Johnny Le is the 2018 recipient of the Ivory Prize at the University of Utah. Photo courtesy of Johnny Le.

When Johnny Le founded the largest hackathon in Utah, he never expected any recognition. Today, he is the proud recipient of the 2018 Ivory Prize in Student Leadership. The prize consists of a $2,000 award in addition to a $10,000 donation to his program HackTheU.

“The prize recognizes the extraordinary, influential student accomplishments and leadership that impact student success and positively affect campus or the broader community,” said the Office of Undergraduate Studies.

When Johnny Le joined the world of computer science at the University of Utah, he had no idea where to begin. Le started out with a mind for medicine, but after his first computer science class wiped his resume clean. A mentor suggested Le try out a hackathon, so off he went to events in Colorado and Texas.

“I was just so inspired. University of Utah students have so much talent and they were going out to other states and winning competitions,” Le said. “Why don’t we have one just right here at our doorstep?”

Le’s HackTheU is a 24-hour competition to solve provided prompts via virtual reality, augmented reality, Internet of Things and more. In 2017, the event hosted over 200 students. Students who fall short of first place still receive practice and access to workshops with professionals from the community. The first event took nearly three months to put together back in 2016.

“The biggest thing is to not be afraid to reach out to anyone who is going to listen. A lot of people have ideas,” Le said. “Ideas aren’t worth anything. It’s really if you create something with them that matters. Passion is the biggest thing. Passion and determination, without those, I feel like half the biggest companies in the world wouldn’t exist. It’s really passion that drives everything.”

Le lives by the motto, “Shoot for the moon and even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.” A key role model in shaping this view of the world is his dad. Le’s father immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in the ’80s and has worked hard to provide for Johnny and his sister.

“My dad is the type of guy who is the biggest handyman, really good street smarts … That’s the kind of guy he is, so growing up I just had a lot to look up to,” Le said. “A guy who could work so hard and create such a great life for me and my sister from nothing.”

Le’s high goals pushed him to create the largest hackathon in Utah, but dreams are not the only thing someone needs to become an award-winning leader.

“I realize that the biggest thing is when you have other people helping you out, you really have to make them feel like they own the project as well,” Le said. “Whenever you’re working on a project, you’ve got to make sure that if you assign someone something, it’s not you telling them to do it, it’s their task and they can do it how they want to. I have found that that is the most successful way to run an organization and make something as successful as HackTheU.”

Other students, Le believes, can find success at the U if they simply take advantage of what is right in front of them.

“I truly love the University of Utah and if there is anything that I hope that everyone else hears about is that at the University of Utah you have the opportunity to be able to do so many things and it’s really up to the individual to go out and reach that,” Le said.


Mackenzie McDermott
Mackenzie had one year full of covering news before jumping to sports as editor. Now, going into her junior year, Mackenzie is back to the desk she started at filling the role of News Editor.


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