–Checking in with the Hip, Hack, Array! Winners Lil Joyce and Hanni Wiegand to see what lessons their success has to offer to corporate innovators everywhere
In 2021, Lil Joyce won second place with her submission Savvy Shoppers at Hackworks’ Hip, Hack, Array! (HHA) virtual hackathon. In just 48 hours, Lil built a website using BERT question answering modeling, BeautifulSoup, and Flask that scrapes the URL a user enters, runs it through the q/a model, and outputs its predicted response to the website’s refund policy.
For Lil, coding is another way to creatively express herself and give form to her passion for societal issues. A passion she shares with her long-term friend, fellow innovator and business partner Hanni Wiegand. At the time, the idea for a q/a model website had been percolating in their minds for a while, but it took the hackathon to give the two recent Cornell graduates the push they needed to turn an idea into action.
Recently, they completed work on an adaptation of Lil’s winning hackathon submission and launched it as a Google Extension for Chrome. The product LUX is a browser extension that notifies users of automatic subscription fees and refund policies when users encounter a website’s terms & conditions agreement. They’ve also founded Ahmed & Joyce LLC, a female founder start-up that builds and supports technology-focused social ventures.
What took place at the hackathon that reinvigorated Lil and Hanni to launch LUX and go after their entrepreneurial passion?
Implementation, not Ideation
Lil had signed up for HHA for the simple reason that she wanted something to do over a weekend that she was stuck at home. The event seemed fun – which it was – and gave her an opportunity to experiment with q/a modelling. She then decided to try building a first iteration of the product Hanni and her had been researching for a while. She committed her weekend to the task, focussing mainly on the building process while exploring her own capabilities. She was impressed – maybe a bit surprised? – at her ability to build a product so complex in just two days.
An internal corporate innovator hackathon provides employees with a venue for self-expression and creativity through technology. It is a period in which they get to focus their effort on bringing their ideas to life rather than on their day-to-day routine. Sometimes, that is all it takes: giving your internal innovators time for hands on exploration and to turn abstract ideas into purposeful action and implementation.
Progress, not Perfection
The basis for any good business plan is solid research confirming customer/product fit, thorough planning, calculated risk management and resourcing. Innovators Hanni and Lil conducted extensive research, held over 100 interviews to validate their product premise, and began planning the development, marketing and launch of LUX – yet they needed the hackathon momentum and excitement to propel them from this stage into the execution stage.
“Perfection is the enemy of progress” is a famous quote by Winston Churchill that still holds a lot of meaning today. It’s in line with other mantras used in the innovation space, like the Fail Fast approach. Most large organizations discourage actions that haven’t been reviewed, approved, and validated up and down the organizational chart to ensure no time is wasted on efforts with a low chance of success. Often enough however, this stringent research, review and approval process is what hinders an internal innovators’ progress. If pushed to decide between perfection and progress, choose progress.
Innovators, not Imposters
What certainly had the most impact on the two young innovators, is the acknowledgement from peers. Lil specifically mentioned the impact the feedback from a fellow woman in tech – Joanne Cavan, Director Software Engineering at Capital One and HHA Judge – had on her: “This established woman in tech saw all kinds of areas of application for Savvy Shoppers. She saw real value in the idea. I felt excited and empowered as a woman in stem.”
The most valuable innovators at your company may be questioning their ideas – or worse – themselves. I’ve seen this play out quite a bit during hackathons and innovation challenges. It’s why access to senior mentors during the development and ideation phase and bringing in executive judges is key to maximize the effect of a hackathon on empowering your in-house innovators. Especially marginalized, introverted or simply employees that have never been encouraged to think outside the box, depend on reinforcing feedback to overcome imposter syndrome and realize their full potential as contributing innovators.