve? Why is your solution uniquely positioned to address their problem?

SL: I seek to bring opportunities to students of all backgrounds, especially those from lower socioeconomic standings or traditionally marginalized communities. As a woman of color in computer science, even as a student, I've already experienced a lot of setbacks and prejudice, and I know that the status quo among technology-based companies is similar. As a result, providing a strong support system and confidence early on in a student's career can hugely impact the degree to which they feel capable of their abilities, and the enthusiasm they have for their passions. StuyHacks is unique in that it not only offers a 24-hour free-for-all in which students are able to forget about the stress and responsibilities in their life for even a few hours in order to work on projects that interest them, but its diverse group of individuals and hackers also provides the perfect atmosphere for collaboration between students of all backgrounds interested in computing.

W2: Being an entrepreneur isn't easy. What's the biggest challenge your organization has faced so far and how did you handle it?

SL: While StuyHacks has faced numerous difficulties, perhaps the hardest so far has been sponsorship. Because we are entirely non-profit and student-run, with a Board of Directors of seven high school students, we have to overcome numerous barriers in terms of legalities surrounding fundraising and budgetary constraints. There is also the social stigma of approaching companies as a teenager asking for partnership for our event. Nonetheless, through the process, our team has developed a reliable workflow and skills in negotiation that have allowed us to drastically increase the efficiency at which we're able to raise funds for our hackathons and events.

W2: What resources have been especially helpful to you as you’ve built your organization?

SL: One of the best resources you can have as an entrepreneur, or really as anyone starting a large-scale project for the first time, is a support network. I began StuyHacks with a couple of my friends without a lot of experience running hackthons - none, in fact. Surprisingly enough, I was still able to attract the attention of a few New York-based hackathon organizers who quickly agreed to help out with the organization, whether it was in finding a venue, donating food, or helping find judges for the event. By the time the first StuyHacks hackathon had occurred, I had made numerous friends and formed lasting relationships with a wide range of people - many of whom I still respect and look up to today. I think finding inspiration and mentorship in peers and others in your field is definitely one of the best assets you can have when starting an organization.

W2: Based on your experience, what’s the biggest takeaway you can give to other Founders?

SL: One of my mantras going into StuyHacks, as well as for life in general, is to keep your head high and always be on the lookout for opportunities. While we often believe that taking risks is necessary for any form of entrepreneurship, it's often more difficult to do than to say. As a result, having a keen insight for what decisions can lead to the most gain, and which people can help you in which ways can really change the way you view both yourself and the potential for your organization. I've always found assessing my situation and making the best of what I have a reliable index for which I can base my later decisions and actions, as well as for deciding which opportunities to pursue.

W2: What’s next for you and your organization and where do you need help or support?

SL: StuyHacks is still going strong, and we're planning two hackathons for the upcoming year, both of which are slated to grow in both size and impact! I'm also excited to share that we're going to be increasing opportunities for students outside of our hackathon, whether it's showcasing their projects after the event to meetups or working with mentors on developing their skills. We're also hoping to launch additional philanthropy initiatives to help support local computer science efforts, as well as to help grow our hackathon and other metropolitan hackathons to include an even greater diversity of student hackers.

Sharon Lin is a senior at Stuyvesant High School, and the founder of BitxBit Camp and StuyHacks, two non-profits focused on increasing participation in computer science among communities of girls from marginalized backgrounds.