When Fiona Whittington started TechTogether in 2017, she was “maybe a little overconfident,” she says. Why? The Boston University junior was fresh off organizing the world’s second largest all-female hackathon—at the time called SheHacks Boston, with around 800 attendees—which had garnered the attention of outlets like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the New York Times.
Plus, Whittington (COM’19) had just won a citywide innovation contest—beating out a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, no less—and was deservedly feeling herself.
Her winning idea?
Taking SheHacks and turning it into TechTogether, a nonprofit aiming to bridge the gap in gender representation at hackathons by setting communities up with the resources to host their own gender-focused hackathons. (Hackathons, if you live off-planet, are multiday events where computer programmers team up and compete to solve programming challenges. Workshops and networking sessions are usually on the menu, too.) Resources include funding, training, and access to TechTogether’s massive network of sponsors and tech professionals.
But don’t think this is just another “women in tech” initiative.
“It’s important that we recognize that it’s not just women who are a gender minority in the technology industry,” Whittington says. “I don’t like the terminology ‘women in tech’ for that reason. TechTogether as a whole serves marginalized genders, which includes people who are trans, nonbinary, and gender-fluid. Other identities need just as much attention as ‘women in tech,’ which we see everywhere these days.”
Since 2017’s win, TechTogether has become an official 501(c)(3) organization. Whittington and her team have started chapters in six cities (Boston, Atlanta, Seattle, Miami, Chicago, and New York), helped organize 11 hackathons, and served more than 4,700 hackers from marginalized gender groups, many of them first-time hackathon attendees.
And now, TechTogether’s work has landed Whittington on BostInno’s annual “25 Under 25” list for 2021, one of three Terriers making this year’s cohort.
Describing the 2021 choices, BostInno writes: “Some are still in high school. None were alive when the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994, and most weren’t during the Atlanta Summer Olympics two years later.”
Joining the 24-year-old Whittington on the list are fellow Terriers Yasmin Morais (CAS’19), 23, and Hailey Hart-Thompson (CAS’21, COM’21), 22. Morais made the list for cofounding RefEd Initiative, an app that partners with NGOs to provide math and language education to refugee children. Hart-Thompson was cited for her work as cofounder of the Stateless Collective, a nonprofit that aims to reduce neocolonialism in volunteer work by training American students to study and volunteer abroad.
The Stateless Collective was part of Innovate@BU’s 2021 summer accelerator program. Both RefEd Initiative and TechTogether benefited from working with Spark! BU’s tech and innovation incubator.
Whittington says she’s deeply grateful for Spark!’s help. “Everything I learned about starting a company—all the leadership skills, all the branding skills, and even just believing in the possibility that I could start something—came from [Spark! founding director] Ziba Cranmer,” Whittington says. “I feel like this is an Oscars or Grammys speech, but I do want to thank all the BU folks who made our success possible.”
TechTogether’s most recent hackathons have all been forced to go virtual by the ongoing pandemic. Whittington says she’s looking forward to being able to once again plan in-person hackathons—events she describes as “life-changing” for many attendees.
“I don’t think people who aren’t part of the computer science community understand how important hackathons are,” she says, or that in addition to creating networking opportunities, hackathons allow attendees to gain practical, résumé-building experience that’s difficult to come by outside of internship or classroom settings.
“We’ve had many, many success stories of people changing their major because they attended a TechTogether hackathon,” Whittington says. “Or they landed a job because they were able to talk about a project they built in an interview, or they were able to add several skills to their résumé to make it more competitive. Or, it just gave them the confidence to say, ‘Oh, maybe coding is for me. Let me continue to pursue this because now I have a ton of other people behind me supporting me.’”