Pearl Hacks 2018: A woman’s laptop-laden utopia

Approximately 650 female students gathered together from across the country for Pearl Hacks 2018. The two-day event has been hosted annually at UNC-Chapel Hill since 2014.

By Jessica Abel

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Gina Likins, 49, has an email saved from 1996, written by the man she was dating at the time. It’s the most important email she’s ever received. In fact, she still keeps it printed in her office. It marked the beginning of a great love. But it wasn’t between her and her boyfriend.

The email marked the start of her career in technology.

“He wrote, ‘I heard a story on NPR this morning about a new way of accessing the internet,’” Likins said. “It’s supposed to be easier and more graphical. It’s called the World Wide Web.”

Likins sits in the Great Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill, her alma mater, as she tells this story. It’s just past 9 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 10, but the hall is already buzzing with energy from over 650 young women who are preparing to pull a tech-inspired all-nighter. They’re here for Pearl Hacks, a two-day, all-female hack-a-thon where women can code and create with other women. This is a rare occurrence in the tech industry.

Inception and evolution

Since its first event in 2014, Pearl Hacks has worked to fight gender imbalance and sexism in the tech world — a male-dominated, tough-guy culture known as brogramming — by providing a female-friendly space to collaborate.

And it’s working; Pearl Hacks has tripled in size over the last five years and welcomed women from across the country.

This year, women journeyed from schools like Emory, Georgia Tech and the University of Virginia. There’s a group from New York, too, and someone said she met a few Canadians in the parking lot.

They’ve taken over the entire Student Union this weekend to code projects, present their work, compete for prizes and explore careers in tech.

Empty boxes of catered coffee litter the Union breakfast area. Sponsors such as Google, Microsoft, Amazon and IBM have set up tables like one might see at a middle school science fair. Here, though, there are better prizes. Google brought blankets, YouTube earbuds and laptop stickers. Red Hat, where Likins works, brought ponytail holders and — a classic — branded pens.

Participants run from table to table, trading their resumes with recruiters and planning which tech talks they’ll be attending throughout the weekend.

The event is a scene Likins couldn’t have imagined as a young girl because nothing like it existed. It took dating an engineer while in college for her to discover the major she’d missed. Because she was a woman, it was as though everyone assumed she’d be uninterested something like computer science.

“I grew up in my grandfather’s shop building things with hammers and nails and saws,” Likins said. “My dad showed me how an old school stereo works, circuit breakers and everything, when I was, like, 10. I had all of the right mindset to do it. I just didn’t know it was a thing.”

Linkins finished her degree in public relations and got a job at a law firm in Raleigh.

In February 1994, a coworker asked her to build a website for the business. Likins did the site architecture and design and hired someone to do the coding and graphics. It was the first law firm website created in North Carolina. The invention of the web, still in grey-scale and without icons, aligned with good timing and a lot of luck for Likins to find her way into a technological career as an open source code expert.

Likins wants other women to find the career more easily and fight its male-dominated stigma.

Inclusive, ambitious and fashion-forward

“There’s all kinds of ridiculous things about the brogrammer culture, like, ‘You must have thick skin to be here,’” Likins said. “No. I think it’s possible to say anything in a kind way.”

To combat this tough-guy tech approach, Likins runs workshops on how to be inclusive in coding culture. She gave her first talk, “Netiquette: How to avoid getting flamed online,” in 1994.

But, for these women at Pearl Hacks 2018, Likins had something special and fun planned. Her workshop, “Hack Your Hoodie,” was one of 21 workshops that participants could attend throughout the day while they worked on their final coding projects.

Likins brought LED lights while participants brought shirts, hats, tote bags and other such items to decorate. Two women, Danielle Uzor and Marisol Garcia, who became friends at a hack-a-thon in Charlotte, prepared to reengineer a black scrunchie and a brown cotton headband.

Uzor, a senior at UNC-Charlotte, attended “Hack Your Hoodie” last year and discovered her hidden talent for creating wearable technology.

She once designed a glowing white gown that looked like a Taylor Swift tour costume. It caught on fire once as Uzor was working on it, a matter of crossed wires and a shorted circuit. She put out the smolder with no problem, though.

The piece was captivating, but Uzor remained humble about her work.

“It was really fun to make,” she said, head bowed, sewing the tiny lights into her headband. “Just a little bit of coding and a little bit of hardware. It didn’t really take that long. Maybe a week? And that was because I had to do it between classes.”

Uzor helped Garcia loop the metal thread through her scrunchie before the coders switched their battery packs on with pride. The room lit up with lights and smiles. All the women were asking to take pictures of one another’s work.

“When I was in middle school and high school, I never heard of anything like this,” Uzor said. “We need to get younger girls into wearable technology. It shows girls that coding can be girly and really fun.”

Lack of information isn’t the only problem. Women in science, math and technology constantly face discrimination and harassment.

A few years ago, Likins posted a video to YouTube. She’d had an engineering epiphany while serving as general contractor for her house and wanted to share her invention. The video was dry and instructional. In it, she was wearing a baggy grey sweatshirt.

“I got a comment in December,” Likins said, fixing her glasses. “The only comment: ‘Nice boobs.’”

She paused for a moment.

“I was trying to tell my husband I expect sexist comments. It’s terrible, but I expect it. That it happened on a video where I’m talking about construction? Jesus. What do I have to do?”

Stephanie Zhu, a programmer at Amazon Video and a Pearl Hacks speaker, said she started asking the same question during her undergraduate career at the University of Pennsylvania.

“When I was in college, I was in computer science and started to feel unwelcomed and didn’t know why,” Zhu said. “Some of the guys would ask, ‘Why do you feel like you’ve experienced bias here?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know, but it feels different. It feels slightly more hostile.’”

Her gender studies classes at UPenn equipped her with the vocabulary to describe what she felt. When she and her female friends acted ambitiously, their classmates thought they were pushy. When her male friends did the same, they were lauded.

Now Zhu is on a mission to share her findings. She presented the information to Pearl Hacks participants and shared her tools to help dispel the bias. Striving to celebrate other women for their accomplishments and learning how to negotiate salaries were two such tools.

Challenging stereotypes, celebrating success and looking to the future

As the sun rose on Sunday, Feb. 11, sleepy coders finished their projects and returned to the Great Hall to show their hard work to the judges.

Evelyn Lockwood from George Mason University and Savannah Jones, a University of Virginia student, created an application that used a Google program to scan library barcodes to lead users to the book’s exact location.

Mary Gibeau and Haley DeZwaan, UNC-CH students, programmed a self-watering planter inspired by the time Gibeau’s parents let her flowers die over Thanksgiving break. They used UNC-CH’s woodshop to craft the planter box and grabbed some pink and purple pansies from Home Depot for the demo.

There was a website application from Georgia Tech that doubled as a feelings journal, a new chat room for women interested in pursuing tech projects with other women from around the world and at least two dozen other creations.

All in less than 24 hours.

Next year will be Likins’ sixth Pearl Hacks. The graduating seniors are planning on returning to mentor new coders. Uzor can’t wait to outdo her last gown; Zhu will continue to arm women with feminist tech defense.

For them and the 650 other women, the weekend was a break from reality, a glimpse into the industry’s future, a laptop-laden heaven. And it was definitely worth the road trip.

“I tell everyone,” Jones said, hugging her teammate before packing up, “‘If Pearl Hacks is sending a bus, you’ve got to get on.’”

Edited by MaryRachel Bulkeley