If you’ve never attended a Hackathon, you’re missing out. They are fascinating to observe. Today, for example, I am sitting in a room filled with intelligent adults who are jumping up and down, popping in and out of rooms, and practically shouting at one another. Ideas shoot across the space like balls of lightning.
At these events “hackers,” or problem-solvers, zoom from understanding a problem to prototyping in just a few days. That’s fast. Insanely fast.
Hackathons are intensely collaborative, too. After hearing out the challenges, a hacker races to form a team that will compensate for the skills she’s missing. Teams can comprise designers, computer programmers, data scientists, project managers–whoever is needed to make the team’s idea succeed. Hackers brainstorm together, creating ideas and then persuading others to join them. Hence the almost-yelling happening around the room.
The room itself is a fresh, Spartan white except for the red painted pipe accents. It’s clearly a space meant to inspire–but then get out of the way! Ideas are coming through! We’re at General Assembly, an NYC education institution and community that regularly hosts Hackathons like this one.
I try to stay out of everyone’s way. But as I weave through the energized crowd, I bump into a tall guy with glasses.
“Oops! Excuse me,” he says with a smile. He turns around again, and I see a Chihuahua in a mini red hoodie perched on his shoulder. Whatever gets the ideas flowing, I guess.
Today is Sunday. We’re on the third and final day of Food+Tech Connect’s Hack//Dining event. This annual hackathon hinges on how technology might aid the food & dining industries. It’s in its fifth year. Chefs and restaurant experts have joined the usual hackathon suspects to tackle the challenges presented by partners Applegate, Google, Chipotle, Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group. The topics include customer-company communication, consumer nudging, sustainability, and food safety, respectively. Why address these areas? Food+Tech Connect has determined them “under-hacked.”
The well-organized madness rivals any other hackathon. The mouth-watering catering, I think as I stuff my mouth with kale salad and risotto, is second to none.
And the brains behind this event is CEO and Founder of Food+Tech Connect, Danielle Gould. She’s in the middle of a critical event, so I have to wait to get a few minutes of her time. Even during our interview, Gould gets pulled away briefly by someone in need of her managerial expertise. But I don’t mind. I love seeing how integral she is to this event. In our conversation, she is eager and captivating, full of energy and passion for the people she’s brought together. Here’s a recount of our chatting:
How about we start at the beginning. I heard Food+Tech Connect (FTC) and Hack//Dining all came out of a blog you were writing. What got you interested in food & technology? And what inspired you to blog about it?
I was working for a company called Bright Farm Systems, and we designed rooftop green houses. It was there my boss had me start tweeting our press releases. And I just fell in love with Twitter. Mostly because I just got really fascinated with information flow, and I realized that a huge issue in food is there’s a lack of information flow — whether it’s for business or whether it’s understanding what you’re eating–and that technology can play a huge role in fixing it.
So I started writing about it, about information technology and food. This was four years ago when no one was talking about it. Then a couple people from all over the world reached out to me to say, “I had no idea anyone else was thinking about this!” They would tell me what they were working on, so I started interviewing them. And that’s kind of how it all started.
How long did you have the blog before you thought this could be a full time thing?
I guess it was 6 months when I left my job, but I left not because I wanted to turn the blog into a full-time thing. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just wasn’t happy with what I was doing. So I just was like, “Okay, I have three month’s rent and a little bit extra, and I’m just gonna figure it out.” And that’s what I did.
You know, the first year of Food+Tech Connect, I was only blogging once a week. It was more of an exploratory time for me. And then I started to get more committed.
It was just you in the beginning. Is this when your coworkers Nina and Tracy joined you?
No, no, no. Tracy joined like 3 months ago, and Nina joined a year ago.
Got it. And then what made you decide to run a hackathon? Had you participated in them before?
No! [laughs] In 2009, because I was in this exploratory place and it was when I was only writing, I would find myself in really strange places — in a cool way. One of the only groups who were being open with information was the government. Obama had just made this open government data mandate. I ended up at a conference with Tim Berners-Lee, who’s the founder of the World Wide Web. It was really nuts. They were talking about how there was going to be this international open government data day happening in like 6 weeks and how all over the world there were going to be people hacking on open government data. And I was like, “Let’s do a food hackathon!” [laughs] So that was our first.
And was it this big of a turn out?
[Laughs] Not quite! We had six weeks to plan. I think we had like a thousand dollars. We had sixty or seventy people who showed up, and it was eight hours [long]. So it was a much smaller thing. But it was clear that there was a hunger for more, so the next year we did something that was slightly bigger and then, you know, each year they keep getting bigger.
How many people are at this hackathon?
We have 250 in total. I think we have about 170 that are hacking. We have a huge waiting list. We just keep it limited because of space and because these hackathons are better when they’re a little smaller.
Why is that?
It’s more intimate. It’s easier for people to form groups. It becomes more manageable for everyone. That’s what we’ve learned.
You’re running your own company. I’ve often read that the top can feel lonely, especially for women. What has been your experience?
Yea, it is lonely. It’s also because I don’t have a co-founder, so it really gets lonely. I think for anyone starting your own business is very overwhelming. Having to make sure that you can pay your bills and–What happens when you can’t pay your bills? Then as you start to scale and you start to bring on employees, making sure that you can pay their salary. It’s lonely. You make all the decisions. But it’s also so rewarding! I love what I do.
What advice do you have for women who are starting their own businesses or passion blog projects?
I say trust your intuition and be confident. Try not to say, “Um!”
And everyone fucks up at some point or another. Everyone feels overwhelmed, and everyone is a shit-show sometime. I just read Hatching Twitter, which was great. One of the big takeaways–aside from the fact that I love Twitter so it was great to read their story–was that they were a mess, a complete mess! They were a mess from the very beginning.
When they first launched, they launched a site that they threw together in two weeks, and for years they couldn’t fix the platform. They had too many people on there, so they were just kind of taping it together. I don’t know how long you’ve been on Twitter, but it used to be that it was down all the time. That’s where the Fail Whale got so famous. That’s where the FAIL came from. Because their servers couldn’t handle it, they had all these glitches, all these issues. That was one thing on the tech side, but then internally there were a lot of challenges and differences of opinion on how to organize a company.
At some point or another everyone doesn’t know what they’re doing; everyone makes mistakes. Everyone makes bad choices and feels lonely. And so I think it’s comforting to know that you’re not the only person. It comes with the territory.
FTC does much more than Hackathons. What does your day-to-day look like?
I answer a lot of emails. We’re now launching online education, so we’re doing business classes for food and food tech entrepreneurs. And that’s been really exciting. It’s this whole new area that it turns out we’re actually really good at and I love. So I’m doing a lot of curriculum development right now with teachers and talking to a lot of potential teachers to start classes that aren’t available anywhere else.
What are some of the topics being offered?
The first course we launched was Food Start-up Branding 101, which is a great intro to branding that’s tailored for food entrepreneurs. It takes you through the whole process of figuring out how to understand who are your customers and then how to interview them. [It’s about] Figuring out what your brand positioning statement is, then using that to develop a brand strategy and then how to apply that, for example, to social media.
During this hackathon, we did two more classes. We did an intro to technology strategies for restaurants, and then one on branding your restaurant for growth of scale. And what’s cool about the second one is that we had Felicia Stingone, who is the former CMO of Union Square Hospitality Group, which is all of Danny Meyer’s restaurants. She’s never talked before, but she’s so brilliant, and I said to her, “Would you ever consider sharing your knowledge with other restaurants.” She jumped at the opportunity, so she distilled something like twenty-two years of her career into ninety minutes.
We’re going to be developing it into a full course. She was great. She did a class yesterday, and it’ll be going online in August. For anyone to access. So we’re offering in-person and online education. I’m really excited about it.
FTC is also partnering with Studio Industries for this hackathon. Studio Industries is responsible for the design element of this challenge.
Yea, the design hacking model, which is basically just taking the best of design thinking and hackathons and creating a framework for people to hack better and faster throughout the weekend.
Is this the first time y’all have incorporated that element into the hackathon?
Yes, we brought in design thinking in the past, but we realized that in some ways design thinking and hackathons are at odds with one another.
Design thinking is a long, non-linear process of understanding a user’s needs, building up empathy, figuring out what their latent needs are, and then coming up with solutions for them. In hackathons, it’s this fast prototyping and you come and you pitch an idea and then you start hacking. So it’s kind of at odds particularly because these are such difficult challenges, people want to come in and start getting to work, but we’re saying, “No! Take a step back and examine the challenges!”
So for this [year], we came up with a hybrid that is a toolkit framework that people can use. It started with some very basic guided deep dives into the challenges and understanding the users and their own pathway. And then we had pitches. People have been able to use the tools over the weekend if they want to.
I was really impressed by the turnout of women here. You’ve been doing this for a few years now. Have you seen and change or trends?
I definitely think I see more women hacking, and I wish there were more. I wish there were more everyone learning how to use technology. Because the thing is that our events bring together farmers and restaurateurs—and I mean of course I think it’s important for women, but it’s kind of all these groups that are underrepresented in technology and I think that’s very important. Because it empowers you. And it also helps you think differently and more confidently and more strategically about the world.
Why do you think that is?
Because you have to have a sense of structure, of how to build something. It’s math and you need to think very strategically. . . It’s about understanding a process, and I think that’s really important. A lot of times, when you go to school you don’t really learn how to think. You learn writing, but you might not learn how to tell a story, [which] is a way of creating structure and organizing. There’s a lot of creativity that’s possible there, but you just have to think about it.
And the first part of the design thinking process is that storytelling element.
Cool. Well, where do see FTC going in the future? What’s your long-term vision for it?
Our mission is to help food and food tech entrepreneurs—and that’s really broad, I’m including restaurants and things like that—to make it easier for them to create a better, smarter future for food. I think we’re moving towards giving people skills, resources, [and] connections to be able to do that. So we have the online education, we have the blog that gets people insights and information, and then there are the events that connect people in real life.
And what about food and technology: Where do you see that relationship going?
We’re at the very beginning of this wave of innovation. I mean, I think this is going to be greatest revolution in food since the Green Revolution. I hope it’s going to be really smart. I think it’s going to level the playing field a lot for smaller producers and manufacturers and restaurateurs. I think that it’s going to empower consumers a lot, giving them a lot more information. I think it’s going to force large companies to radically reimagine their business models. And I think that it can have a really big impact on improving our health, our environment, and our economy.
What’s the future of this hackathon?
We figure out what the needs are. This started as “There needed to be more…” you know? We go to areas that are underrepresented or under-hacked. You’ll notice that there’s no POS technology stuff here—I mean there are POS systems here (Point Of Sale systems), but we’re not saying “Reimagine the cash register,” because other people are already working on that. There are areas of dining that people aren’t addressing. Every year we’ll figure out those areas that people aren’t aware of or aren’t addressing and then highlight those and amplify them.
How do you select your hackathon partners?
We’ve been working with Applegate for a while. They’re amazing. We met them after a farm hackathon and we said, “We really believe in this, we want to get behind it. We want to help you take it to the next level.” So that was really awesome. And then through a Hack-Meet we did in Silicon Valley, we met Google, and they said, “We want to be involved for future stuff.” And same thing with Chipotle and B&B. We all just met, and it was synergistic. Hopefully we’ll keep doing more stuff together!
Have they participated in previous FTC hackathons?
Google and Applegate have, yes. This is Chipotle’s first and B&B’s first.
Final question, and I apologize. I just have to ask: Have you read Lean In, and do you have an opinion about it?
I have read it. I enjoyed Lean In. It’s not anything that’s revolutionary, but it’s something that makes you feel comforted. It’s the same thing I was saying about Hatching Twitter. Everyone tends to feel insecure at times. It’s just nice to hear someone else, especially someone that’s as powerful as Sheryl Sandberg, saying that. I enjoyed it.
And with a handshake and a genuine thanks, Gould bounded off to make sure food, technology, and everyone involved was getting along.
For more information on the Hack//Dining event, check out Food+Tech Connect’s page.
Jeannie Kinnett currently lives and works in New York, NY. She graduated from Davidson in 2012. Her current obsessions are urban gardening and Meghan Trainor.