Diversity & Inclusion
Events / Startups

How Startup Weekend DC put a focus on inclusion

The trio of organizers and participants from the most recent Startup Weekend in D.C. told us about the 54-hour experience.

Startup Weekend organizers from left to right: Monica Kang, Brittany Sickler, and Steven Rodriguez. (Courtesy photo)

Last weekend, Techstars Global Startup Weekend brought together nearly 100 people to create new companies as part of the Global Entrepreneurship Week.

While the Startup Weekend is not the only game in town to foster entrepreneurial skills in diverse people – the BEACON DC awards, last year’s Thriving Cities hackathon, and even a local library meeting all do that, too, to name just a few – Startup Weekend is unique in focusing on startup creation, and on including deaf participants.

We spoke to the trio of organizers for the Startup Weekend – Steven A. Rodriguez, Monica Kang, and Brittany Sickler – to learn how they have helped incorporate deaf participants for two years now, and of course to find out who won.


According to organizer Steven Rodriguez, there were 97 participants who attended last weekend– a slight increase from the 90 participants at last year’s event we covered. They were split into four groups, two of which were of mixed deaf and hearing attendees.

Rodriguez, who is the Startup Community Manager at the Global Entrepreneurship Network told us his favorite part of the weekend was “witnessing the hearing and deaf interact with one another, breaking barriers and helping different communities come together to engage and collaborate for greater impact, and by extension greater economic development for the region.”

One of the attendees who is deaf, Theodore Miller, shared his experience as a first-time participant. Miller worked on a campus delivery project his group called MunXe. Working on it in a group of mixed hearing and deaf participants was a unique experience for him.

“It was a wonderful experience for me because we don’t see that often nowadays,” Miller wrote in an email. “There are many strong prejudices and barriers built against Deaf community.”

Another participant, Kushaan Shah, founder of Social Rise, shared his experiences developing a startup to fix lousy dates. “Our solution was an app that provided personalized curation, location relevation content, and packaged date suggestions,” Shah explained to us via email. His group won the competition last Sunday.

While his group did not have any deaf participants, Shah said everyone spoke together to give feedback and that he was impressed “how there were universal components to all of our experiences, especially concerning awkward dates, regardless of our backgrounds.”

Shah told us that the future of the project is uncertain, but that the group is applying to the Techstars’ next round of judging for a chance to compete globally. For more information on the winning project, or the other projects, check out the event website.


It’s experiences like those of Shah and Miller that the event’s sponsors were hoping they could help create. One of the event’s co-organizers, Monica Kang, is also the CEO of Innovators Box. She told us she made InnovatorsBox a sponsor of the event as a way to give back to the community and encourage diversity.

“Diversity and inclusion is everything,” Kang told us in an email, adding later, “The most creative developments also form a diversity of thought so the development of inclusion is critical.

Other sponsors for the weekend included Startup Digest Washington, Cogent Law, Justworks, the D.C. government Office of the Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Development and Gallaudet University.

Despite having several sponsors, organizers told us they hope to find more funding streams for next year to continue to improve the event’s accessibility for everyone.

Keith Doane works at Gallaudet University and helped coordinate deaf students attending the Startup Weekend. He told us in an email that Gallaudet University believes in helping to the Startup Weekend because paying for ASL interpreters “broke a bank.” According to Doane, the university helped pay the $41,000 it cost for 20 interpreters to work 8:30 a.m – 10 p.m. Saturday through Sunday.

“Nearly no one would be willing to provide this cost to grant the accessibility/inclusion for 29 students,” Doane said. He added later, “However, Steven and I are going to look for some grants/sponsors from such foundations and business/corporations that would provide some [money] to alleviating the burden for next year.”

It’s a move that could help expand opportunities for deaf entrepreneurs to participate in other ways as well, as Miller noted.

“There are plenty of Deaf entrepreneurs who own successful [businesses],” Miller said. “And it could be nice if one of them was appointed to be a judge at the event.”

For now, though, the Startup Weekend remains a place for would-be startup creators to learn the skills they need and experience unique bilingual collaborations.


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