Ep 80: Rebekah Bastian: Leave it better than you found it

Diversity Leadership Series

Diva Tech Talk was honored to spend time with Rebekah Bastian, the Vice President of Community and Culture at Zillow Group.  She leads efforts focused on equity and belonging, as well as social impact products and cultural engagement. Rebekah was one of Zillow Group's first employees, moving from Microsoft in 2005. Now, she has spent over 13 years leading product development across many areas of Zillow, and evolving into her current role.

Rebekah originally started her education journey as a music major, but shifted, after realizing this formal program was not for her. She reassessed and went back to school taking courses that were interesting at her local community college. This led to math and physics. She discovered her knack for problem-solving and curiosity through this course work. It was a tough transition, since she had failed at her first attempt at college, but she persisted. She noticed that “if you just show up and work hard, you can do well.” Her epiphany was that “[she] can do well at anything [she] works hard at.” Rebekah has been proving that lesson to herself ever since. She encourages others to “work hard at things you enjoy, are passionate about, and things you are good at.”

Rebekah always wanted to be an inventor. So she decided the program to blend her new love for physics and passion for innovation would be engineering. She transferred to the University of Washington where she completed her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. She continued on to UC Berkley, pursuing a masters in that field. This program was focused on product development, so she applied to Microsoft hoping to work within their hardware division. The interviewer actually had no idea how to conduct a hardware interview, so the Microsoft team opted to see if she would be a good fit as a Program Manager. She essentially ended up in a job she never considered prior to that interview.

Rebekah's work at Microsoft included development of the pervasive Outlook email platform, where she learned about processes and strategies she could leverage later. It was a great opportunity, but she did not love the arduous commute. She needed to explore other options, and subsequently checked Craigslist to see if there were any local job opportunities.She found Zillow Group, which was in full start-up mode and working under the radar. She took a flyer because she had faith in the founders, Rich Barton and Lloyd Frink,  knowing their success with Expedia.  Ultimately, Rebekah loved the mission of Zillow, the ability to start something from scratch, and the chance to get experience with many different roles. She learns best through experiential learning, so Zillow Group was a great home for her to really fuel the fire of her career.

“I did answer an ad on Craigslist and was one of the first employees here. Zillow was still in stealth startup mode, so I didn’t really know what I was going to be working on.”

Rebekah began working on the first version of the Zillow website, which has since become the largest real estate marketplace in the U.S. The Zillow Group vision was to create a revolutionary website with data transparency and ‘zestimates’ to offer the average consumer data-driven insight into the true value of homes they might buy or sell. Rebekah worked on building the product until about 8 years ago, when she was promoted into people management. The team continued to grow and scale,  spurred by Zillow Group’s success. As she progressed, leaders under her grew. She was able to launch a side project, paving the way for her current role.

Zillow Group’s diversity program began by reviewing how to build diverse points of view and people’s experiences into the organization, while shaping culture more intentionally. Rebekah also starting thinking about how she could deploy the Zillow platform to solve social issues like access for underserved populations to fair, affordable housing. She discovered, over time, that this community work, and social mission, was where her passion centered, so her community and culture leadership position was born.  As Rebekah moved into leadership, she figured out how to manage people who don’t have her aptitudes. She loved the process of “finding out how to manage people and advocate for them when you don’t have the same skill set.” She was also able to ask the right questions to help employees see and set their goals, engage mentors, and challenge themselves.

“We generally have this philosophy: hire better than yourself.”

Rebekah believes in setting employees up for success by removing barriers while affording autonomy. She benefited from this philosophy personally with her own side projects at Zillow Group.  Based on the introduction of the Apple iPhone, she assisted on a project that led to the mobile Zillow application. When it launched, it got attention from Apple and gained fast popularity. Zillow Group created the formal mobile team and she became its first mobile product manager. This opened more doors for her career.

In her Community and Culture Vice President role, Rebekah organizes and leads the Zillow Group team focused on equity and belonging, cultural engagement, housing stability, and social impact. She believes “power comes from combining these components together” into one unit. That team creates a space where everyone can bring their best selves to thrive at work. This includes  hiring diverse employees, and ensuring that after onboarding, they possess a strong sense of community. There are also affinity equity networks, and a team of “Equity and Belonging” ambassadors. The ambassadors receive tools, resources, and through those, offer support for “every employee in the community to apply an equity lens to their line of work.” In fact, at most meetings where a major decision is made, one person is dedicated to providing a community lens to the situation. Zillow is also encouraging internal mobility within the company, bringing everyone to a level playing field for success despite any past inequities in backgrounds.

Inside cultural engagement, Zillow Group examines how employees interact with each other and the community. This includes clubs as well as social impact development that allow developers to build on top of standard Zillow offerings to make a difference in the world. Housing was an obvious choice to help, and the team could add components to empower housing equity.

Rebekah believes no organization has proposed and implemented the perfect formula for leadership in diversity, community, inclusion, especially in the corporate tech space. She professes that she “love[s] problems that need to be solved that haven’t been totally figured out yet because that is what we do at Zillow Group, --- innovate! That is definitely something I am passionate about. This is a whole cultural movement. We need to be bringing everyone along.” More importantly, “everyone is on the equity and belonging team. It can’t be just one team of a few people doing this work for the company. We have to create systemic change.” There is “so much opportunity, both in the corporate space and in the world.” This passion drives her.

Active prioritizing is key when there are so many ideas and directions for a team like this. Rebekah’s product manager experience/role comes into play as she handles the sheer backlog of potential projects that could fall under the mission. The team examines metrics on where they are and where they are trying to go to select the most impactful projects aligned with overall strategy. Reviewing employee engagement can help, so she gets that data through various surveys. “In term of deciding the exact priority, you want to have a big vision of where you are trying to go. Zillow Group wants to create a space where every employee can be heard” and positively impact everyone with whom Zillow Group interacts.

Zillow Group also created an internal pathways model called “get involved” so every Zillow team member can easily get immersed in equity and belonging, and give back, or just have fun. They use various technology and channels to share these opportunities. Rebekah and her team strive to  understand and share the backgrounds of employees internally and externally through storytelling. “That allows them to value and care for each other.” The Zillow Group executive team champions all of these programs.

This work is exciting for Rebekah. For example, “Kids Day of Engineering” is an annual Zillow Group event where employees bring their children to participate in engineering activities. She also enjoys seeing social impact spread both inside the existing product road maps and building on top of existing features. Another example is Zillow Group’s “Community Pillar” which takes the rental marketplace and allows individuals with credit or rental barriers find housing. It is a great example of “incremental work that can be done on top of an existing product to create a new feature that can solve social issues.” Overall, the approach is to “creates pathways for everyone to get involved. We are really trying to channel all the passion and skills our employees have to do some great work,” Rebekah exclaimed.

Rebekah’s experience at Zillow Group as a woman in tech has been very positive. But she still believes every woman should “speak up and advocate” for herself  “asking for what she wants.” Her career breakthroughs began by simply asking. On the topic of balance, Rebekah finds time for things like aerial acrobatics as a “physical outlet, social outlet, and creative outlet.” Her view is that “Everyone has a different capacity for various activities in their lives.” For her, as long as the activity is something she enjoys, she stays in the moment, and is not overwhelmed with a busy schedule. Rebekah is a big fan of making a list to help her keep everything straight as a mother, leader, and philanthropist.

Rebekah ended the Diva Tech Talk interview with one of favorite quotes, from the Girl Scouts:  “Leave it better than you found it.” She thinks that can be “applied to anything you are doing and is needed in our world today.”

Contact Rebekah at: Linked In

Follow her on Twitter: @Rebekah_Bastian

Zillow group life on insta: https://www.instagram.com/zillowgrouplife/

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