This week’s interview is with Jonathan Epstein ‘20, COO and co-founder of def hacks () inc, a student-organized hackathon platform that has gained momentum across the US and overseas.
How were you and your team able to take def hacks() inc from a student-founded startup and expand it to a large Hackathon platform that operates in the US and internationally?
In high school, I was interested in both technology and finance. I wanted to find a unique medium to explore these interests. After learning about what a hackathon was, and how you can learn so much about different industries and businesses by participating in one, my brother and I identified a void that we created def hacks() inc to fill.
There were no student-organized hackathons that focused on fintech or that created a platform for students to access and work on company-specific initiatives. There was no way for a student to learn more about the different roles and jobs within a company, and how people use tech to solve these issues. My brother, Robert Epstein, and I thought that if we could create this platform, then we would be able to fill this void by putting students in the same seat as employees where they attempt the same issues and can apply their knowledge and creativity with access to an abundance of proprietary resources and executives that would have never before been available.
We began small and scaled quickly, utilizing our network of friends and attendees to continue to momentum. We started in NY and got some great corporate sponsors. We then went to Seattle and were able to partner with Microsoft in Redmond, WA. It was really exciting to host the first ever non-Microsoft branded hackathon at their own headquarters!
Since then, our expansion has been rampant; just this year, we have partnered with Lehigh, NYU, Wharton, and Columbia to run a hackathon sponsored by TD Bank and have also gone international. Just last month we ran an event in Chile again with Microsoft and NASA.
Critical to this success has been our Lead Organizers and Executive Board. Their grit and persistence has allowed us to build a brand. We’ve noticed that name-brand recognition has definitely been a thing, and after getting our initial sponsors we have been able to scale up our sponsorship packages and get better partners with every event we run. This has definitely helped us grow so quickly and has led to our success.
Do you plan to expand your Hackathon events beyond your current locations at Wharton Fintech, New York, Seattle, and Chile? If so, where?
Definitely! Just this past year and a half we were able to expand to 3 new locations. We are trying continuing this growth with the proper partners. Our partners have been critical to our success. We like to partner with talented and experienced Lead Organizers who will build a cohesive team and organize events with us. We provide a framework, network, financial support and sponsorships. We have our eyes on a few different places, they will be released on our website so definitely stay tuned: www.defhacks.io
What advice would you offer to students looking to prepare for their first Hackathon event? How is a typical Hackathon structured?
Don’t feel like you need to have coding experience. This is the largest misconception. At our hackathons, people work in teams. They attempt a prompt, work on it for roughly 24 hours, and then have to present their creation. In doing so, there is opportunity for people with research experience, graphic design, presenting, general industry knowledge, etc. Each team needs to have a balance of different talents and abilities, and not being able to code shouldn’t hold you back.
At typical hackathon begins with an opening ceremony and introduction of mentors, the prompts, some industry background and other general information. Throughout the 24 hours, participants can discuss their ideas with mentors, meet with recruiters (which most of our partner organizations bring), attend workshops, and work on their project. Hackathons are intensive, so don’t expect to get much sleep. We usually will provide all meals, snacks, and coffee...plenty of coffee.
At the end of the competition, each team will present their product. They will be judged within a category or by prompt (usually there are several options). Upon completion of judging (judges are typically executives and industry experts) the winners will be announced. Prizes are generous and range anywhere from coding bootcamp-sponsorships to iPads, goPro’s, or xBox’s.
What role do mentors and educators play in def hacks() inc events?
Mentors are really important and valuable. My brother, friends and I started def hacks() inc with the goal of finding that medium to explore our interests. Conversations with and guidance from mentors, who are employees at different tech companies, provided us that insight and advice that allowed us to narrow down our interests. Mentors are not only there to help you with bugs in your code or teach you more about peer-to-peer payment methods, but they are also there to tell you about their company’s culture, what their day is like, to recruit you for an internship, or to narrow down your career choices based on your interests.
How do you keep your team cohesive despite the members’ different locations and colleges?
Our Lead Organizers and Executive Board have been most critical to our success. Our cohesion is derived mainly on our motivation, passion, and interest for what we are doing. We use google hangouts a lot and have weekly meeting and checkups. We also always send executive board members to each hackathon def hacks() inc runs. We have definitely learned from experience, and I think everyone we’ve worked with has. In growing this organization, there hasn't been a clearly defined way of doing things. Nothing we have done has been inherently right or wrong, and because of that I think we’ve been able to work together so well. Everyone is trying to achieve the same goal - we are experimenting along the way. It’s something that has really excited all of us, and we can’t wait to continue our growth.