Wanna Ride the StartupBus? After Meeting Madelena Mak, You Will.

We recently interviewed transgender advocate Madelena Mak, the award-winning UX designer and founder of MiniMap, a map interface that predicts where you'll want to go.

This year, Madelena was the New York City conductor of StartupBus North America 2017. Startup Bus is an international hackathon where 100 hand-picked entrepreneurs are tasked to create a startup (Pitch, MVP, traction and all) within three days—all while on a bus. Buses travel from technology hubs like Akron, Ohio, Mexico City, and San Francisco to a final destination for an epic pitch showdown.

 

Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get involved with StartupBus?

Before StartupBus, I was the chief designer of Trillian, a popular interoperable instant messaging software in the 2000’s. After dedicating my twenties to working on the project, I decided it was time to move on and challenge myself in building new startups in the New York City tech scene.

Networking in Silicon Alley turned out to be difficult. For years it was hard to form any meaningful work relationships in the city, and my first startups after Trillian were actually formed instead with my old friends in Hong Kong.

While going to hackathons, I often saw folks wearing shirts that read “StartupBus” creating amazingly polished products with great pitches, so I assumed that it was where all the elite hackathon hackers hung out.

As I was dealing with immigration issues at the time, I took a gamble and hopped on the bus in search of new opportunities. It was the best bet I had ever made. The strong alumni network helped me through my immigration visa and my career.

 

How did gender play into your experience on StartupBus and the tech world in general?

Before StartupBus, I often ended up stuck in a one-transwoman team during hackathons. It was a dilemma to figure out whether my struggle at forming teams was due to discrimination, a lack of like-minded people, or my own communication skills.

"Despite my credentials, I found it difficult to be heard and to get other teammates interested." 

Very often team members are reluctant to let me take on a leadership role, but are surprised by my design and organizational skills after the fact. Nonetheless, I had won a handful of hackathons all by myself, because I’m good at what I do.

With StartupBus I wanted to apply my experiences to help others in similar situations. Teams are the key to great startups, yet hackathon organizers often neglect the team formation process. When the process is time-limited and haphazard, it encourages participants to stick to their old social habits and gather with the familiar and comfortable, but not take risks with those who can challenge them and produce something different. Etiquettes get thrown out of the window and quickly replaced by stereotypes.

Combined with a largely male participant pool, hackathons often lead to homogenous teams with ideas that only benefit a small segment of the society, and unsafe environments that dissuade female and GNC participants, especially when the hackathon goes overnight.

StartupBus is different because we have a strict interview process to make sure not only that everyone is open and has something unique to offer, but is also respectful and can adhere to our Code of Conduct. We asked everyone to come into their best selves outside their comfort zone.

"The moment the bus got moving, we made sure every ‘busprenuer’ got to pitch their ideas and be heard." 

Each conductor challenged participants to make an impact on the world and expand their vision beyond their own bubble, and to ensure teams stick together for what they believe, rather than with whom they look like. Our conductors are diverse in gender, race, and religion and essentially become role models, offering a wide range of perspectives and ideas.

Technologists often have this utopian point of view that all society’s problems can be solved by new technologies, but it is in fact the visceral, compassionate and urgent face-to-face conversations and hard work at the micro level that truly solve these issues at their roots.

While the bus is already a pressure pot for these young startups to make their idea happen within three days, it is also a melting pot of people with many different backgrounds.

We witnessed conflicts arise because of the discomfort as a result of working with unfamiliar people, but they also get resolved because they all shared a common goal they all wanted to work towards—helping millions more people outside our bus.

We saw a lot of professional as well as personal growth amongst our riders throughout this experience, exactly due to our push for inclusiveness and social impact.

If you could, how would you improve StartupBus in terms of diversity?

Well, to start, I would definitely like to have more time to test out various marketing strategies to help us reach out and appeal to more diverse tech communities.

When I first started organizing, our marketing materials tended to resonate mostly with the generic hackathon demographic (the last time I went to the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon, it was about 80% male), so this year we made the effort to expand our recruitment pipeline, by using more inclusive language and designs in our marketing funnel, and reaching out to more under-represented groups that are outside our own comfort zone.

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Our efforts had certainly paid off, and I am thankful for our co-conductors making this happen.

"We have quite a few stars on the bus with very interesting backgrounds..."

There is a rider in a low-income immigrant family that came to the US from the Arab Spring, a genius gender non-binary designer, and riders coming from social-impact-focused organizations such as Coalition for Queens, Amnesty International, Women 2.0, and Startup Institute. I believe that we can create an even more inclusive bus next year by actively reaching out to these organizations.

Secondly, StartupBus is unique because participants can see the many faces of America outside their own tech bubble, and I would like to see us expand on this unique advantage to reach out to tech communities of different races, genders, income levels and religions along our bus routes.

One of the best decisions we had made this year for our route is to stop by the BIG Incubator by digitalundivided, an incubator for startups with Black and Latino women founders, in Atlanta, Georgia. Not only are their mentors sharp-minded - with unique viewpoints because of their diverse backgrounds - they are also great role models our riders can aspire to. We need more route stops like this next year.

With great diverse teams, startups can create products that impact and benefit the society as a whole. Case in point, this year’s winner, Daisy, a web app that simplifies the funeral planning process, is led by Colleen Lavin, a fierce female hacker, whose idea is so off the road yet intimate and purposeful, it would often get ignored in the usual hackathon setting. And yet, StartupBus made it happen.


About the Interviewer

Anne-Gail Moreland, an intern with Women 2.0, was on the StartupBus. She studies neuroscience at Mount Holyoke College, where she is trying to merge a passion for tech and the brain into a new wave of cognition-based technology.