North Carolina A&T Students Angelica Willis, Ashana Evans, Brandon Long and Jean Beya pose with Earl G. Graves Jr. (center), president and CEO of Black Enterprise magazine

N.C. A&T Shines in Silicon Valley Winning Black Enterprise Hackathon Challenge

The same day that North Carolina A&T State University, the number one producer of African American engineers, hosted the President of the United States for a discussion on race, sports and achievement; a team of four N.C. A&T engineering students emerged from Silicon Valley as the winners of Black Enterprise’s TechConneXt Summit BE SMART hackathon. 

A&T team members Angelica Willis, Brandon Long, Ashana Evans and Jean Beya took home the highest honors after creating an app that helps anyone discover all-things relative to the black experience while located anywhere in the nation. The team examined various metrics including African American buying power and the number of road trips they take and asked the question: Have you ever wanted to go on a spontaneous road trip, but wanted opportunities to explore African American culture and history and at the same time support minority-owned businesses?

The team's suggested solution was their winning app, “Let’s Go Black:” Where Culture Meets Adventure One Road at a Time. The IOS application helps users discover and devise a customized road trip experience and helps them support black-owned businesses by sending them push notifications when they are in the vicinity of an African-American business. The app bases its suggestions on data input by the user and metrics involving distance and key words for trip themes.

Unique in concept, requirement and parameters, the competition challenged the students beyond what most were accustomed to.

“The BE Hackathon was like nothing I had ever experienced before, it is unlike any traditional hackathon where you usually have the freedom to develop your solution using whatever technologies and coding languages you want,” said Willis, senior computer science major and team captain. “This was much like an obstacle course testing how well we could implement a set of given technology requirements, including an IDScanner, a geolocation tracker, and payment system and develop an innovative idea around them. This added an additional challenge, but one that our team was ready to meet head on.” 

“Being able to compete in a hackathon is truly an amazing experience to me. But being able to compete in a hackathon with students who look just like me in the heart of tech is really an extraordinary opportunity,” said Long. 

The 24 to 36 hour hackathon challenged each team to use their creativity and development prowess to present an innovative In-Vehicle Infotainment (IVI) app. The participants’ primary focus was to develop an app for usage within a Toyota vehicle, also the lead summit sponsor. Additionally, the app had to aid in providing a value-added driver and passenger experience within the vehicle.

After consulting with accomplished developers and the judges, the teams were rated based on the viability of their app, creative usage of required APIs, and the overall in-car experience for the end-user.

 A&T competed against highly competent students from nine other colleges and universities. 

“In these types of competitions, it is important to develop a strong team. We are all excellent coders, but the key to our success was cohesiveness, strategy, and polish of our product,” said Willis. “We know we have the highest ranked HBCU Computer Science program, so we definitely felt like we had something to prove. We always had the mindset that we were coming home with the victory, because that's what Aggies Do! It also helped to have a lot of support and encouragement from our department.” 

As amazing as the students’ performance was it was fully a reflection of the amazing teachers that guided and supported their knowledge and success.

“Obviously, I am very proud to be associated with such a fine group of students,” said Dr. Kelvin S. Bryant, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science. “They were able to work as a team and demonstrate the excellence that we promote and expect out of all our students.”

Brimming with pride, Dr. Gerry Dozier, professor and chairman of the Department of Computer Science and director of the Center for Advanced Studies in Identity Sciences adds, "We, the faculty, staff, and students, are so proud of Angelica, Brandon, Ashana, and Jean! They are an awesome team and they did an awesome job!"

While the technological sector discusses what’s often referred to as the “2 percent problem,” A&T students have again proven that a qualified workforce exists and excels in the tech industry.

“There is a common misconception in silicon valley that the lack of diversity in the industry is caused by a lack of talent. Black Enterprise's goal for the hackathon was to provide yet another example of how this is not true by bringing top HBCU students together and showing the tech community that we exist,” said Willis. “In the next 20 years, minorities will become the majority in the United States, and in order for tech companies to remain relevant, they will need to adapt to the diversity of their customers by diversifying their workforce.”

Willis adds, “The best part about hackathons is that the end is just the beginning!”