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The Women in Tech x Expedia Hackathon: A Spotlight on our Winners

by Cayanne Chachati

In 2017, Paper Airplanes launched the Women in Tech Program, an initiative that aims to equip women, and particularly marginalized women, with the technical skills required to accel in today’s increasingly digitized economy. Within this purview, the Women in Tech Program offers introductory and advanced courses in Business Analytics, as well as courses in Python and Web Development.

On October 1st, the Paper Airplanes Women in Tech Program, in partnership with Expedia, hosted a first of its kind Hackathon on sustainable tourism. This event brought together 35 enthusiastic students from all over world, and particularly from the MENA region. Students were placed in groups depending on their technical skills and worked in close collaboration with mentors from Expedia. After a kick-off workshop on some of the technical skills used at Expedia, the teams were given two short weeks to come up an idea to promote sustainable tourism, develop a web application, and pitch their final product to a panel of expert judges. While the judges were blown away by the level of skill, collaboration. and determination that all the teams exhibited, they were particularly impressed by two projects: Voluntopia and Puretour.

In first place, Voluntopia was inspired by the growing appeal of eco-friendly options among travelers worldwide. After conducting an in-depth market analysis, the team, comprised of Harout Mardirossian, Ruba Aburub, and Farah Fahhoum, decided to combine travel, volunteering, and sustainability into one user-friendly and appealing application. The Voluntopia platform allows travelers to easily find simple volunteering and eco-friendly opportunities while on travel. Depending on the activity, tourists gain points that they can then redeem through free local experiences. This not only promotes sustainable tourism, but also serves as a great opportunity for locals to advertise their businesses. The platform’s two-way rating system incentivizes both the tourists and locals and gives the app more credibility.

The first mastermind behind this project is Farah Fahhoum, a second-year computer engineering student based in Syria. Coming in with a strong background in robotics and programming, Farah expanded her skillset in research and design. She learned Photoshop in two weeks and ultimately worked with Ruba to design the project’s logo. As she describes, “without the hackathon, I would not have learned photoshop at all.” Alongside Farah, Harout Mardirossian holds a dual-degree in Chemistry and Computer Science, is a graduate of the MIT ReACT program, and currently works in NeedsList as a developer. Typically working in back-end development, Harout used the Hackathon as an opportunity to advance his frond-end development skills. As his mentor David Barmaz explains, “Harout was the lead developer of the team. He worked long hours after work to ensure a beautiful final product.” Last but not least, Ruba Aburub holds a degree in electrical engineering from Jordan, is a graduate of the MIT ReACT program, and is now working at Microsoft as an AI and IT support engineer. Ruba was involved in all aspects of the project, from ideation to designing the slides, and like Farah, was involved in creating the logo.

While the judges selected Voluntopia as the winner of the Hackathon, they all strongly agreed that PureTour was a very close runner up. Puretour is an added feature on the Expedia application that promotes sustainable tourism. Through this feature, tourists can book a local tour guide who has been trained in environmental sustainability. The platform includes the ability to hire a local photographer, as well as to partake in cycling tours. This not only promotes tourism and sustainability, but also contributes to local economic growth. The mastermind behind this project is Abeer Al-Olabi. Hailing from Syria, Abeer holds a degree in math from the University of Damascus and is now completing a masters in web technology at the Syrian Virtual University. In two weeks, Abeer picked up on Bootstrap, single handedly came up with an innovative solution to sustainable tourism, implemented it, and pitched her idea to a panel of judges. Apart from the technical skills she acquired, Abeer greatly improved her communication skills. As she explains, “I was never used to asking for help. The critical point or change is that the mentors taught me that it is okay to ask for help and support.”

Thanks to the work of the Women in Tech Program, Expedia, and most importantly the students and mentors, this year’s Hackathon was an incredible success!

About the author: Cayanne Chachati

Cayanne joined Paper Airplanes in the summer of 2020 as an intern in the Women in Tech Program and helped develop the curriculum for Business Analytics 2. She quickly realized that she wanted to be more involved in the program and became a Program Coordinator specifically focusing on the Business Analytics courses. Cayanne was born and raised in Syria, and has lived in Lebanon and the United States. She attended Harvard University and graduated in 2020 with a degree in Political Science, and she is currently working as an analyst at an economic consulting firm- Analysis Group.

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