Pearl Hacks celebrates 10 years of inclusive tech

The student-led group’s founder is among those returning for the annual hackathon.

Group of Pearl Hacks attendees gathering around a laptop to examine a project.
(Submitted photo)

Pearl Hacks is celebrating a decade of empowering women and gender-nonconforming individuals in the world of tech. The student-led group hosts its annual hackathon Feb. 24-25 with the goal of honoring its past and paving exciting new paths for the future.

For Rashi Jagani, senior and Pearl Hacks’ experience/executive chair, the foundation laid by previous leaders is what inspired her to stay involved throughout her four years at Carolina.

“I really enjoyed how there was this focus on empowering underrepresented groups,” Jagani said. “The hackathon has inspired an openness of conversation about being a person who’s the minority in a certain field, which can feel awkward or unsafe in other spaces of computer science.”

As the hackathon has grown over the years, so has its commitment to letting all women and gender- nonconforming students participate. The event is open to all, regardless of skill level or major.

“You hear the word ‘hackathon,’ and the average person might be put off because they don’t know anything about hacking,” said Saurya Acharya, Pearl Hacks’ senior chair. “We’re really trying to let people know that you don’t need to be a computer science major, and you don’t even have to know how to code to attend.”

Acharya joined Pearl Hacks her first year at Carolina. She meets with Jagani and a committed team of student leaders weekly to discuss how to best promote and evolve this women-led event. One area where Pearl Hacks has changed is the proliferation of artificial intelligence not only on Carolina’s campus but also in the broader world of tech.

“It’s a difficult new hurdle to get across. We obviously don’t want people’s projects to be entirely AI generated,” Acharya said. “But it is certainly a resource, and it’s only growing in prevalence from here.”

What hasn’t changed is the commitment to highlighting women and gender minorities who are interested in tech. Pearl Hacks founder Maegan Clawges is returning this year as a keynote speaker, and current leadership is excited to show how her creation has inspired students over the past decade.

In preparation for this year’s event, Acharya spent a lot of time reaching out to alumni who worked with Pearl Hacks throughout its 10-year history.

“These people know first-hand what it’s like to plan Pearl Hacks, and, as times change, I’m curious to hear what they have to say about where it’s at now,” Acharya said.

A diversity of disciplines among the participants should guarantee a variety of creations showcased by the end of the event.

“People come up with some really creative things,” Acharya said. “Even as someone who works on putting Pearl Hacks together, it’s always fun to just walk around and see what all of the talented participants are creating.”