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Could Startups Born Out of the #AirbnbWhileBlack Outcry Succeed?

Raz Godelnik headshotWords by Raz Godelnik
Investment & Markets
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Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times on Monday, where she gave Airbnb advice on fighting racial discrimination. At the end, she mentioned that until Airbnb will change its course she “and many other minority consumers will appreciate the certainty regarding our rights that comes with an old-fashioned hotel reservation.”

Well, the good news for Clarke is that it seems like hotels won’t be the only option after all.

No, Airbnb has not agreed to adopt her recommendations to audit hosts that are suspected of discrimination, permanently bar those who discriminate, and stop making users display their name and picture in their profile. However, the good news for Clarke is that two new startups, which put inclusivity at the core of their value propositions, are about to launch.

Like many entrepreneurship stories, both Noirbnb and Innclusive (formerly noirebnb) also started with bad customer experiences -- in this case, bad Airbnb customers. Stefan Grant founded Noirbnb with Ronnia Cherry, after he and his friends who rented a house in Atlanta were surprised to see police officers knocking on their door one morning. “Apparently the neighbors saw a bunch of Black people in the house and assumed they were robbing the place,” Grant and Cherry wrote on Noirbnb’s website.

Grant tweeted a smiley picture with the cops, which went viral and got the media's attention. He was then invited together with Cherry to Airbnb headquarters in San Francisco to discuss how the company could better serve the black community, but nothing came out of it. When the two understood that the company would not embrace their suggestion to open a program for black travelers that ensures they feel at home at Airbnb, they decided to start it on their own. Fast foreword a couple of months and Noirbnb, aiming “to serve the community and be The Future of Black Travel,” is online. It's not active yet but is already accepting listings.

Rohan Gilkes, who founded Innclusive, was also not happy about his Airbnb customer experience. Like many other black customers’ stories that were shared on social media with the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack, Gilkes’ story is about being discriminated against by a host in Idaho. Gilkes confirmed the story by having a white friend approved by the host for the same dates for which Gilkes received rejection. Gilkes was also upset about Airbnb’s late response, which he also thought was ineffective and led him to eventually launch Innclusive. "It really grew out of the lack of response … If [Airbnb's] response had been a little more empathetic, or where I felt they were taking the problem seriously, I would be doing something else with my time," Gilkes told Money Morning.

So, what will distinguish both of these sites from Airbnb? It’s not clear yet in terms of the features, as both sites are still not operating. But Innclusive, for example, suggested it will include a tool that does not allow hosts to see pictures of guests until after the booking has been approved. This is similar to Airbnb's ‘instant book’ option, which allows users to book instantly without the need to receive in advanced approval from the host. The difference though is that on Innclusive this function will probably be applied for all listings, not just some of them like in Airbnb. And that if a host cancels an Innclusive reservation after seeing the guest’s picture, they won’t be able to book their place to someone else on these dates.

However, as important as features are, the main difference could be in the values and the culture of these websites. Innclusive wants to be “a place where you can travel with respect, dignity, and love, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identity or any of the other things that humans use to discriminate against other human beings.” Noirbnb wants “to ensure that our community feels welcome, wherever they choose to travel and never have to face discrimination on their journey.”

Now, it’s not that Airbnb doesn’t care about these issues. After all, belonging is at the core of the company as manifested in its slogan ("Belong Anywhere") and logo. However, I believe that Airbnb sees belonging more through the lens of value-creation rather than through the lens of values. You can see it, for example, in its stated values: "host," "champion the mission," "every frame matters," "be a serial entrepreneur," "simplify and embrace the adventure." These values are geared toward providing a great user experience, but do not necessarily manifest any moral or ethical considerations and choices. As Katie Dill, head of experience design at Airbnb, explained last October on the O’Reilly Design Podcast:

“There are three [values] that are pretty much behind all the design work as well as the thinking and the processes of the people working here, which are: being a host, simplifying and every frame matters. So with those three, they become really powerful in our design decisions and we translate that to our work.”

What I see here is a gap between practices and processes that are all about providing great user experience and the company’s mindset that is supposed to be about values, but somehow isn’t. The result is not just issues like #AirbnbWhileBlack, but also the company’s challenge and difficulty in dealing with such corporate responsibility issues. Now that Airbnb is trying to fix its platform, the test will be not if it will create better processes and practices, but if it will manage to embed inclusivity into its mindset and culture. (Remember what Peter Thiel told CEO Brian Chesky about culture?) The way to do it, though, will probably be bottom-up rather than top-down. This is challenging with over 2 million listings, but it's probably the only way to do it in a peer-to-peer platform.

The challenge for Noirbnb and Innclusive will be to prove that they are not just a noble idea that is built with the right values and mindset, but also that they know how to translate these values and mindset into a scalable marketplace generating great experiences for both users and hosts and making everyone feel comfortable using it, not just those discriminated against by Airbnb. If these firms manage to do so, they could succeed. If not, they’ll at least be remembered as those showing to Airbnb and everyone else that values still matter.

Image credit: Facebook

Raz Godelnik headshotRaz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

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