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  • Sheila Reynolds

ProtoHack and SheTalks break down tech-innovation barriers for women

So, you have what you truly believe is a unique idea for a website or an app, but you don't know the first thing about coding or making a prototype – or (let's be honest) what either of those terms really mean.

It can be daunting. If you know nothing about the technology, where do you even begin?

The first step, says Annee Ngo, is to put your fear aside and have faith that you're capable of learning something new.

Ngo is vice-president of ProtoHack, a company that offers one-day workshops, complete with prizes, that give participants the tools, inspiration and knowledge to develop their designs and ideas and potentially get them into the hands of software developers and investors.

"Our goal and our vision is to empower people to innovate," Ngo says.

This fall, ProtoHack is partnering with SheTalks to offer a special one-day, all-female-led session in Vancouver.

Like the 12-hour hackathons the company offers regularly throughout North America, the SheTalks event will allow women to take their technology-enabled idea and work with mentors to design and pitch it. It's geared specifically toward non-technical people.

"I personally feel that technology is a tool of innovation and not the source of it," says Ngo.

On average, between 75 and 100 people of all ages and backgrounds attend the sessions, which are always teeming with diversity.

"I'm surprised by the makeup of our groups," she says. "The most successful teams are often those who have never been involved in anything like this.

"It's an opportunity to run with their ideas. Everyone else is going to be equally inexperienced."

The shape of a ProtoHack day looks like this:

• attendees show up, some with ideas and some simply with the idea that they want to participate in developing someone else's concept;

• participants share who they are and why they are there;

• participants network and form teams;

• an entrepreneur – usually someone from the community – speaks to the group about why prototyping is important;

• an in-house team teaches how to use three main prototyping tools. There is no coding required;

• teams have freedom to begin building their prototype. Through this process, they may test it by talking to other hackers or even interviewing people on the street to see if their idea is something the public really wants;

• mentors work with groups so they can tap into their knowledge and expertise.

Even the most shy participants, says Ngo, can get a lot out of the experience.

"We have a wonderful group of volunteers to facilitate discussion."

Groups then make their pitches to the mentors, before delivering 90-second pitches to a panel of six judges.

The Top 5 teams are invited back to showcase their prototype, recap their pitch and respond to questions from the judges.

Judges base their final decision on four components: customer validation, the idea, business model and presentation.

The Top 3 teams are then selected, with first place getting $15,000 worth of in-kind services, second receiving $10,000 and third $5,000. Prize packages include the opportunity to work with a trademark company, get a co-working space, marketing materials, help with legal agreements and paperwork, programming and development.

"The time flies so fast," says Ngo. "There's so much to do in such a short period of time."

Invariably, she says, participants are surprised at what they're able to achieve.

"It's incredible to see people have an 'Aha' moment."

Ngo says she felt the partnership with SheTalks was important because traditionally, fields such as technology, programming and engineering are places women don't always feel comfortable.

She said while ProtoHack groups are, on average, about 48 per cent female, there's a lot more room for girls and women to get involved.

"By the end of the day, that barrier to tech-innovation is gone."

SheHacks will take place in conjunction with SheTalks Tech in November. Stay tuned to for further information or to register for the fall event.

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