Trailblazers Startup Weekend Durham American Underground 2015

{{ story.headline }}

{{ story.subheading }}

{{ story.timestamp }}

The Triangle has hosted a number of Startup Weekends in a number of verticals, but none have been so diverse—in all aspects of the word—as this past weekend’s Triangle Startup Weekend Trailblazers.

On the surface, the weekend was similar to most Startup Weekends. Whether from the Mati Tea or sheer excitement, the room overflowed with energy at the team presentations on Sunday. The weekend’s facilitator from Pittsburgh, Lee Ngo, best displayed the energy when he cartwheeled onto the stage to kick off the presentations. 

The format was also mostly the same—it began with a keynote from Bryan Young, a former entrepreneur and current intrapreneur at Marketo, Inc., who among other things, advised the teams to find the level of success that worked best for them and remember to try to have a healthy work-life balance. Team presentations were up next, followed by judging, the announcement of the winners, and an after party on American Underground’s rooftop patio.

But the details—who attended, the ideas that were pitched, and the types of companies that formed around ideas and problems—differed from other Triangle Startup Weekends in that they were more diverse than any weekend to date.

The 63 participants hailed from diverse ethnic, social, regional, religious and professional backgrounds. They ranged in age from 16 to late 50s. And the nine ideas pitched and fleshed out over the weekend sought to solve problems like finding enough diverse talent to fill tech jobs in the Triangle and helping diabetics more accurately identify the number of carbohydrates in food.

The lead organizer and American Underground’s Entrepreneur in Residence, Talib Graves-Manns said, “Our objective was to get people from all walks of life and background into one room.”

The numbers of participants hailing from each demographic weren’t available as of press time, but a quick scan around the room could tell any bystander the organizers hit their goal out of the park.

So how did they do it? Why is it important that this level of diversity is present at a Startup Weekend? What does it mean for the Triangle’s several diversity initiatives? And what does it mean for the Triangle’s startup ecosystem as a whole? If you’ll indulge me for the next few minutes, I’ll try to answer these questions while recapping the event itself (read our preview here).

Why Increasing Diversity at Startup Weekends Is Important

Many and more experts, journalists and business leaders have written about why diversity is important for businesses of all sizes to embrace and expand. How diversity’s absence is negatively impacting startups and large corporations has also been discussed at length.

The primary reasons diversity is important is to help fill the ever increasing job/skills gap in the tech world and to have the new perspectives and strategies people of diverse backgrounds bring to the table. Those are important for Startup Weekends too.

Startup Weekends are instrumental to our region’s startup ecosystem for a number a reasons. First, they give startup experience to those without any. They connect entrepreneurs with other entrepreneurs and startup support organizations, exposing everyone to the resources and talent that exist in a community. They are a hotbed for ideation, iteration and growth. And sometimes successful companies are born from them.

But, if our Startup Weekends attract the same people every time, and if those people all have similar backgrounds and experiences, there might not be as wide a variety of ideas born from the weekends. We also aren’t taking advantage of the full range of talent in our region.

The variety of ideas presented at Trailblazers was impressive. The weekend’s winning team, CarboRater, led by serial entrepreneur Justin Rothwell, combined a food scale with powerful software that let users photograph their food on the scale and see in an app the exact number of carbohydrates in it based on the weight. For the typical person, this might seem like an unneeded step in meal preparation. But for a person with or parent of a child with type 1 diabetes (Justin’s son has the disease), this tool could at a minimum save time and stress and at a maximum prevent mistakes that could take a life.

The second place team, Wandergram, led by Amanda Heironimus, was only similar to CarboRater in that it also used pictures and was an app. Wandergram’s mission is to, “take you from wondering about something to actual wandering.” The app allows a user to save pictures, links or descriptions of destinations found online and use them to create travel itineraries.

Another team, MultiThreaded, tackled the lack of diversity in tech and startup companies head on. Molly Demarest, senior director for operations and finance at the American Underground came to watch the pitches on Friday, and ended up pitching the idea that turned into MultiThreaded, a process for connecting more students of color, with tech skills, and subsequently with startups or tech companies seeking new talent.

How to Increase Diversity

One way the TSW Trailblazers team encouraged diverse attendance was through a strategic partnership with AT&T, which offered an additional prize (iPads) and an entry in its national “Connect Ability Challenge” to the team that designed the best solution for people with disabilities. Several people with visual impairments attended and participated in the event and two teams formed to create solutions for the visually impaired.

Trailblazers Startup Weekend Team
Francisco Chavez, center of Uniting NC, led the BlankApp team at Trailblazers Startup Weekend.

AT&T selected BlankApp (pictured above) as that winner. Led by Francisco Chavez, who has a visual impediment, BlankApp allows the visually impaired to notify companies and websites when they are unable to find crucial information or buttons on their sites. The app allows the user to press one button that sends the feedback about the site to the company.

The other team was KinderWalk, an app that helps the visually impaired navigate through buildings by vibrating to indicate when to turn, how many steps to take and when to expect stairs or other obstacles.

Would these solutions have been created if the visually impaired participants had not been present? While I can’t say for sure, I’d say it’s highly unlikely.

The primary way organizers advertised the event and diversified Trailblazers was by inviting people within their personal and professional networks. Because most of the organizers were people of color, and only one had organized an event in the past, their networks naturally differed from those involved in the past.

These two small tweaks—having a new and more diverse organizing team—made a marked difference in the event’s level of diversity.

How Trailblazers Impacts the Triangle

Graves-Manns says the organizing team plans to continue engaging with the Trailblazer participants and will “encourage them to play a major part in building a diverse and inclusive business environment in Durham.”

Future initiatives, events or programs intended to increase diversity will also incorporate the strategies these organizers used to foster an inclusive environment and engage underrepresented populations.

When he visited for his Rise of the Rest tour in May, Steve Case, co-founder of AOL said the Triangle could become the model for increasing diversity in startup hubs based on its dedication and momentum so far.

This past weekend was one step toward that. But the true success in diversifying the tech and startup world will come when events like Trailblazers are no longer necessary because diversity is automatically embedded into our culture.