Zillow employees create app to highlight homes throughout Black History

The project won the social impact award at Zillow’s Hack Week

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When Quai Wentt was a child, school picture day was a painful experience.

And that’s not an exaggeration. Wentt’s mother would heat a metal comb on the kitchen stove and use it to iron Wentt’s hair straight for the photos. Wentt imagined that there must be a better way to get the same effect, and dreamed of inventing a pain-free hair-straightening brush for women of color.

Wentt hasn’t yet built that product — but the memory helped focus her entrepreneurial spirit on another project — an interactive app for Zillow employees she built to explore the legacies of famous leaders throughout black history. She did this with the help of colleagues, coworkers, and peers during Zillow’s recent Hack Week, celebrating Black History Month while highlighting the contributions of famous icons important in black culture.

“When you normally think about people and historical figures, you think about them as these high and mighty people,” said Wentt. “But when you see their homes, then you think: this is a real person, who had kids. They had a regular life. They went to work every day. They’re just like me.”

For Wentt, the app meant coming full-circle to her experience as a child getting ready for school photos. She was able to highlight the legacy of more than a dozen leaders throughout black history, including Madam CJ Walker, who created products for African American hair care. Walker was also one of the first women in the U.S. to become a self-made millionaire.

“She came from a background where she didn’t have a lot. She came up with this idea to make these hair care products and then built herself up, so that was really inspiring,” Wentt said. “I hope that people take away from that that their ideas can be powerful.”

“I just want people to know who these figures are and what they’ve contributed to the world,” she continued, “and I want them to understand the piece that these people were just like them.”

Screenshot of map of the United States from the Blacks Across America application created during Zillow Hack Week 20

The Homes Across Black History web application displays an interactive map similar to Zillow’s, allowing users to zoom in on states and click on cities to learn about figures and the homes they lived in.

For Wentt, the app meant coming full-circle to her experience as a child getting ready for school photos. She was able to highlight the legacy of more than a dozen leaders throughout black history, including Madam CJ Walker, who created products for African American hair care. Walker was also one of the first women in the U.S. to become a self-made millionaire.

“She came from a background where she didn’t have a lot. She came up with this idea to make these hair care products and then built herself up, so that was really inspiring,” Wentt said. “I hope that people take away from that that their ideas can be powerful.”

“I just want people to know who these figures are and what they’ve contributed to the world,” she continued, “and I want them to understand the piece that these people were just like them.”

Hack Week is a semi-annual event in the Seattle office, where employees are encouraged to try something new or innovate on projects that can improve the customer or employee experience.

“We basically take all of our responsibilities at work and put them to the side to put all our energy into this passion project,” said Alanna Lopez, a Zillow facilities assistant participating in her first Hack Week. “One of my favorite things about it is just seeing people from different departments collaborating over one great idea.”

Wentt described her project, dubbed ‘Homes Across Black History,’ at a Hack Week pitch party. The idea was to display an interactive map similar to one in a Zillow home search, to learn about figures and their homes they lived in, from Daniel Hale Williams, one of the first doctors to perform open-heart surgery in the United States, to arctic explorer Matthew Alexander Henson. 

After her pitch, employees volunteered to help with everything from researching where the homes are located to writing the code to build the product. The app is now available to employees on the company network. 

“Knowledge and self-representation [are] hugely important when it comes to identity and working inside any space,” said Adama Seck, who helped research some of the leaders featured in the app. “It is the month of February, which is Black History Month, and [we’re] utilizing that as an opportunity to educate not just my community but others in the Zillow network with people we see as important.”

Wentt’s project went on to win the Hack Week Award for social impact. Winners get a trophy and a cash prize, along with a badge to display on their Zall Wall, part of the in-house social network.

“I just look at the work we can do together,” Wentt said, “and I’m like, wow. To be a part of that is really inspiring.”