Street talks to Hannah Cutler, one of Penn's most ambitious engineers.
Hannah Cutler sits comfortably in a sleek metal chair in Capogiro, her black, puffy coat only partially unzipped for a two hour interview. At first, one might have taken her keeping her coat on as a sign she was in a rush, but the more you talk to Hannah, the more you get a sense that it might very well just be a product of her voracious curiosity—there are simply more interesting things to her than worrying about that. One gets the sense that there’s always something that could pop into her head if you mention the right keyword. It’s not that she isn’t present—she very much is—but she has a mind for constantly learning and sharing. She’ll unexpectedly whip out her phone to show you a speech Mark Zuckerberg was giving in North Carolina that she was listening to while making dinner, or tell you about what a great show Mind of a Chef is or explain the historical relevance of restaurateur Alice Waters.
That curiosity is perhaps the key to understanding Hannah. “I think the world is a really interesting place. There are so many challenges and I think I’m one of those people that wakes up and [says] ‘I feel very lucky today, let’s do something,’” says Hannah, relating her approach to life earnestly with an air of optimism. This isn’t just some ideal for Hannah. She’s done quite a lot. Running through a list of what she’s accomplished in four years is impressive: she was part of the second cohort of Penn Social Impact House, worked at GovLab and one of Microsoft’s Civic Tech teams, launched her own startup, locked down a post–grad job and just landed a summer internship at IDEO.
Made Possible By Penn Alumni:
Stay connected with QuakerNet:
The Alumni Directory
She might cringe at the above list. “I’m not one of those people who’s like, ‘Look at me! Look at all the great things I’m doing,’” she says, and it’s true. Hannah laughs at herself often and is more interested in talking about what she’s fascinated by than she is in talking about herself. In fact, her charming self–awareness often turns into her openly admitting to her perceived flaws. As a computer science major in the School of Engineering, Hannah says that she doesn’t think of herself as the most technically brilliant and, as she puts it, is “not somebody who has never failed.”
Still, Hannah does take a great deal of pride in one particular trait: her resourcefulness. She feels that, perhaps above all else, Penn has taught her how to be resourceful. “Whether that’s finding the right people you should be talking to, or when you learn something how do you figure out the nuggets you can take away from it to make an impact on other people,” she explains. The combination of this resourcefulness and her aforementioned curiosity has taken her along her self–admittedly nontraditional path, a path which has led her to the intersection of social good and technology where she finds herself today.
Hannah’s path began when scrolling through Facebook one day as a freshman where she came across the opportunity to apply for the Penn–Columbia Social Impact House, a social entrepreneurship incubator. As a fellow in the Penn Social Impact House after her freshman year, Hannah spent two weeks completing a two–week curriculum covering everything from design–thinking workshops to impact investing. Still, going into the interview process for Penn Social Impact House, Hannah knew she had an interest in working at GovLab, a research institute at NYU headed by Beth Noveck, the first Deputy Chief Technology Officer and director of the White House Open Government Initiative. GovLab works to leverage technology to make government more efficient and democratic, a mission that has always captivated Hannah. Yet, it wasn’t until her sophomore year that this aspiration began to take shape.
Always looking for opportunities that others might overlook, Hannah came across an event where Reed Hundt, former FCC chairman, was holding office hours. While many other students were asking about his time in government, Hannah talked to him about her interests. When she mentioned Beth Noveck and GovLab, Hundt told her to shoot Noveck an email with him copied, which she did, a choice which led to Hannah spending her sophomore summer at GovLab.
While at GovLab, Hannah, as you might expect, was still looking for ways to fill her time, so she attended a panel event where she got a chance to hear from Matt Stempeck, Microsoft’s Director of Civic Tech. After initially applying for a job at Microsoft through OCR in her junior year, Hannah decided that the Microsoft Civic Tech team was where she really wanted to be and that’s where she ended up; she spent the summer creating a graph of the civic tech space so people could visualize the somewhat nebulous concept. She also worked on a project piloting the use of Microsoft Translator in schools and immigration offices in New York City.
Hannah says it best when she admits, “My narrative is nonlinear, which is pursuing opportunities and meeting people. I think people are at the core of it, our experiences are our experiences, but people, we can learn so much from other people.” That’s not just a thought about her personal journey, but the heart of her passion project, her startup called Aspire.
Of herself, Hannah says that she’s not just the type to color outside the lines, but to draw a whole new picture. That’s exactly what she hopes to help others do with Aspire as a “modified version of mentorship.” As Hannah explains it, “I see many of my peers struggling to figure out how they should position themselves, surrounded by courses and jobs and online content and all kinds of things, figuring out what you should be doing. It’s often unclear what opportunities we should be pursuing.” Hannah thinks the best way to figure it out is by connecting with others. Using Aspire, one can sign up as either an “expert” or an “explorer,” where the algorithm Hannah wrote will try to match you with either an expert or an explorer that’s relevant to your interests.
Breaking the trite stereotype of the socially inept engineer, Hannah is incredibly thoughtful about how she’s formulated Aspire. For Hannah, Aspire isn’t a platform to replace any other service. Instead, it’s something that doesn’t really exist yet: a place for students to learn about the “inflection points” in their peers’ lives that have shaped their paths. As Hannah points out, there’s so much out there, but it’s difficult to know where to start. Hannah is humorously exasperated when noting that renowned psychologist Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab posts their jobs on Craigslist—a job which she applied to, not because she was interested in the work, but just to talk to them—and just as dismayed when noting that Williams Hall still has all of their information on physical bulletin boards. “There must be a better way,” Hannah laments.
The endgame for Aspire is “making people feel like they’re supported and building a culture where people feel included and can go pursue the things that they aspire to do,” says Hannah. Because, at the end of the day, beyond curiosity and resourcefulness it seems Hannah just really loves helping people—whether that’s making dinner for her family, helping you find a mentor or building a community garden at her high school (her first big foray into social impact).
While she’s off to LinkedIn full–time for their Associate Product Manager program after her IDEO internship this summer, she hopes to keep building Aspire. As for Hannah’s own aspirations, “If you came into my bedroom, okay, that sounds weird, but on my walls I have a map of the world, a map of the United States, and then all these crazy drawings related to this project because it’s very much indicative of my personality, just thinking about ‘Well how can I connect, how do I connect the world?’”
The rest of us will just have to wait to find out.
Click here to read more Penn 10 profiles.