A More Equitable Future: OJO Labs Hosts a Successful HackTogether

We’re still humming with excitement over our HackTogether teams’ impressive and deeply thoughtful improvements to housing equity. In the spirit of our Code2College Student Values, “Lift Up” and “Thank Relentlessly”, we had to take the time to celebrate the work that went into making this event possible, why it was an invaluable experience for both our students and our volunteers, and, of course, the people and partners who made it all happen – OJO Labs.

First and foremost, we have to give a huge shoutout to some invaluable volunteers and champions at OJO Labs, who over the course of months, helped the Code2College team plan out all of the logistics for HackTogether with passion and dedication. A huge thank you to Ashley Romualdo, Software Engineering Manager, who held regular planning meetings with our team to ensure event design and coordination were strong; to Laura Brehmer, Executive Assistant, who was an incredible helper who maintained connectivity for the entire team (and helped secure several of our event judges!); to Patrick Kearns, Director of Storytelling and PR, for being a critical part of the planning team and providing much-needed marketing support; and last but certainly not least, thank you to Qingqing Ouyang, Chief Technology Officer of OJO Labs, who served as an Executive sponsor and key resource throughout HackTogether planning. Your dedication and passion for both our students and the topic at hand was evident in your work – we are so grateful to have your partnership.

Let us be the first to say that 48-hour hackathons are no joke. Building the teams, establishing the critical support for those teams who only have 48 hours to work on their project, and coordinating community voting all take lots of planning and careful preparation to ensure a seamless event experience. But the outcomes for students are what makes this hard work necessary and worthwhile. “HackTogether allows our students to work directly with seasoned engineers to develop initial project plans and demo presentations within a social justice topic,” says Christine Herlin, Code2College’s very own Associate Director of Growth. “Not only do students get to flex their technical skills, they are also expanding their professional network, engaging deeply on a social justice topic to build a better, more equitable future, and learning what types of careers they may be most interested in exploring in the future.” 

HackTogether not only offers this critical professional exploration to its students, but to its volunteers as well! Jill Cacic, responsible for Internal Communications at OJO Labs, says her team’s internal communication plan for the event was so effective that she herself wanted to get involved. “I was nervous I wouldn’t have anything to contribute coming from a non-engineering background. However, we [encouraged] employees outside of engineering to get involved and I figured I could lend some communication skills to a project.” After getting assurance that her contributions were incredibly valuable, Jill excitedly dug in to work with the Goal Diggers team, one of nine competing teams who would have only 48 hours to hack a solution to housing equity. 

Why housing equity? To start, once OJO Labs partnered with us for HackTogether, housing equity became the obvious topic to collaborate on. As an Austin-based real estate technology company, OJO Labs addresses housing equity through their blend of patented AI technology and industry expertise to provide individualized support to all potential homeowners – regardless of race, gender, or economic status. “Their team of marketing, product, and engineering professionals brought an invaluable insight to the housing inequities that affect people of color across America,” says Christine. According to Brookings, just 43% of African Americans and only 46% of Latinos reported living in homes they owned – compared to nearly 73% of whites. This staggering 30% gap is wider than it was in 1960, a time when the Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing had yet to make their way through Congress.

Regressive inequality issues like this can seem too complex or too big to tackle, leading to a pervasive sense of demoralization and inaction. But this is exactly what HackTogether addresses. HackTogether breaks the issue down into different topics from which teams can base their approach, allowing them to create a more targeted and effective solution to the problem. For this year’s HackTogether, the topics to choose from were Access to Capital, Access to Education, and Racial Steering/Segregation/Climate. But just because the problem is more approachable doesn’t mean ideating solutions is easy! Kamilla Yunusova, Product Manager at OJO Labs and member of finalist team Sixth Hour Vav, says the beginning of their 48 hours was surprisingly challenging. “The hardest part was coming to a tangible, realistic idea. Our team was really passionate about climate change but we struggled to come up with a solution. So we had to break down the problem into components of supply and demand to narrow our focus, and eventually ideas started flowing.”

As for Jill, Internal Communications at OJO Labs, the most surprising thing to come out of her first ever HackTogether experience was getting to learn so much about the communication and collaboration within engineering teams. “Someone would call out a problem in our Slack channel and within minutes, there were two or three plausible solutions and they were already testing them. As a first time hacker, it was fascinating to watch our team come together and create a real product in such a short amount of time.” Her experience has been incredibly valuable to her role in Internal Communications at OJO Labs, she says, giving her critical insight into how her own engineering team at OJO Labs communicates and works together.

“I was afraid I’d lose out on two days of important working time to participate, but I truly got so much out of it that it was more valuable than the time I thought I lost.”

Jill Cacic, OJO Labs

Once the 48 hours were up, all nine teams had just five minutes to pitch their solution to a formidably stellar panel of judges – Karen Starns, Chief Marketing Officer at OJO Labs; Mr. Nelson Linder, President of the Austin NAACP; Dimitri Julius, Chief People Officer at ICON; Dr. Peniel Joseph, Associate Dean of Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at University of Texas; and Matt Stephenson, CEO and Founder of Code2College. Students and their OJO teammates showed off a variety of efficacious, inclusive functions from their websites, ranging from Spanish-language educational resources and interactive learning tools to empowering feedback platforms and sponsorship programs. Jill Cracic, whose own Goal Diggers team provided highly accessible educational tools marketed to first-time homebuyers, found herself deeply impressed by every student who presented. “To have the poise and confidence at their ages to stand up in front of family members, business professionals, and respected community leaders to present and explain their projects was admirable.” (with a topic like housing inequity and HackTogether’s panel of judges – we have to agree!)

Of course, only three teams were chosen as finalists by HackTogether’s judges, who arguably had the toughest job for the event. The finalist for the Access to Capital category was “The Credit Guys”, whose project made home ownership more accessible for Spanish speaking communities by creating tools that help Spanish speakers improve their credit score in an English speaking financial system. For the Access to Education finalist the judges chose Team4Equity, who made housing education more accessible by connecting their customers with high level programs and agents whose information is presented in clear, understandable language that lacks confusing industry terms. And for Racial Steering/Segregation/Climate, the judges chose Sixth Hour Vav, who addressed the disadvantage that low-income or first time home buyers will face when there is a climate-fueled affordability crisis by educating consumers through an interactive map, a personalized survey to suggest actions, and sponsoring those moves to increase affordability in climate-proof “Safe Haven” cities. Given these solutions and the college scholarships on the line, you can probably see why we assigned the impossible task of choosing a winner to the community!

“It was super rewarding to give our Code2College interns a chance to experience how fun a hackathon can be and help them win scholarships.”

Kamilla Yunusova, OJO Labs

That said, the opportunity to witness all of the brainstorming, collaborating and coding come together into tangible solutions was deeply fulfilling to participants and observers alike. “Hearing everyone’s thoughts and projects working towards our goal of solving housing inequality was invigorating. There were so many interesting ideas that got the wheels turning for people outside of the hackathon, “ says Jill Cacic. To lift others up is one of Code2College’s many outcomes for students and all others they come into contact with, but to have that impact, students must first know that they are capable of influence. This is why HackTogether is such a critical event, says Christine Herlin, since it “allows our students to experience both deep conversations around a social justice topic and the opportunity to envision their ability to make meaningful change through the skillsets they are developing at Code2College.”

An event like HackTogether is not simply an activity to fill a calendar. HackTogether provides real-world learning opportunities in which participants have their paradigms shift, their innate abilities strengthened, their passions kindled, and their impact revealed. Everyone here at Code2College is deeply grateful for OJO Labs and their passionate dedication to diversity in STEM, equal access to housing and their unwavering commitment to student growth and opportunity. Because of their support, we’re one step closer to realizing the equitable world our students are envisioning and working toward, and are ultimately deserving of.

To see our incredible students’ work, visit our HackTogether 2022 page and please consider voting for your favorite housing equity solution. Through your votes, we hope to raise an additional $2,000 in college scholarships for our winning students.

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