When 16-year-old Harshita Arora posted on Reddit about the crypto price tracking app she created the most she hoped for was a few downloads and perhaps some useful user feedback.
Instead, she was met with rape threats, days of online abuse, a deluge of hateful emails, tweets, and messages claiming that she had “plagiarized” the entire app.
“There probably isn’t a 16 year old girl at all, this whole thing was a scam with the wunderkind backstory to sell as many $0.99 apps as quickly as possible. Probably made the creator a few thousand from reddit alone,” one user wrote.
“The fact that minority ‘victim status’ seems to be the only real currency with people today is fucking surreal,” said another.
But Arora never claimed to be a victim. She only claimed to be herself, a self-taught designer, amatauer coder, and aspiring entrepreneur from a small town outside New Delhi in India.
Like a growing number of young Indians, Arora initially saw the tech industry and startup world as a way to potentially make money and escape her small town life.
She studied computer science in school, taught herself Adobe design software by night and, in 2016, decided to drop out of classes altogether and “unschool” herself in order to pursue a career in tech.
Within months, Arora had earned herself a prestigious internship at Salesforce in Bangalore. Shortly after that, she was accepted into an MIT summer program, where her and a team built and launched a new app within a matter of weeks.
After the MIT program ended, Arora went to Silicon Valley for a few months to network. She looked for another internship, couldn’t get a work visa in time, and so returned back home to live with her parents in India.
Arora said her experience in the states, particularly meeting other startup entrepreneurs in the Valley, changed the way she thought about the industry. She no longer saw startup life as the highway to riches it once seemed. Instead, she realized it was hard and volatile—but came to appreciate being an entrepreneur could also be incredibly rewarding.
She went back home to India and began working on her own products.
She taught herself Swift, the programming language used to build iPhone apps, and spent hours and hours on Quora networking with fellow young techies and asking questions about product development and coding.
On Jan. 20, she released her product to the world, a sleek and simple cryptocurrency price tracking app for iPhone called Crypto Price Tracker.
Arora announced the product with a “marketing plan” she devised on her own that included a Medium post, Product Hunt submission, and posting about the app on the bitcoin subreddit, where Arora thought she might be able to get traction from potential users.
For about a week, everything went as planned.
Arora got a few hundred users, the founder and CEO of Product Hunt praised her in a tweet, and several happy users sent messages to give helpful feedback or say they were enjoying the app.
Some asked how she had produced such a great product so quickly, and she explained her background in tech, adding that she had some help from mentors and an outside developer to help with the backend code. It was, to her, pretty standard stuff.
But by Feb. 5, Reddit users decided Arora couldn’t have made the app herself.
A woman had downloaded Arora’s app on a jailbroken iPhone, attempted to decrypt the app’s code and dig into her public development history.
The woman posted an angry blog post attempting to bash Arora’s work titled, “Crypto Price Tracker made by 16-yr old actually plagiarized.”
In the post, she made several accusations that were later proven to be baseless. Still, the suggestion that perhaps Arora, a young women, didn’t “deserve” the praise she was receiving was enough to stoke a fire in the belly of some Reddit commentators.
Streams of hate poured in. Arora’s email was flooded with abusive language, disturbing messages, and veiled threats.
Redditors attempted to discredit her and call her a liar. They said only an older, more advanced programmer, probably a man, could build an app like hers.
“I doubt the girl herself came up with the idea and hired the contractor(s) herself. She’s a 16 year old girl, she doesn’t have the wherewithal or funds to do it herself (hiring the contractor, or coding the app),” one commenter wrote. “She’s trying to look pretty for boys in her class, worrying about what the bitch Jessie said to Brittany about Cloe who likes Brian even though he so likes Ciara, and sitting in her room listening to 21 pilots or whoever. That’s my take anyway.”
At first, Arora attempted to respond to the messages in earnest. She tried to show her work and respond to the accusations.
She was shocked to see a man she considered to be a friend turn on her and bash her in public as an untalented fraud.
But there was no halting the Reddit mob.
Arora was overwhelmed, but her connections in the tech industry and with close friends who understood the internet eventually paid off. They encouraged her to tweet and reach out to the trolls’ employers, universities, and anyone in a position of power to make them stop.
The strategy worked.
After Arora and her friends relentlessly contacted the employers of some of the older men who were harassing her, many backed down. One of the men who most aggressively perpetuated the harassment campaign publicly apologized on Twitter. The woman who published the defamatory blog post about Arora’s technical abilities took it down.
Arora was left shaken, but ultimately felt some sense of justice. She never told her parents any of what happened to her online.
There is a myth in tech world that startup founders are singular, usually male geniuses with brilliant ideas and the ability to code their visions into products effortlessly.
The founder myth perpetuates a vision of the world where there are no designers, no product people, no marketers, or business development specialists to help a product succeed. A product’s success, in these stories, is credited to one genius person, like Steve Jobs.
In reality, most products are built by jumbled groups of people iterating on different versions of a shared mission.
Arora considers herself primarily a designer, and her attention to design is clear in the Crypto Price Tracker app. But even she admits she’s not the most excellent coder. So, like any young founder with a vision, she got help writing the back end code for the app and had input from mentors to execute her vision.
The idea that somehow the app is less hers than others’, or that she doesn’t deserve credit for the product because a freelancer helped her write a few lines of code for a product she fully designed, is a distortion of the truth. Non-technical male founders regularly fail to contribute to the codebases of products they’re often lauded for.
“People, programmers especially, think of design as just bring able to generate color, text and use software,” Arora said. “They underestimate how much work it takes and how much you need to think about UX and UI. It took me longer to design app from scratch than programming.”
Arora is also just 16-years-old. She said she is trying to learn and find her way in the tech community, and she never sought to sell herself as some sort of young savant or all-encompassing genius. In fact, she'd like just the opposite.
“I don’t want to be called a prodigy,” she said. “It’s not what I am. It sounds like I’m trying to tell people I’m smarter than them. It sounds I’m trying to be superior, when I don’t want to be. I reply to everyone who asks me question or asks for resources, I am trying to learn things myself.”