Second Sparkathon attempts to solve LA homelessness

Teams strategize before judging during the 5C Sparkathon organized by Pomona Ventures Nov. 2. (Chloe Ortiz • The Student Life)

Over 200 students gathered in the Hive Nov. 2 for Pomona Ventures’ second Sparkathon, a seven-hour thinking challenge that enables students of all majors to solve a pressing world problem in small collaborative teams.

This time, the challenge was creating a solution to decrease homelessness in Los Angeles.

Fabian Fernandez-Han PO ’20 founded Sparkathon last semester because competing in corporate case competitions left him feeling intimidated and dejected.

“I wanted to build a positive environment where students of every background could come together in a fun and collaborative manner to solve global challenges and gain exposure to top recruiters,” he said.

The top three teams received the Spark Initiative Grant, a $1,000 award to help implement their solutions. The first place winner also received an additional $1,000, the second place winner $750, and the third place winner $500. This year, there were over 250 registrations, according to Fernandez-Han.

The winner of the Sparkathon was Team 17, which included Bella Kearney PO ’21, Calder Hollond PO ’21, Jed Kronenberg PO ’21, Damian Lin PO ’21, Elias van Emmerick PO ’21, and Sophia West PO ’22.

Their solution to help decrease homelessness in LA was to centralize information about shelter — such as availability, location, programs, criteria, and safety — into one database. This information would be condensed into a website and app called Sheltersearch.

“We worked really hard, and we pulled together something great,” Lin said. “It’s amazing to have the opportunity to help the homeless [gain] better access to affordable housing. That’s exactly what we’re planning on using the prize money for.”

The second place award went to Team 13, which included Claire Van Note PO ’22, Eric Zhu PO ’22, Kari Siegenthaller PO ’22, Samuel Paul Zukin PO ’22, and Caleb Brunman PO ’22.

Their solution was to create an organization called LA Cares, which focuses on erasing the stigma surrounding homelessness. LA Cares also plans to connect tenants with vouchers to landlords, while streamlining the rental process.

“My team went into the competition looking forward to having stimulating conversations about an important issue and looking to gain some experience with human-centered design,” Van Note said. “We were incredibly thrilled to have made it so far and receive second place.”

The third place award was given to Team 30, which included Virgil Munyemana PO ’22, Camille Wiggins PO ’22, Olu Omoyugbo PO ’22, Andriw Read PO ’22, Abdul Basit PO ’22, and Keath Carter PO ’22.

Their solution was creating an organization called Project REstore that would provide laborers with the skills they needed to be hired by companies, such as typing, coding, Microsoft Office Suite, resume-building, and interviewing.

Sparkathon teams pose for photos before winners are announced at the event hosted by Pomona Ventures Nov. 2. (Chloe Ortiz • The Student Life)

“I was really interested in the Sparkathon after I took a class at Harvey Mudd called Human Centered Design,” Madeleine Halle PZ ’19 said. “It’s a class all focused on problem solving, and the projects have been really engaging and inspiring, and I wanted to continue to do that outside of the class.”

Students were also interested in the chance to engage in problem-solving and to challenge themselves.

“I like problem-solving in general, so it’s kind of fun to get a prompt and try to brainstorm a solution,” Joe Brennan PO ’20 said.

With such limited time to develop a solution, students said working with each other was important.

“The collaboration aspect was definitely my favorite part of the Sparkathon,” Dafina Matiku SC ’21 said. “It was great to be able to bounce ideas [off] one another.”

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