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Update: After first publishing this post in June, the student director of LehighHacks reached out almost immediately with his side of the story. Though my team was frustrated by Well’s Fargo’s apparent Houdini act, it turns out that the hackathon organizers were out thousands of dollars due to slow and inconsiderate corporate reimbursement policies. Nearly six months later, some time in late September, I did receive my check in the mail, which, in the end, was further delayed by Lehigh University’s not knowing how to handle distribution of prize money and telling us that disbursing it was a “low priority”. I find it ironic that the freedom of small-scale hackathons is continued to be restricted by bureaucratic attitudes and policies, impediments that hackers aim to circumvent in the first place.

More than two months ago, my friends and I competed in the inaugural LehighHacks, a 24-hour hackathon hosted at Lehigh University. For the first hackathon hosted on our campus, I was very impressed. Everything from the venue, to the food, to the general organization, to the sponsor participation, to the list of prizes all suggested that the organizers had been around the block and knew what they were doing. Wells Fargo was the main sponsor, and a representative from their South Bethlehem office took to the stage during the opening ceremony to announce a special challenge as well as the grand prizes they were offering.

Wells Fargo’s special challenge revolved around a 4×4 block square of South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania that was historically underserved. The challenge was to create a hack that helped this neighborhood, and three small cash prizes were offered to the winners chosen by Wells Fargo. Then, the grand prizes were announced. They were $750, $500, and $250 for the first three teams as selected by the panel of judges. As the Wells Fargo entourage exited the building, the participants went to work eyeing the top prizes.

Only, Wells Fargo never came back.

As my team worked through the night, we saw a lot of cool projects, including some by teams attempting hacks specifically aimed at Wells Fargo’s challenge. The next morning, as the other sponsors showed up in full force, there was no sign of Wells Fargo, despite the company’s name being prominently displayed in promotional materials. We were so sleep deprived that we began to wonder if we had imagined their presence to begin with. My team finished our project and didn’t encounter anyone from Wells Fargo during the preliminary round of judging, either. After making the cut to the final round and giving our presentation on stage, it was time for the awards ceremony.

The challenge-specific awards started first. Our friends won some neat prizes as we waited patiently for the top three overall to be announced. I noticed that the South Bethlehem community prize wasn’t mentioned at all. Then, after applauding a hard-earned third place and second place, it was announced that my team had won LehighHacks. We were ecstatic and stuck around for quite some time speaking to our professors, friends, other participants, and organizers. We had a great time.

I don’t want to be too dramatic and risk exaggerating what happened next. The fact of the matter is that nobody in the top three teams has received their prize money or any type of official explanation from Wells Fargo or LehighHacks organizers regarding what’s going on. One of my teammates tried to contact Wells Fargo and mostly got the run-around, but then was told it would take a while. Meanwhile, the hackathon organizers have been no help. Several weeks ago, I spoke to one of them in person and he told me that “The money was posted to his [another organizer’s] account last night” but that turned out to be an outright lie, while the person whose account the money was apparently posted to says that there is nothing they can do to get Wells Fargo to send it any faster.

I’m not advocating for you to boycott Wells Fargo, send them hate mail, or grab your pitchforks. However, this is downright despicable conduct from a large company and I feel it is necessary to bring the situation to light. Sure, there is more to a hackathon than prize money. Sure, the hackathon organizers may have misstepped in not securing the money beforehand. But, regardless of what a company gains from sponsoring a hackathon, they have a duty to fulfill their promises. That Wells Fargo can now parade their involvement with the event and their non-existent initiative to assist the struggling community of South Bethlehem while not having held up their end of the bargain is insulting.

The hackathon community is something really special. At LehighHacks, where many participants were first-timers, a Houdini act like this one undermines confidence and causes people to lose faith in the entire structure. Wells Fargo, please make things right.

A Hackathon Sponsor’s Duty