Campus Life startup diaries

Hacking my way home

Finding my place on campus at my first MIT hackathon

Walking into last week’s t=0 hackathon, the first official hackathon of the school year, I was well aware of my status as a Sloanie, that species of MIT grad student prone to business plan writing and jargon slinging.

As a first-year Course 15, I was still settling in and getting to know my place on campus, a puzzle that I was incredibly anxious to solve. I had arrived on campus a few weeks earlier to scope out the scene, meet new people, and get involved in campus entrepreneurship before orientation week, but still, two weeks into classes, I didn’t have a grasp of where I’d fit in (or stand out) among my peers.

As the hackathon kicked off, more than 100 students graced the stage armed with 30-second idea pitches. Among the lot, I pitched my concept of a peer-to-peer delivery service that enables locals to connect and help each other out with pickups and drop-offs — such as grocery shopping, dry cleaning, and IKEA runs — that fit into their daily routines.

The quality of ideas was high, with students proposing projects that ranged from storytelling apps for children to sunrise-simulating sleeping masks. The anxiety began to kick in: Did anyone like my idea? Was it innovative enough for MIT? Or had I just totally embarrassed myself during the first month of school?

I had come to the hackathon with one teammate, Kiho Suh, a user experience designer from the Rhode Island School of Design. Kiho and I had met two months prior at another MIT startup event, and he had expressed interest in my idea, which I had also pitched at that event.

The two of us, excited to get started, staked out a table together, drew a sign so that interested hackathon goers could find us, and started strategizing. Before long, classmate Ana Villanueva approached us, mentioning that if she didn’t find a team for her social music app idea, she’d love to join us. A glimmer of hope flashed before my eyes and I felt butterflies in my stomach — was Ana our next teammate? After about 10 minutes, fate had its way, and indeed, Ana joined the cause. I was excited to have her on my team as we had volunteered together the prior week at the demo day for Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator, MIT’s summer startup accelerator. We spent that day prepping startup founders before they stepped on stage to demo — through that experience, I had learned that Ana was highly interested in fashion and music technology, worked well in a team, and had a way of making everyone around her feel happy and motivated. I could already tell that this was going to be a fun weekend of hacking.

At about that time, another classmate, Thomas Iljic, a Frenchman who had lived in Japan for the past seven years, stopped by our table to check out the situation. “Are you guys all on a team?” he asked. Ana beamed and explained the concept behind Deliverish, the name I had come in with for the project. By the end of the conversation, we had another almost-convert — Thomas had proposed an idea, too, and was still on the prowl for teammates. If he could generate interest, he was going to go his own way, but if not, he told us, he’d be down to work with us. The positive energy began flowing, and I exclaimed, “We’d love to have you! There’s plenty to do!” He walked off, but within minutes had caved and was back for the adventure. Four strong, we were off to a start.

I had passed my first test as a budding startup founder at MIT — through a 30-second pitch and some quick conversations, I had managed to recruit a team of bright, motivated colleagues to collaborate on a project, and here they were, all sitting at the same table, laptops glowing and ideas flowing, working towards a shared goal.

It was that moment — when we all looked around the table and settled in for a weekend of intense ideation and creation, among homework assignments and other commitments — that I knew I had found my place at MIT. The previous two weeks had been filled with info sessions and orientation events, and as any other doer, I was itching to just get started! “Enough orienting, let’s just do this!” I had thought on a number of occasions.

But there, at the first hackathon of the semester, I was joined by a room of creators and doers — it was exactly what I had expected of MIT and was something I had missed among all the introductory events. I loathed, for example, attending the mandatory career development events, which were targeted at those interested in recruiting, not the group of MBAs interested in starting their own businesses.

With many hackathons and startup competitions ahead of me this year, though, I now know that there will be many opportunities ahead to get my hands dirty. I’m looking forward to digging deeper into MIT’s hacking culture and aiming to further spread that ethos to Sloan, where models and theories currently prevail. Mens et Manus, my fellow students. Let’s rock this!

For Deliverish’s pitch at t=0, see

1 Comment
Crazylearner almost 10 years ago

i think the true meaning of hacking is much broaderits about problem-solving, rejecting limits set by outside forces, curiosity, and a true DIY spirit. In tech terms, it includes reverse engineering (taking stuff apart to learn how it works) and modifying electronics to suit your own needs