Newark, a city transitioning to an aspiring tech Hub, celebrated Newark Tech Week —a full four days of tech-themed events capped off by a minority-focused hackathon at the Rutgers Business School on April 6 and April 7, 2013.
Washington, D.C.-based Blerdology — a name that evokes the science of self-described “black nerds” — organized the hackathon, called #blackhack Newark, which featured entrepreneurs, programmers, experts and a visit from Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
Mayor Booker’s attendance at the event was notable, an acknowledgment that Newark’s growing tech ecosystem is coalescing.
“I am incredibly encouraged by what’s going on here today,” said Booker. “This is the kind of community that creates dynamic change in cities; it’s as simple as that.”
More than 50 people attended the two-day hack, with over 20 of them participating. Nearly half the participants were Rutgers students. They divided into four teams and worked on projects including the brand notification app Loud Whisper and a crowdfunding platform for philanthropists called Capital Cause.
In addition to Rutgers Business School (specifically, the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development), Blerdology partnered with MailChimp, Brick City Development Corp. (BCDC), Newark consultants Medina Citi and Washington energy efficiency firm Opower to organize the hack.
Together they raised proceeds to benefit the Center for Collaborative Change (Newark). The hack followed an April 3, 2013 meetup presented by Rutgers Business School and Scarlet Startups featuring Pumpkin Plan author Mike Michalowicz, an independently organized TEDxNJIT event on April 4, a STEM day at St. Phillips Academy, a tech policy lunch and a happy hour on April 5 hosted by BrickCity Tech Meetup, Lean Startup Machine Newark, Medina Citi and BCDC.
The hack’s winners, Rutgers students Chris Akparanta and Chris Arthur, attended to develop their idea for Campus Bord, a news and events website and app for college campuses. “Sometimes we don’t know about events happening until they’ve already passed,” said Arthur. “The idea is to make [a] campus feel smaller.”
“We had an idea for a project, and we felt this was a good opportunity to look at that idea,” said Akparanta. Akparanta, a junior double majoring in marketing and supply chain management, and Arthur, a junior double majoring in accounting and finance, said they hoped to learn from industry veterans and meet people with technical skills to complement their campus concept. “We get to meet people and share ideas,” said Arthur. “There’s good information here.”
Arthur said that though he and Akparanta are still in the early stages of their idea, they are optimistic about developing it and obtaining venture funding.
“Hopefully someone will get interested and jump on it, and we’ll go from there,” he said.
Blerdology’s cofounder and chief marketing officer, Amanda Spann, said she and her colleague, Kat Calvin, had met at a conference for African-American female entrepreneurs. Spann, a publicist, and Calvin, a lawyer, had both begun startups. Spann said they realized that while they identified with each other, they didn’t always have that connection with other entrepreneurs.
“We felt like we were the only people we knew,” said Spann. “We set out trying to find minority entrepreneurs and developers. We’re trying to create bridges for people who are already in the tech space and … interested in getting involved.”
From her perspective as an African-American, Spann said Blerdology seeks to challenge communities that might dismiss ambitious people as nerds. “We want to let people know that being smart and educated is a great thing,” she said. In that sense, though Blerdology is minority-focused, it welcomes anyone who wants to participate in the tech industry.
Blerdology hosts tech events nationwide. Spann said she and Calvin had chosen to host a hack in Newark because they believe the city, despite being a second-tier market compared with larger cities, has the potential to develop a viable tech community. “There’s a great tech ecosystem here, and we want to come in and connect the dots,” she said.
Two experts who attended the hack, Jamal Jackson and Michael Beverly, flew in from Chicago and Omaha, respectively. Together they run Initiative Consulting Group, which offers legal, financial, marketing and other advice to entrepreneurs (Initiative cosponsored the hack). Jackson and Beverly had first heard about Blerdology through a mutual friend shared with Spann and Calvin.
Jackson said the hack was a good opportunity for both those interested in tech startups and the greater Newark tech community. “There’s an information pool here,” said Jackson. “You can come to learn more about your own skills, bounce ideas off each other and grow the tech industry in your community.”
As an observer looking in, Jackson called Newark an “emerging market in the greater tech scene. There are some growing young tech startups here,” he said. “We’re seeing more established businesses migrate to tech strategies.”