June 3rd marks one year since Hack the Hood won the Google Bay Area Impact Challenge. And what a year it’s been! Winning the Google Challenge had a powerful effect on our organization—to say the least—and on this one year anniversary, we want to reflect on what we've learned--and share some lessons other startups might benefit from knowing.
When We Won
Our Chief Education Officer and Co-Founder, Zakiya Harris, sums up her initial reaction to winning the challenge, “Complete awe and surprise. Having worked in the nonprofit world for over 10 years, I have never seen a project attract that much attention and resources in that short of a time.” COO and Co-Founder Mary Fuller describes the moment in further detail, "There was a big awards event and we didn’t know ahead of time if we won the voting challenge that would result in a $500K grant so we were a little on edge. We were the last winners called, so the suspense was a little over the top. Every other organization sent one person up to accept their awards, but when they called out Hack the Hood, Susan [Mernit] made sure the whole team went up. It was very emotional. I hid in the back because I was in the middle of the “ugly face cry”--you know the one where all the blood rushes to your head and your whole face peels back and freezes? Part of the overwhelming feeling was probably from exhaustion. We had worked so hard. I was on Twitter until 2am several nights toward the end trying to get out the vote. The whole competition was exciting—making the win part of a big public participation makes it that much better because you know everyone is behind you.”
Immediate Organizational Impact
Before the award everyone was working on a seasonal, project basis. One of the first things we did when we won the Challenge was bring people on board as year-round employees which allowed us to further develop the curriculum and plan for a major expansion.
“One of the great things about the Challenge win,” says CEO and co-founder Susan Mernit, ”is that the funding was specifically to help us scale across the Bay Area. That was transformational--we were able to leverage that funding to get other program support, such as a $150,000 grant from the California Workforce Investment Board’s Workforce Accelerator Fund, which wanted scalable prototypes to enhance the state’s workforce system.”
Taking part in the Challenge also brought Hack the Hood an influx of interest and support from many people and companies. Having Google support us in such a public way brought us wide-spread attention and opportunities. Mary Fuller elaborates, "People on the other side of the planet got in touch and started supporting us! We had one guy from Belgium give us a $5,000 grant from out of the blue. And things like that kept happening. People found out about what we were doing, loved the idea, and wanted to support us." We've attracted new partners, resources, and best of all an amazing network of volunteers who want to be involved with our mission and help, hands on. This attention and enthusiasm was immediate, and it’s been very consistent.
From Broad to Deep Touch
The past year has taught us a lot, and we've had to pivoted a bit based on what we've learned. One goal we modified was the number of youth we'd be able to serve over two years. We realized that the number we promised would result in some more shallow interactions—and we want to be game changers. Did we want to serve thousands of youth with a narrow scope of learning outcomes, work and networking opportunities, or a fewer number youth with a more transformative experience? We quickly decided we wanted to go for quality and results, and not just quantity. Google was fine with this, testing and iterating is part of their organizational culture as well.
Year-One Accomplishments & Lessons Learned
Hack the Hood started out as a pilot project, and was essentially that when we won the Challenge. In the past year we've been able to build a fully functioning organization, with a scalable program. We are now serving six times the number of youth we were able to before winning the Challenge, the quality of our programming improves consistently, the founders have been continue to develop their skills, meeting the opportunities we've been given, and everyone on staff has taken on new roles and responsibilities—and has excelled. But it hasn't been easy. Everyone has grown to meet the challenge. It’s really shown us something that’s relevant to our mission—you never know what people are capable of until you give them the resources and opportunities to do great things. That’s exactly what we hope to give our young people--an opportunity to excel.
Serving More Young People, In More Cities
Going forward Hack the Hood plans to scale our program to more cities and youth. We designed our scaling so that local organizations, which know their youth and community the best, can learn our model and adjust it for local needs. Our deep knowledge of Oakland and the network of relationships is what helped us succeed here. But with partners taking the lead on the ground, Hack the Hood could look very different in East Palo Alto, or further away.
So You Think You Want to Build a Program and Create Social Impact? Here’s Our Advice
Start small, but think big!
Test your ideas, and don't get too attached to any of them.
Hack the Hood is a very iterative organization, which is exciting and sometimes it can be a little stressful—but in the end, this produces programming that is responsive to the needs of youth and their environment, and will lead to success.
Think about what assets your target population and community possess and you can build on. Don't focus on a deficit mindset, if you do you're not going to get very far. Instead, look at what you have to work with, you’ll do much better.
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