The 7 Most Surreal Moments of Startup Weekend Education Pittsburgh

02/25/2015 | By Lee Ngo

This post originally appeared on

Startup Weekend Education Pittsburgh (#SWeduPGH / @SWeduPGH) came and went from February 20th to February 22nd. It was a sold-out emotional roller coaster for its 120+ participants, hailing from as far as Mississippi and ranging as young as nine years old.

I wrote previously that this event was a dream come true, and indeed it was. However, there were moments in this event that made me wonder...

Consider the following moments:

1. Duolingo's Luis von Ahn basically walked down the street to come talk to us.

Luis von Ahn shares his idea to generate infinite energy from the kinetic activities at gyms. It did not take off. Photo courtesy of Ben Matzke Photos.
I've heard Professor von Ahn speak in person and at his now famous TEDxCMU talk numerous times, and I never get tired of the bombs he drops:


Prof. von Ahn also opened up about his struggles as an entrepreneurship - the nightmares of product, the perpetual campaign of "gamification," and the immense complexity in providing a service for each language.

There's nothing greater than when a local startup rock star maintains a sense of humility. Thank you, Prof. von Ahn!

2. That moment when Expii's Po-Shen Loh made the entire crowd gasp in awe.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="600"] Po-Shen Loh dazzles the crowd with his brilliance and energy. Photo courtesy of Ben Matzke Photos.[/caption]

I know it seems silly that I compared myself to Steve Jobs when he first saw Steve Wozniak's PC and operating system for the first time, but I hope you all understand that feeling now.


When Professor Loh showed us all "The Map" - that seemingly endless web of knowledge that continually expands as people actively contribute to Expii via "colossal collaboration" - the entire room was floored.


Prof. Loh is just one of many in a community of game changers, and the best part: they're more excited to meet YOU. Expii is currently live and ready for you to contribute.

3. A mother and son competed AGAINST each other (and, somehow, both won)

I did not discover this until well into the competition, but participants Wesley and her son Porter joined different teams: Project Playground and The Wrinkled Brain Project. Throughout, there was nothing but love and respect - sometimes a rare sight at an intense competition like Startup Weekend.

[caption id="attachment_25331" align="alignnone" width="550"]Mother-son bonding via intense weekend-long startup competition. Mother-son bonding via intense weekend-long startup competition.[/caption]

Although Mom ended up placing first in the competition, Porter was the real star of the event. This Startup Weekend featured the first "Reaping" ever - a sacrifice of one participant to entertain the other participants and maintain social order.

[caption id="attachment_25330" align="alignnone" width="600"]Something like this. Actually, almost exactly like this. Something like this. Actually, almost exactly like this.[/caption]

In this case, one would be selected to showcase Startup Weekend Pittsburgh's own MegaBits - an MMOPRG monster-fighting mobile app played in the real world released a month ago at the iTunes store.

However, when the moment of selection came, Porter volunteered as tribute. 


Porter's heroism was fortunately mentored by MegaBits CEO Patrick Perini. Photo courtesy of Ben Matzke Photos.
He managed to vanquish a Koldiak with a Grimlug's flurry of tornadoes and saved the day. (I don't know what these words mean.)

Well done, Porter, and Wesley - way to be an awesome parent. Speaking of which:

4. We're convinced Pittsburgh would crush a Startup Weekend Youth.

As a judging and coaching dynamic duo, Entrepreneuring Youth's proud alums Jesse and Joziah Council were the most poised (and well-dressed) gentlemen at the event.

[caption id="attachment_25366" align="alignnone" width="600"]By far the best dressed at Startup Weekend Education Pittsburgh, or pretty much at any event. Far too much style for a Startup Weekend Education Pittsburgh, or pretty much at any event. Photo courtesy of Ben Matzke Photos.[/caption]

Our Youth Choice Panel not only counted their votes faster than the main judges did (that was my bad), they also entertained the audience with their enthusiasm.

[caption id="attachment_25365" align="alignnone" width="600"]Today's students, tomorrow's leaders. Photo courtesy of Ben Matzke Photos. Today's students, tomorrow's leaders. Photo courtesy of Ben Matzke Photos.[/caption]

Lastly, who could forget that little girl who validated Penny Discovery's MVP:

[caption id="attachment_25362" align="alignnone" width="600"]Children always make the best customers for validation. Always. Photo courtesy of Ben Matzke Photos. Children always make the best customers for validation. Always. Photo courtesy of Ben Matzke Photos.[/caption]

The youth have spoken - they want more entrepreneurship!

5. Startup Weekends are not traditionally done in sub-freezing temperatures. (We Pittsburgh folk don't care.)

[caption id="attachment_25375" align="alignnone" width="600"]volunteer-sledding A Startup Weekend Pittsburgh hazing ritual for new volunteers. Photo courtesy of Ben Matzke Photos.[/caption]

One of our platinum sponsors, Problem Solutions, dared our organizing team to borrow the Environmental Charter School's sleds and tear up some powder out in Frick Park.

[caption id="attachment_25374" align="alignnone" width="600"]walt-grata-sledding Walt Grata of Problem Solutions feels cold in his manly beard. Photo courtesy of Ben Matzke Photos.[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_25376" align="alignnone" width="600"]group-photo-sledding Fortunately, nobody was hurt in this insane endeavour. Photo courtesy of Ben Matzke Photos.[/caption]

Some of the team made a snowman out in front. We decided to name it "Gusky" after Norton Gusky, a huge advocate in the Pittsburgh education community and the first person to buy a ticket at our event. Unfortunately, he fell ill and couldn't attend, so we hope that this snowman was a fitting tribute.

[caption id="attachment_25373" align="alignnone" width="600"]gusky-with-team Our team posting with Gusky the Snowman. Photo courtesy of Ben Matzke Photos.[/caption]

6. Nobody else than Mandela Schumacher-Hodge could have facilitated SWeduPGH. Nobody.

Not only did we get the Global Director of Education Entrepreneurs, but we also got a woman who grew up in Pittsburgh's East End and whose local legendary father Leroy Hodge fought relentlessly for the kind of future we hoped to represent at our event.

[caption id="attachment_25371" align="alignnone" width="600"]mandela-mic Mandela laying down the rules of SWeduPGH. Photo courtesy of Ben Matzke Photos.[/caption]

One of our judges, The Fred Rogers Center's President Bill Isler approached her after the winners were announced. Apparently, Mandela's mom and Bill were previously commissioners of the Pittsburgh Dynamo Soccer League, where Mandela cultivated her enduring passion for the sport.

[caption id="attachment_25273" align="alignnone" width="600"]A reunion that transcends generation. Photo courtesy of Mandela Schumacher-Hodge. A reunion that transcends generation. Photo courtesy of Mandela Schumacher-Hodge.[/caption]

If you can name someone else who should have been with us that weekend... you don't really exist, for you are a logical paradox. Welcome back home, Mandela!

7. The epic dance party you all missed (probably because you built a company in 54 hours)

No words necessary. Just a video of Startup Weekend Pittsburgh veteran Steve McCarthy showing off his salsa skills with facilitator Mandela:


(In case you can't see it -

Convinced yet that there might be a higher power involved? Perhaps, but I'm more inclined to think it begins with this validated fact:

Education is a big deal in Pittsburgh, and entrepreneurship is a great way to stimulate its progress. 

It was too easy to recruit the right organizers and volunteers - I already knew the most passionate, committed, trustworthy, and hardworking people in town.

[caption id="attachment_25367" align="alignnone" width="600"]organizing-team-better-pose We're having no fun. No fun at all. Photo courtesy of Ben Matzke Photos.[/caption]

We really didn't have any trouble finding the right judges - we knew we wanted a teenage entrepreneur, three prominent women in educational technology, and a veteran in Pittsburgh school policy and philanthropy. Mission accomplished.

[caption id="attachment_25364" align="alignnone" width="600"]judging-panel Judges Joziah Council, Aileen Owens, Lisa Abel-Palmieri, Stephanie Butler, and Bill Isler having a great time. Photo courtesy of Ben Matzke Photos.[/caption]

The greatest challenge with any Startup Weekend is outreach - despite our hard work, we never know until the last minute if people will come out to participate.

[caption id="attachment_25363" align="alignnone" width="600"]Not bad for a first time. Not bad for a first time. So, when's the next Startup Weekend in Pittsburgh, anyway?[/caption]

So, on behalf of everyone, I thank you for experiencing what I had experienced just a few years ago - this event is and always will be for you.

I also ask that you do the following:

(Apply here:

[caption id="attachment_25372" align="alignnone" width="600"]epic-rock-paper-scissors Networking: gamified. Photo courtesy of Ben Matzke Photos.[/caption]

After all, you're now part of a big family, and we're excited to have you.

Pretty surreal, isn't it? 

Lee Ngo is the Regional Manager of the US East Coast for UP Global and the lead organizer of Startup Weekend Education Pittsburgh. Many of the photos in this post were provided generously by Ben Matzke Photos, all rights reserved.