I had the pleasure of interviewing Sabeen Ali, Founder & CEO of AngelHack; a female-owned, female-majority company that ultimately created the tipping point for hackathons utilizing them to create very real and extremely rapid innovation. Sabeen has been an entrepreneur for over 10 years and started her own entrepreneurial journey at USF where she received an M.S. in Organization Development prior to founding and then selling her first company where she worked with tech giants such as Google, IBM, Blackberry, Cisco and more. An advocate for women and minorities in tech, Sabeen speaks internationally (including a TEDx talk entitled “Tipping Point,” and SXSW on Hacking the Hackathon) on women in tech, diversity, and inclusion and has been recognized for her work through the Harari Conscious Leadership and Social Innovation award.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Happy to! I guess you could say my backstory in entrepreneurship started when I was just a kid. As a very young child I unexpectedly lost my father and from there moved around quite a bit with my mom and two siblings. Once settling in the Bay Area, I quickly grasped onto the concept of working hard for what I wanted in life. I created oddball jobs for myself as young as 11 years old and was going door to door selling homemade greeting cards, or offering to wash the family dog. This is ultimately the train of thought that led me down the path of entrepreneurship, startups, hackathons and corporate innovation with AngelHack. In the early days of AngelHack I was fascinated by the hacker community (still am), but honestly didn’t know where I fit in as a nontechnical minority female until our very first hackathon in 2011. The venue was packed with uber-talented entrepreneurs, devs, and designers. I was walking around watching as teams were formed and ideation began. As I was talking to one team, I said to them, “ I am so impressed by what you do” to which they replied, “we are so impressed by what you do! You have a business-like mind, can articulate your ideas in front of large groups of people, and that’s an attribute that is a necessity within entrepreneurship”. This was my AH-HA moment if you will. I saw a mix of diverse backgrounds, cultures, skill sets all coming together and even me (someone who was nontechnical) had something that could benefit the hacker community. As we built out the AngelHack community, we had this window of opportunity to encourage an inclusive environment with well-rounded teams that had female and minority founders, that included someone who maybe was just attending their first hackathon with an idea and nothing more. Not only were we seeing the types of teams at hackathons diversify but we were seeing a great improvement in the quality of the projects, even pushing some to market through our HACKcelerator program which to date has accelerated 150 startups with 5 acquisitions. AngelHack has now been in operation for 7 years introducing hackathons, virtual competitions, accelerator programs, recruiting, and various developer initiatives to over 100 cities and 150,000 entrepreneurs around the globe.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Wow, as I’m sure anyone who is in entrepreneurship knows interesting/funny stories happen quite often in the startup world so picking just one is a bit of a challenge. I guess for me, some of the funniest moments have been when I’ve been underestimated. I’ve always looked at being underestimated as a portal to prove people wrong while striving to and producing some of my greatest work. Unfortunately, as a woman in tech, this happens often so lucky for me the opportunities are plentiful in terms of overcoming certain stereotypes and always striving to push myself further. This one time in particular sticks out when I took a male intern to one of my sales meetings. Through the entirety of the meeting, the executive in question was directing all of his questions to the male intern who kept looking at my doubtfully not knowing the answer and waiting for me to bail him out. Its situations like this that I look back on and chuckle to myself. It’s these same situations that continue to push me to advocate for women and minorities in tech and entrepreneurship.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
In my experience, there are two main key differentiators that make AngelHack stand out and that is the reach of our community and the quality of our startup ecosystem including the prototypes (created in 24 hours), and the startups coming out of the HACKcelerator. While we started with one event in San Francisco, we are now operating in 106 cities, and 94 countries around the globe including North America, Latin America, MEA, South Asia, Asia-Pacific, and Mainland China. This includes on the ground events and initiatives as well as virtual competitions, like what we did with IBM Master the Mainframe which even reached entrepreneurs all the way in Madagascar. There is a common misconception that because something is created within 24 hours the quality isn’t the same of a project worked on by a dev team internally for several months. On the contrary, we’ve found quite the opposite. With the right environment, mentors, and creative freedom we’ve found that hackers can be quite resourceful when coming up with a new idea to build and incorporating various technologies into it. In fact, all of the startups that we accelerate are sourced from our annual 50-city Global Hackathon Competition. One of the first startups we accelerated back in 2013 was a team from Estonia. They created Testlio, software designed to help companies test and launch better products, faster. After going through 12-weeks of the curriculum they won $25,000 in investment at AngelHack’s Global Demo Day; propelling them into a full-fledged startup. Now, they have 60+ employees and offices on multiple continents. More recently, from our 2017 cohort, Goin; investing for millennials from Barcelona hit it big as the number one app in Europe — ahead of WhatsApp and Instagram only months after GDD.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Always! One of the projects we are currently working on is around this flourishing startup ecosystem. Over the year’s our community has spoken and we’ve listened — they want access to more and better jobs, while, a lot of Fortune 500 companies want access to the top 1% of entrepreneurs, worldwide. Enter, Codeity, a skill-to-skill matching platform that we’ve been revamping over the past couple months, recently launched, and have already begun matching our community members with jobs!
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
My tactic is to equip my employees with the right tools and empower them with all the knowledge I have. Time after time, my employees have never ceased to surprise me (in a good way) with new ideas, strategies, or skill sets. I would recommend other CEOs and founders do the same and wait for the kind of initiative their employees take.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
I am a big advocate for having a mentor throughout the entirety of your career and have had a few mentors myself. One, in particular, was extraordinarily uplifting and always talked me way up before any meeting, even the small ones. He would say, prior to walking into a room full of executives, “you are the smartest person in the room, remember that.” This statement, true or not would give me an overwhelming sense of confidence and slowly but surely I started to see the results; securing more meeting, expanding AngelHack to even more cities than I thought possible. This truly speaks to the power of thoughts becoming things, and something I have adopted when it comes to all my mentees and employees.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve always believed in doing something larger than myself and giving back to the community in some way. The premise of AngelHack started because we wanted to help someone with an idea find someone with the right passion who knew how to build it. Over time, as we expanded, so did our mission of driving open innovation that positively impacts the world, and bridges the gap between Silicon Valley and entrepreneurs globally. Additionally, our nonprofit arm, Code For A Cause has helped bring goodness into this world by encouraging our ever-growing community to code for social impact and inclusion.
Can you share the top five ways that increased diversity can help a company’s bottom line. (Please share a story or example for each.)
I’ve always believed that the success of a company begins and ends with the internal team. Diversity is a key portion of this for many reasons, and one of the reasons I myself have prioritized building a diverse team internally at AngelHack (75% female C-Suite and Leadership team).
5 ways that diversity increase company’s bottom line:
● You won’t forget your key audience: when you compiled a group of people from different backgrounds, gender, religion, culture who have a variety of skill sets you’re able to think about everyone within your community or key demographic, never leaving anyone out.
● Eliminate groupthink: a group of diverse individuals will, undoubtedly foster out-of-the-box creative ideas and challenge each other when brainstorming or in an ideation meeting. Keeping you ahead of the game when it comes to unique ideas and initiatives.
● Everyone’s got each other’s back: finding people with skills that complement others weaknesses ultimately help your team learn and grow as a whole while making all your key players stronger.
● You will be more relatable: at AngelHack, this is a necessity. We are constantly bringing hackathons and other developer initiatives to new and emerging communities, or companies who haven’t previously thought about innovation. Having someone who speaks the same language, or is physically on the ground in that city rather than scheduling a quick Skype call helps immensely with community growth and new business.
● It’s fun!: part of the reason I love what I do so much is my team and every time I get to spend time with them I am rejuvenated and inspired. I’ve learned so much from them about different languages, business practices, societal norms, religions, food and cooking, the list really just goes on. And constant learning is something everyone can benefit from.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
Rumi has always been one of my favorite poets. His quote, “stop acting so small, you are the universe ecstatic motion” has always stuck with me because it speaks to the power of the mind. Part of being successful is a mindset, and this particular quote is a constant reminder of that.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂
Susan Wojcicki, I hope you’re reading this! I would absolutely love to have breakfast, lunch OR dinner with her. I think throughout her career she has taken some major leaps despite the fear of the potential risk, which is something that holds so many of us back.
Originally published at medium.com