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How Some Harvard MBAs Hacked Their Way To The Vatican

A participant at the Vatican’s first-ever hackathon organized by Harvard Business School students. Major League Hacking courtesy photo

Second-year Harvard Business School student Jakub Florkiewicz is proof that an idea — combined with passion and wherewithal to pursue it — has the potential to reach the masses. In this case,  it’s an idea that may have even caught the eye of the pope.

Florkiewicz, two co-founders, and a nine-person team of student organizers (both undergraduate and graduate), came up with the idea for VHacks, the Vatican’s first-ever hackathon. The event brought 120 graduate and undergraduate students from around the world to the Holy See in a collaborative gathering meant to address real social problems and confront them with tangible solutions through the use of technology.

24 TEAMS, 36 HOURS, 3 SOCIAL CAUSES

Students from various sections of the globe came together and were fashioned into 24 teams made up of different backgrounds, faiths, and some non-believers. For 36 straight hours, they used their technological skills and business savvy to brainstorm solutions revolving three themes: social inclusion, interfaith dialogue, and assistance for migrants and refugees.

“We had 120 spots for which people had to apply. There were two rounds of evaluation based on students’ past achievements, past projects and their portfolio, if any, for past coding projects,” Florkiewicz says.

Jakub Florkiewicz, second year MBA at HBS and co-founder of VHacks

He’s also sure to highlight the various displays of diversity: a near 50/50 split between males and females and an entire spectrum of faiths including Muslims, Israelis atheists, Buddhist, Catholic, and Protestants.

“In all of the teams we had, there was a complete mix,” says Florkiewicz. “For instance, there were teams of Muslims, Jews, and Catholics working on the issue of interfaith communication and dialogue. Everyone came together in Rome to work on problems that are common to all of us.”

Lynn Xie, who served as the Chief Marketing Officer for VHacks and is also an HBS student, says the team of organizers worked diligently to ensure diversity was a hallmark of the event. In an interview with The Harvard Crimson, Xie said having 45% female participants was a major accomplishment given the male-dominance found in fields like technology, computer science, and engineering. She also spoke to 60% of VHacks’ participants receiving corporate sponsorships to cover travel fees. “We didn’t want this to be an event that was exclusive based on cost so we made sure that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds could attend. And all the major religions were also represented,” Xie said.

‘HACKATHONS AREN’T ABOUT ATTACKING THINGS, THEY’RE ABOUT DEFENDING CAUSES’

While the majority were computer science students, as hackathons are meant to use computer technology to address a problem, there were also business students in attendance.

“There’s this misconception that hackathons are for hackers. They’re not about hacking computer systems, they’re about solving problems,” explains Florkiewicz. “It’s not about attacking things, it’s about defending causes.”

To this end, he says, hackathon teams require a number of business, management, and marketing expertise. “There are so many things business students contribute to the team.

There’s a huge role for b-school students both in regards to coming up with an idea and then to help guide the process of teamwork, moderating discussions, framing discussions, project management skills, and figuring out if the proposed solution is feasible and is it doable.” In other words, business students are needed to frame the proposed solutions and prototypes in a broader context, Florkiewicz says.

A team of VHacks student organizers, participants, and advisors

HOW IT ALL STARTED: A STUDENT, A REVEREND, AND A MONSIGNOR 

According to a report in WIRED, the idea for VHACKS was initiated by Florkiewicz after meeting the Reverend Eric Salobir, founder of Optic, the first Vatican-affiliated think tank on technology and Monsignor Lucio Ruiz from the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication. Salobir had helped organize hackathons through Optic before, in San Francisco and Paris, but he was thinking of coordinating one at the church’s enclave in Rome.

Florkiewicz, who is a regular inside the hackathon scene in and around the Harvard, MIT, and general Boston areas tells Poets&Quants, “This all came to be from simply meeting the right people at the right time and having the right idea in my head at that moment. From there, I was able to co-initiate the idea with Reverend Salobir and Monseigneur Ruiz.”

The outcome of being in the right place at the right time ended up as a joint-effort between Vatican officials, the think tank Optic, and a leadership team of student organizers from Harvard College, Harvard Business School, and MIT. Together, the team carried out everything from fundraising and securing corporate partners so that the event was accessible to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds to marketing and coordinating with the Vatican. Corporate partners included Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce and there were a host of corporate mentors, judges, speakers, and Vatican officials who participated. In total, the first-of-its-kind hackathon drew 250 participants to Vatican City.

Anna Bartoletti, a second year MBA at HBS and former McKinsey consultant served as Director of Logistics & CFO for VHacks. “I was inspired by the mission of the event, more specifically: bringing technological innovation to overcome social barriers,” Bartoletti shared with Poets&Quants. “I truly believe technology has the power to change the world as we know it and being part of the first Hackathon at the Vatican seemed like the perfect opportunity to be part of this change.”

Closing out the event, there were three finalists per each of the three categories. The winning teams each received $2,000 in prize money to further develop and expand their idea. One of the winning teams included a group of students from Georgetown University. The group claimed top spot in the Migrants and Refugees category for their mobile website designed to help refugees secure long-term housing.

Final judging takes place at VHacks

Vasi Karkantzos, another second year HBS MBA who served as Chief Strategy Officer, worked on partnering with prominent tech companies to raise funds and helped recruit professionals as mentors, speakers, and judges for the event. “I am thrilled to see ideas that were born in the hackathon, award-winning or not, slowly become ventures and start gaining traction and achieving social impact,” Karkantoz says.

THAT TIME THE POPE SAID ‘HACKATHON’

For all of the participating students, Spring Break 2017 was a time to remember as they were able to attend a papal audience and receive a papal blessing by Pope Francis. Then the Pope took it a step further, specifically making mention of VHacks from the platform of the Apostolic Palace and calling out the collaborative work that the students were doing.

To hear the Pope utter the word “hackathon” was a highlight for Florkiewicz that still has him beaming with pride having returned to Harvard from Rome.

“He actually said the word hackathon. That’s history and it was very exciting. He was very excited about the event from the very beginning.”

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