Start me up: HackCville nurtures tomorrow’s entrepreneurs

HackCville director Chip Ransler (center) helps students develop the skills to spark innovation and future startups. Photo: Eze Amos HackCville director Chip Ransler (center) helps students develop the skills to spark innovation and future startups. Photo: Eze Amos

Are entrepreneurs born or made? Doesn’t matter to Chip Ransler, executive director of HackCville—he’ll take someone who has an idea, or wants to make a difference, and fan that spark to flame.

Although HackCville may sound like a cyber threat, Ransler says “to us, ‘hacking’ is a positive—finding quick, efficient, low-cost ways to solve problems.” HackCville’s participants (mostly UVA students, although local residents are welcome too) learn or hone technology skills and apply them to social, economic, environmental, or health-related challenges.

Out of its community “clubhouse” on Elliewood Avenue, HackCville runs six programs: Skills (courses in software development, photography, data science, web design, videography, or graphic design); Hustle (four two- or three-week group projects in idea generation); The Pioneer (online storytelling and video production); Launch (summer internships focused on software engineering, marketing, or data science); Start-up Trips (weekend site visits); and the Elliewood Fellowship, which supports top HackCville graduates in launching their own business ventures.

While not a UVA program, HackCville does have multiple support lines from UVA—founding sponsors are the Galant Center for Entrepreneurship at the Mcintire School of Commerce, UVA’s Data Science Institute, and the Quantitative Foundation; partners include the i.Lab in Darden’s Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Ransler, a UVA and Darden grad who has co-founded several start-ups, says “the way we learn here is very different,” but complements the traditional university classroom.

“There are myths about entrepreneurship,” says Ransler. “You CAN teach the skills if you put people through experiences that expose them to uncertainty and help them work through it. We create a sandbox where people can try things out and risk very little—low-cost, low-key, no grades.”

So is HackCville a tech gig or entrepreneurs’ boot camp? Both, says Ransler, and a recruiting tool as well: “We teach skills that make people technically competent, and then we put these smart people into start-up companies that can actually use their help.”

Over the last two years, Ransler says, HackCville has placed 154 participants in internships at 81 companies—and that’s just in Charlottesville. Its website reports 50 percent of those interns keep on working with their companies after the internship ends, and many are hired full-time.

HackCville has grown 10-fold in the last two and a half years, both in revenues and in number of participants, Ransler says. “We’re so invested in creating that next generation of people—both people who were students in our program and are now teaching in it (including HackCville’s Chief Operating Officer Daniel Willson, UVA ’16), as well as those who stay in the Charlottesville area and help build our start-up economy.”

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