When University of Virginia fourth-year student Alexander Olesen needed some help getting his idea for an accessible hydroponics system off the ground, he sought help in a cluttered, aging house on Elliewood Avenue.
Olesen, who grew up in rural Norfolk, England, found the help he needed at Hack CVille, a nonprofit dedicated to providing space and resources for university students to learn the ins and outs of entrepreneurship and innovation.
“My idea is all very well, but ideas are pretty easy to come by,” Olesen said. “But to be able to take it from a concept with a little bit written down to a fully functioning prototype is what [Hack CVille is] all about.”
Founded in 2012 by UVa alum Spencer Ingram, Hack CVille has in the last year tripled the number of programs it offers, increased student enrollment from 60 to more than 170 and gained two full-time employees.
This semester, Hack CVille is offering nine 12-week courses in subjects ranging from graphic design, videography and web design to education innovation, social entrepreneurship and Hustle, the center’s entry-level entrepreneurship class.
A 12-week summer program, called Launch, which will pay participants a $1,000 stipend, joins the semester classes this year. The program, said Hack CVille Executive Director Chip Ransler, will give participants an intensive course in web development and digital marketing, immersive sessions with local industries and round out with a six-week internship with a local startup.
Students will be paid out of a pool of donations made by participating companies, Ransler said.
Hack CVille originally had intended to charge $3,500 to $4,000 for the program, but nixed the tuition model in an attempt to make the program more attractive.
“We are targeting students who are already paying a lot for college, and we are trying to make this accessible to anybody who is awesome,” he said. “We wanted to take the program from a nice-to-have to an ‘Oh, my gosh, I gotta have this.’”
The idea is to take participants with no experience or expertise and prepare them for work at a small company or to start their own business, Ransler said.
“With the summer program, they do not have the talent yet, they don’t have the idea yet, they don’t have validation that this is something that is viable so they can go to an incubator yet,” he said. “We are the stew that is going to emerge into these other spaces.”
The program has attracted interest from about 70 students so far, Ransler said, and he expects to enroll about 40 this summer.
Hack CVille’s growth all has been fueled by student interest in new programs and by students’ willingness to share expertise, said Daniel Willson, a UVa alum who this fall became the organization’s first full-time director of operations.
“We are being a little bit more intentional about the programs we are launching now than, say, a year ago, but for the most part it has been driven by a student coming forward and saying, ‘I want to know more about X,’ or, ‘I can teach X,’ and I know a lot of other people who are interested, too,” Willson said.
Willson was hired alongside Ransler, Hack CVille’s first executive director since Ingram left in 2014.
Though Ransler and Willson are the group’s only full-time staff, Hack CVille employs nearly 20 students part-time to run the center’s day-to-day operations and teach its programs.
Fourth year UVa student Jessica Zimmerman joined Hack CVille two years ago and since then has helped it grow and benefitted from its success.
Zimmerman, who is teaching Wireframe CS web development at Hack CVille this semester, was an early employee of Radical, a design company founded at Hack CVille.
Through a connection made at Hack, Zimmerman got an internship at Slack, a San Francisco-based workflow app, and parlayed that into a full-time job after she graduates in May.
“They now have a lot of systems in place to help people from the start connect with individuals in the industry whom they want to be connected with,” she said. “They have continued to add a bunch of alums through that network, and those people have been phenomenal connections for people in Hack CVille, and that has been really great.”
Third year student Andy Page this year was promoted to managing director, making him largely responsible for each program’s curriculum.
“I see my role as almost the head of the school because I am so involved in the design of these programs and what is being taught and how it is being taught,” he said. “And also, there is a surprising amount of research that goes on at Hack Cville, just because we try so many things and then make changes going forward.”
At Hack CVille, Olesen, who studies politics, met a team of engineering students he could lean on to turn his idea into a physical reality.
Olesen’s as-yet unnamed project is an attempt to make hydroponic gardens widely affordable and accessible. Hydroponic gardens expose plants’ roots to nutrient-rich solutions either without soil or with roots supported by an inert medium such as gravel.
“It’s basically an IV for plants,” Olesen said. “It is much more water-efficient, because plants get what they need directly to their roots as opposed to having some of it dissipate in soil.”
“I was very lucky and I got some great guys on my team, and they have really helped fill my knowledge gap,” he said. “They are, between them, biomedical engineering, computer science and electrical engineering … I needed to take specific functions and put them onto a single computer chip.”
Third year student Daniel Autry came through Hack’s Hustle and web design classes before being asked to help teach web design this semester. Autry, a Texas native, said he felt Hack Cville to be a comfortable environment that he had trouble finding elsewhere at UVa.
“At UVa, it is kind of hard, especially as a minority, to feel accepted sometimes, but Hack Cville was just so diverse,” he said. “Everyone is the same in that they want to change the world, but diverse in the ways they want to do that.”