By Barbara Grady
“This is history y’all,” said software engineer Ayori Selassie from the platform at Startup Weekend/Black Male Achievement on Sunday night. “This is the first event that has happened like this in the entire world. So if you are here, you are in the middle of making history.”
This past weekend, hundreds of people poured into Impact HUB Oakland’s new headquarters for a hackathon that not only produced 14 viable computer applications/ business startups but also turned about 40 African-American teenagers into potential entrepreneurs after they spent two days coding, problem-solving and business planning alongside engineering and business professionals.
By Sunday night, 50 ideas that participants had pitched Friday night had been honed, through brainstorming and coding, into 14 actual apps, most designed for use on smartphones. Then, 14 teams pitched their apps and business plans to a panel of venture capital and investment professionals.
So it was that a Startup Weekend that was marketed, in part, with the question, “Could an App Have Saved Trayvon Martin?” did in fact produce an app that could have saved Trayvon, the 17-year-old black kid shot dead in Florida last year when he was walking through a neighborhood talking on a cell phone and carrying a bag of Skittles candy. His killer was a self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman.
HelpCircle, the name of the app, garnered the top prize as the winning app of Oakland’s Startup Weekend.
According to its presenters, HelpCircle would appear as an icon on a smartphone that when pressed sends preloaded text messages to selected friends and family members or to police letting them know the user is in danger and at what location.
“Many of you know Trayvon Martin was on his cellphone before his tragic death” said one of the app builders, Iman Saint Jean, noting that just telling a friend that he was being followed apparently wasn’t enough to save him.
“Imagine you are in a dangerous situation. Pull out your cell phone right now and identify the app you would use to contact people or notify authorities,” she said as the room of more than 300 people grew hushed and listened.
The team came up with a marketing line “Instantly connect with the people you trust when you need them the most.”
Second prize went to CourtDateApp, which its creators described as a mobile app designed to help youth on probation to navigate the “maze of the judicial system” and figure out when they need to report to court, hopefully preventing kids from being detained simply for missing a court date. The app would show them how to locate their cases and send them text message reminders of their court dates.
“Keeping kids out of jail, one text message at a time,” the presenters said.
Judge Monique Woodard, co-founder of BlackFounders, said she thought CourtDateApp would have immediate viability.
Third place went to a social media app called Connectthedots designed by two African-American boys who attend private school. The team said that 75 percent of the 45 students they surveyed said “they have to make a special effort to fit in the school environment” because so few African-Americans attend private school. The app is a social media site.
“Our site allows black private school students to connect with other students to get the support and affirmation they need.”
The app that won the loudest applause Sunday night was also created by three teenagers from Oakland, Desmond Cleitt, Jahntu Ashande, and Abi Cotter, all high school students at Realm Charter School in Berkeley.
HomeworkHelper is a mobile smartphone app “designed to help students manage their homework and keep on top of their work,” Desmond said. The app lets users upload their class schedules and add assignments as they come up. The app sorts them into the schedule under the right classes and sends out text reminders when things are due or when it’s time to study for a test.
“We think this app is important because students have a hard time managing their homework,” he said, especially when assignments are all on different pieces of paper for five, six or seven classes.
“Brilliant,” several judges said in tandem. The challenges of being organized are often an impediment to high school achievement.
An app pitched to help pregnant teenagers find resources for their health and their babies’ health, called iMatter, also drew wide applause and judges commented that it was a viable product serving a real need.
In fact, all 14 apps were highly praised. Among the others, one provided job search help for people newly released from incarceration, another, ThisCouldBeMe provided online mentoring to kids.
Kalimah Priforce, one of the chief organizers of the event and an entrepreneur who founded Qeyno Labs as well as The Hidden Genius Project, said so much had been accomplished in the weekend.
“These young people not only wrote code, which is really hard, they also broke cultural code,” by breaking the stereotypes of software developers and tech entrepreneurs in creating apps.
Selassie, another of the organizers and a software engineer at Salesforce.com, said the weekend is making history because it is a catalyst to bringing diversity to the tech startup industry.
So, too, is society, according to the organizers and keynote speakers. On Saturday night, YesWeCode founder Van Jones and BlackGirlsCode founder Kimberly Bryant spoke at the Startup Weekend’s gala.
“We can’t afford to waste genius, there’s genius right here,” Jones said to a sold-out crowd.
This was the context on which Startup Weekend/ Black Male Achievement was organized, according to its website http://bmaoakland.startupweekend.org
“The Trayvon Martin tragedy opened up a global conversation on race, class, and stereotype threat. Can innovation in technology, business and design, create opportunities for a safer society for all of us? As a community of technologists and startup founders in Oakland, we recognized an opportunity to bring this conversation home to the Bay Area in a way that united us all around solving problems that hit closer to home – with a hackathon!”