Incipia blog

Q&A: What Non-Profit Tech Community, HackerNest is up to in Detroit

Gabe Kwakyi | November 7, 2016

Despite what was regarded as a "cooling" of tech after a heady 2014 (manifested in outcomes such as the closure of Bizdom accelerator from Rock Ventures), the Detroit tech scene continues to bloom, with support coming from a diversity of organizations and angles:

  • The Big Three have been investing heavily in future auto and autonomous technology, including the Fiat-Chrysler-Google, Ford-Blackberry (previously Microsoft) and GM-Lift partnerships.
  • Detroit's Startup Weekend and TechWeek Detroit, which provide big ticket event gatherings for local techies.
  • Coding boot camps, from the established (Grand Circus) to the newly established (The Iron Yard) pumping out a new generation of tech talent.
  • Venture Captial firms (e.g. Detroit Venture Partners) and innovation hub TechTown Detroit helping to get entrepreneurs off the ground.
  • Mobile-focused organizations such as the well-connected Mobile Technology Association of Michigan (led by mobile maven, Linda Daichendt) and Mobile Monday Detroit educating the area about the mobile industry.
  • Of course, Dan Gilbert/Quicken Loans and even ex-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer investing in various Detroit projects, and as such bringing a focus on the city.

Today we had a chance to speak with one of the organizations that recently joined Detroit's tech scene, hearing from Simmone Park what HackerNest's vision is and why they came to the Motor City. Read on to learn about what HackerNest is and what it's contributing to the Detroit community.

Incipia: Why was HackerNest created?

Hacker Nest: HackerNest was born in Toronto over five years ago: we identified a need for a platform-agnostic, agenda-free event where tech nerds could feel at home. There’s no shortage of professional development events featuring networking breaks, speakers, and Q&A sessions - and those are great! But we found those weren’t really ideal for tech folks, sometimes stirring up feelings of anxiety, and, frankly, often wound up being little more than a mass exchange of business cards.

The first Tech Social was a handful of people and a six pack of beer; no pressure, just great conversation. Tech Socials now, in each of the 30+ cities in which we run events, are much the same as that first one, just on a larger scale. Our events see 30-400+ attendees depending on the city, and welcome people interested in technology from all disciplines and skill levels.

Incipia: What are the types of reasons that draw people out to your events?

HackerNest: Generally speaking, working in tech can be isolating. Even if you go to an office every day - even one that has a ping pong table and catered lunches - it’s easy to spend the day with your head down as you code, put out a series of fires at your startup, or monitor social media accounts until your eyes cross. 95% of your day can be interaction with a computer. The cornerstone of any thriving community is communication, and when people attend our events, they know they’ll meet folks with interests similar to theirs. It’s easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger when you can assume a strong common denominator: an appreciation for technology.

As we’ve seen at many of our events, people do form lasting friendships and use monthly Tech Socials as a way to catch up with the community. Tech Socials are as much about meeting new people as they are about staying in touch with existing connections and growing relationships with those in your network.

Plus, it’s just really fun to talk about tech while you’ve got a beer or a slice of pizza in your hand.

Incipia: Why did HackerNest decide to open up shop in Detroit?

HackerNest: HackerNest is very interested in developing tech communities in cities that don’t already have a notoriously super-unified tech scene. The way we see it, folks in those cities need us more - there are fewer opportunities there  to connect with like-minded individuals.

HackerNest doesn’t seek to replace or eclipse code language-specific groups, startup groups, or women in tech groups – we want to help everyone grow, and for that growth to be sustained and beneficial for all involved. We want other group organizers to announce at our Tech Socials and tell our members to check out their events, and vice versa! Variety and diversity adds to the strength of a community as a whole.

Our first Tech Social in Detroit took place as part of Detroit Startup Week. We knew with their reach and cross promotion, we could populate an event - and future events - and create a Detroit splinter cell (chapter) of HackerNest that would continue to grow after Startup Week ended. This as a launch platform worked tremendously well, and we’re really encouraged by what we’re seeing!

Incipia: What do you think is unique or interesting about the tech scene in Detroit?

HackerNest: Detroit’s economic resilience and deep cultural identity give the city a powerful edge. This grit and determination is what it takes to be truly successful in a technological world characterized by constant reinvention and reiteration. Detroit’s tech locals seem to inherently embody this alongside a tremendous civic pride and love for their city -- a combination that can only produce great things. Exciting times!

Incipia: What are some examples of interesting products that have grown out of HackerNest hackathons?

HackerNest: Most recently, we ran the Hack4Equality hackathon, which was an amazing opportunity to show just how instrumental tech can be in solving major challenges of injustice and inequity facing LGBTQ communities worldwide. The projects people came up with were incredible! It never fails to inspire when you see a group of people come together in action and support of a great cause.

The winner of Hack4Equality was LooBot, an SMS-based chatbot which helps individuals locate publicly-accessible gender-neutral bathrooms and phone charging stations. This solution was created in the LGBTQ Homelessness challenge set, and sought to make access to basic needs much easier. In working with mentors, the team members found that many homeless folks have phones, but no data. Creating a solution that required no data meant the project could reach and help tons more people. LooBot’s creators plan to expand the platform to include searching for open beds at shelters as well as nearby soup kitchens and food sources. This is such a great example of a thoughtful, genuinely helpful, impactful solution to an endemic problem – our judges saw that.

HackerNest is an international non-profit organization that builds local tech communities through blockbuster cause-hackathons and Tech Socials. Headquartered in Toronto, Canada, HackerNest promotes economic development through technological proliferation in 30+ cities, 14 countries, and five continents.

Thanks for following along! Be sure to take a moment to learn more about HackerNest or join their next Meetup, bookmark our blog and sign up to our email newsletter for new interviews and other updates, delivered fresh on Fridays to your inbox. If you feel that you or someone or an organization you know would be a great candidate to learn from, please send an email to hello@incipia.co to nominate an interview.