ATHENS, Ohio (April 6, 2016)—On the drive through the rolling hills of West Virginia, Michelle Ferrier, associate dean for innovation, research/creative activity and graduate studies, reminds a minivan full of eager Ohio University Scripps College of Communication women to calm their nerves: “Having a journalism degree is like having a Gumby degree. You can do anything you set your mind to with it…it’s flexible.”
Such was the temperament of the entire Hack the #GenderGap Makeathon at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media.
This past weekend, West Virginia University, in partnership with MediaShift, hosted an all-female Makeathon in its newest Evansdale Innovation Center. Both the facility and faculty encouraged participants to think, feel and create outside-the-box solutions to today’s most pressing media issues using Internet of Things (IoT) technology. The event itself focused on teaching journalism and media students how the future of the industry will be impacted by their own innovations—and how the two worlds of technology and media can co-exist and create human-centered solutions.
But the women in attendance seemed to gain something even more valuable than a potentially viable business model. They gained the confidence to create collaboratively. As the event progressed, it was evident that this experience would not only test our individual skillsets, but our aptitude to see the world from a new perspective.
“Turn off the blinders,” advised guest speaker Tiffany Shackelford, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia.
Within the first hour of arrival, women were delving deep into the throws of IoT: soldering LED robot pins, assembling breadboards and 3-D printing WVU memorabilia.
“The entire experience was all about validating and empowering the people around you,” said Megan Fair, an Ohio University senior in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. “It made me feel like I had the ability to create anything I could dream up.”
And yet the question remained: What could 60 college-aged women do with 33-hours? The answer astounded everyone: We could change the media industry for the better.
Participants represented a wide range of U.S. media programs including the University of Missouri, Northwestern University, Ohio University and Penn State University. All eight student-led teams were assigned a mentor from a top media organization like the Wall Street Journal, NPR or BuzzFeed. Every member played an integral role building a startup company from scratch.
“The mentors were invaluable,” said first-place winner of the Makeathon, Trista Thurston, a journalism student from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. “Especially when you’re working with people you don’t know!”
In addition, teams garnered advice from some very influential women in tech, including: Umbreen Bhatti, California lawyer, strategist and human-centered design coach and Christine Sunu, a GE fellow in BuzzFeed’s Open Lab for Journalism.
Thurston recounted the challenges she and her team faced while working on a solution that would be not only profound, but inclusive.
“Some of the things that I really wanted to keep in mind when coming into this event was making sure our idea was accessible,” said Thurston. “I’m from Appalachia…I know what it’s like for populations to have little to no internet access, let alone economic and educational opportunities to even understand the concepts we delved into this weekend… Yes, I personally love consumer technology and would adopt several crazy, impossible products. But how do we make this work for populations that are consistently forgotten, especially in tech spaces?”
Underserved and underrepresented community needs ran through the solutions presented on Sunday’s pitch before industry and academic women judges, a mantra for development promoted by Ferrier, who was a judge for the event.
“I am always excited to see what students develop and amazed at the thoughtfulness of their ideas, especially in essentially a 24-hour sprint,” said Ferrier. “These young women came up with brilliant ideas that are not only commercially viable, but solve deep human needs for underserved populations.”
Ferrier said the format of an all-woman event really created a different result.
“I saw a different camaraderie and collaboration at work,” Ferrier said. “This was a
life-changing experience for many women who don’t get to experience all-woman teams.”
By the end of the event, all eight teams presented their startup ideas to a panel of distinguished judges. Ideas ranged from virtual reality sexual education initiatives, to sexual assault solutions, to millennial budgeting tactics, to sweatshirts that hug on command.
As for me, well, I left the Makeathon with a deep gratitude to have met the brilliant, like minded women on my team. I realize now just how valuable opportunities like this are for women–especially young women.
It is just as Ferrier always says, “We need the world to imagine better.”
Erica Molfetto is a senior majoring in strategic communication with a concentration in media innovation. She has helped to promote the Scripps International Innovators Cup and other innovation activities within the Scripps College of Communication, and is a former intern at DreamIt Ventures accelerator in New York City. She currently serves as an innovation intern with Scripps and is a social media coordinator at Admit.me. This article is republished with permission from the Scripps College of Communication.