Hack4Impact strives to marry the leading-edge of tech with organizations and movements dedicated to changing the world for the better. We sat down with the organization’s current co-directors, Annie and Arpan, to discuss Hack4Impact’s mission, the effects they’ve seen through their work, and how the organization has impacted them personally and professionally.
Why did you join Hack4Impact?
Annie: When I first started, I was in the external director role—a PR [public relations] type, external-facing role that helps us spread the message of what Hack4Impact is. Before Hack4Impact, I didn’t really know too much about the tech space, but one of my motivations was that I love telling people’s stories. … I’d never seen an organization like Hack4Impact on campus, and to be able to meet the people inside of it and tell the story was something I really wanted to do.
Arpan: I joined as a software developer, which is how the majority of our members join. … What Hack4Impact had to offer was an opportunity to both grow my own skills while also bettering those around me—whether that be in my immediate community or a wider reach.
Another thing that tied into it was the idea of, “I’ve been doing school for (at that point) 13 years. But what’s the point of it? Why does any of this matter? The things that I’m learning, how can I actually make a difference with them?” Rather than kicking the can down the road, this was an opportunity for me to see a more immediate impact and put what I’d already learned to good use.
What’s the purpose of Hack4Impact, and how do your projects further your mission?
Arpan: At a very high level, I’d say the mission of Hack4Impact revolves around tech for social good. … We’re passionate about tech, we’re passionate about social good. How can we put the two together? The way this usually works is through partnerships, either semester-long or year-long, with nonprofits, where we develop software to meet their needs. Most commonly, this ends up being a web application. We have also done a few data science projects and some mobile applications in the past.
For example, I was the PM [product manager] for a project with Kids Save Ocean, which is an environmental nonprofit based out of Europe. Basically, their whole goal is to empower kids to have a voice and make tangible action in terms of sustainability and other environmental-related issues. The project that we built was a platform that coaches students through the design process on sustainability-related projects as well as a forum to browse what other people have done and use that for inspiration to design your own things as well.
How do you choose your projects?
Annie: We have an internal PR [product research] team that focuses purely on sourcing and making sure there’s vetting and a more extensive research process prior to taking on new projects. … Our PR team reaches out to [the non-profit], and then we have a call with them to understand their mission and for them to understand us. Then, we go through this process of doing user research and also understanding the team members—what are their needs, what are their problems, and how can we better help them with their problems?
What’s been one of the most impactful projects to you?
Annie: I was a PM [program manager] for YMCA [New American Welcome Center, which helps immigrants in Champaign]. I think that was a super impactful experience for me to get my first PM experience. And also working with a local client, that’s a huge priority for me—to engage with them and show our support beyond just the product.
For example, the YMCA has a few different legal clinics that they were hosting, where they have some of their clients come in to get some help with certain documents and answer any questions. And a few of our members came out to volunteer and meet the clients. I think that was a really cool experience to see their mission in action.
The Welcome Center now has a dedicated team using our product, and they’ve already added over 100 resources serving local immigrants to the tool. It’s really encouraging that they want to extend our partnership for a third semester, which we’re currently scoping out—it’s a testament to the amazing work of the developers, designers, and spring leads (shoutout Jackie and Neeraj) on this year-long project.
Arpan: For me, it would be Kids Save Ocean, which we discussed earlier.
Do you have any other experiences through Hack4Impact that you’d describe as favorites?
Arpan: I wouldn’t say it’s a particular experience; rather, an aspect that I really enjoyed is that, more than any of my classes or anything else that I’ve been doing since I started in school, I feel like this is the experience that I’ve had that’s best prepared me for what I can perceive as the “real world.” We’re actually building something tangible. …
The other thing is, the primary reason that I’ve been exploring product management or product roles for my career … that’s only because of my experiences with Hack4Impact and the idea of, “How does the work that we’re doing actually make a difference? How do we make an impact and actually further the mission of whatever organization that we’re representing?” That’s something that I think is very rare to find in a college experience— a focus on product instead of just a project for the sake of doing a project.
Annie: Yeah, I think one part is the learning aspect for your career. I think the other element is just—I always bring it back to this—you meet a lot of cool friends in this org. … I think community is a huge part of the experience for Hack4Impact. It’s really nice to meet other people who are different from me, who have different goals, different ideas, different products.
What challenges have you met since taking on the responsibilities associated with being co-directors?
Annie: When I was a product manager, I was thinking a lot about my specific team’s dynamic. How could we think of icebreakers and get that community bond? Going from PM to co-director, it’s more top of mind to think about the general community overall. …
So I think about activities such as Spectrum discussions inspired by Jubilee Media and bonding events like a socially-distanced Quad picnic that can help members develop and get to know each other deeper beyond just what their major is or who they are—to really understand their experiences and what they bring to the table. That’s been a bigger priority for me, and it’s also challenging now—like, how do we keep that going this fall when we don’t have the advantage of being in person to foster that family environment?
Arpan: The biggest transition is that your responsibility goes from being a team of 8 people to the entire organization, which is around 30 to 40 people. So it’s larger in scope. Another thing I’d like to mention is, Hack4Impact isn’t just a UIUC thing; it’s a national organization. It was started at the University of Pennsylvania. There are a few other chapters as well.
So, as of this summer, [we had] more conversations and collaborations between chapters. That was something which I’d always wanted to do prior to being co-director. … Like, leveraging our strengths and weaknesses, learning from each other and just building a community that’s outside of our own university has been a good and interesting experience as well. … We’re continuing to experiment with new things and improve upon realizing our mission.
How would you like to see the organization grow in the future?
Arpan: Two other things that I want to focus on … are one, a more diverse community, and two, broadening our immediate impact beyond the members of our organization.
We are a selective organization by nature, for a few different reasons. We have a certain set of standards for quality of our projects, so that means that not everybody who wants to be a part of this and our mission has the opportunity to do so. But we still want to offer them the ability to interact with us and see how can they use tech to further social good.
Finally, what have you gotten out of your Hack4Impact experience?
Annie: An amazing support network of alum and members who inspire and teach me so much! I’m always learning something new, and that keeps me hungry and growing. Hack4Impact is like a sandbox where I can test what will work and what doesn’t.
I’m approaching three years in Hack4Impact, and I’ve been able to explore my leadership style each semester. In high school, I wasn’t confident and didn’t see myself as a leader. But I’ve learned that I don’t have to radically change my character to fit all these bullet points of what I thought strong leaders had to have. I’ve been able to channel my empathy as a core strength as a leader while helping others find their styles, too.
Arpan: The whole idea of looking into product roles as far as our careers is one of the bigger things for me. The interesting technologies I’ve been learning, I’ve been motivated to do so because of the things I’ve been trying to do with Hack4Impact. There are a lot of very, very intelligent people who are creating some crazy side projects that are inspiring me to try some things out on my own. …
I’ve also made some of my closest friends through Hack4Impact. In fact, I think the first team that you’re on, you kind of have a special bond. I still miss my team from last spring. In March, before everything shut down, we went to get some dinner together, even though it’d been a year since we had been the same team. We’re still a young organization; hopefully, these bonds will last a very long time.