Winning Team from BE Smart Hackathon Presents to Hyatt’s Tech Leadership

Winning Team from BE Smart Hackathon Presents to Hyatt’s Tech Leadership

Emerging from a field of 23 HBCUs to win the 7th Annual BE Smart Hackathon last October, the three-member team from Atlanta-based Morehouse College displayed their prowess and ingenuity to gain recognition as the “best of the best” among their collegiate competitors. Due to their victory, Team Morehouse—juniors Kevin Drew, Trent Gaylord, and Elijah Truitt—were flown to Chicago to claim the remainder of their first-place prize: An unprecedented opportunity to present their winning concept to the Hackathon’s presenting sponsor, Hyatt, at its corporate headquarters in Chicago to Chief Information Officer Eben Hewitt.

The career-elevating trip provided the students with a platform to showcase their innovative luggage app and rare access to connect with pivotal members of the hospitality giant’s team responsible for various aspects of its operations and culture. In addition to Hewitt, the students also met with Hyatt’s C-suite leaders such as Chief Commercial Officer Mark Vondrasek and Chief Human Resources Officer Malaika Myers during their day-long visit.

“The Morehouse-keteers”—the team’s name—were a standout at the BE Smart Hackathon, which has swelled in the number of participating schools and students over the past several years. When Morehouse took first place at the BE Smart Hackathon, hosted by BLACK ENTERPRISE and American Airlines, each team member received 100,000 AA Advantage miles and two hotel night stays at a Hyatt hotel of the individual’s chosen destination. Hyatt also decided to host the winning team—in this case, Morehouse—at its headquarters to make a presentation at the highest level. Moreover, they would discover how technology drives the hospitality sector—from cybersecurity to customer service—a valued component in Hyatt’s purpose to care for people so they can be their best.

The Morehouse team is an impressive group: Drew, a captain on one of his school’s e-sports teams, hails from St. Paul, Minnesota, and gained professional experience with his summer internship at US Bank and current spring co-op with global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Gaylord, who has Chicago roots, embraced tech in high school and leveraged his training and exposure at the collegiate level to gain a software engineering internship at Goldman Sachs and this summer will work for Amazon Robotics. Truitt, who entered college at 15 after “being bored with high school” and taking an equivalency exam, worked as an intern with Google’s search engine product team and engaged with its Tech Equity Collective Initiative.

The highlight of the visit was their winning presentation—at the Hackathon and then at Hyatt headquarters. The students were joined by their professor, a computer science faculty member and an alum of Morehouse, Dr. Alfred Watkins. He briefly shared the history of the only all-male institution among HBCUs and its tradition of producing Black scholarship, excellence, and leadership for more than 150 years. Martin Luther King, Jr. is at the top of the graduates heralded as “Morehouse Men.” Watkins shared the oft-quoted tagline, “Harvard is the Morehouse of the North.”

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After the introduction, the trio began their presentation, focusing on a significant problem that airline customers face in gaining convenient and affordable travel experiences. It was reviewed by Hewitt and Hyatt’s vice president, Global Digital Product Engineering, Carl Schumaier, as well as vice president, Digital Content, Shawn Weems. In fact, Weems and Hyatt’s senior vice president, Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Tyronne Stoudemire were first introduced to the impressive group of student hackers at the BE Smart Hackathon last fall.

The team shared the evolution of their app’s development, which they dubbed CheckMate. While other teams in the hackathon had five or six members, Morehouse only had three when one of their team members could not compete. Drew said in the presentation: “We had to compress our ideas very quickly and know what we were going to work on. It helped us in a way because it really forced us to do that.”

Truitt, the lead presenter at the Hackathon, assumed the same role: “CheckMate, the solution to one of the most popular points of contention during your journey through the airport. So, the problem here is that it just takes too long to check your baggage. During holidays, times increase exponentially. And just trying to check one bag can make you late for your flight because of the lines. So, you’ve got to print your bag tag, get in lines, drop it off; you present your boarding pass, your ID; it’s just a lot. You have to get your card, pay for all those fees just to check some luggage.

He continued: “So, we just wanted to make sure we were on the right track with this. To think about this, we queried Reddit…we queried a whole bunch of different sites, and we asked them where their pain points were in the process of going through the airport. Now Reddit was less than helpful, but we decided to speak to some customers instead who fly infrequently and frequently.

The team targeted the “pain points” that wanted to ease for customers. “Our solution [was] hardware… A manufactured bag tag that can let you check in your baggage. Customers can purchase this bag tag, and they’ll pair it to our CheckMate app using Bluetooth. In order to use CheckMate, users will sign into their AA Advantage account, making [sure] that 100% of users that use our app [are] fully part of the American Airlines Advantage Service.”

Hewitt, Weems and Schumaier peppered the trio with questions regarding their approach and the technology they chose. The Morehouse-keteers confidently and ably answered the questions, countering with their own questions, like how the hotel chain could integrate the technology from franchises and newly acquired properties.

The presentation expanded into exchanging technology, problem-solving, and career outlooks throughout lunch and the remainder of the afternoon. The visit ended with a Q&A session among “The Morehouse-keteers” and Hewitt and Myers, who provided career advice and more insight into the Hyatt culture. For instance, even though Hewitt oversees the Hyatt technological infrastructure, he did not receive his initial training in

technology. “I studied post-structural French philosophers. And people were asking me, early in my career, “How can you be in be in the field with that educational background?” He told the students. “What matters is your approach to the business problem. Your ability, as you talked about in your presentation, to form diverse teams that can work together and have a strong sense of alignment with the business goal.”

Myers shared with the group the importance of agility and adaptability. “We are looking more and more to become a company filled with people who can deal with the unknown. The unknown may be a small thing in terms of a product or be a big thing in terms of the pandemic. But the unknown is there, and it’s increasing.”

Team Morehouse found the experience to be both informative and inspirational. In observing Hyatt’s culture, Drew said, “I want to be more purposeful about the environment I will be working in instead of just the salary and technology that I will use.”

Gaylord was unaware of the tech opportunities in hospitality before the trip and believes that ‘corporations like Hyatt should come to more HBCU campuses. “It will expose more students to new opportunities.” He also appreciated that “Hyatt made us feel welcomed from the first moment we arrived. Hewitt shared insight around why his team and Hyatt collaborates with HBCUs such as Morehouse College, “Our collaboration with HBCUs is an important part of our Change Starts Here goals – and our broader DE&I initiatives – we look forward to helping students experience the career opportunities within the hospitality industry and learning more about what we can be doing to support the next generation of talent.”

Hyatt also opened Truitt’s eyes to the fact that companies can use technology to correct societal challenges. “That is what they are doing at Hyatt. I didn’t see that before.”


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