For all of its insistence that it's committed to giving back to the black community, Airbnb can't quite shake its reputation for having something of a problem when it comes to its users discriminating against minorities.
The story, as #AirbnbWhileBlack will tell you, is almost always the same. A person of color will log on to the service in search of a place to stay, find an apartment they're interested in renting, book said apartment, and then suddenly have their booking canceled. That's what happened to Rohan Gilkes, an entrepreneur originally from Barbados, earlier this year while he was searching for a cabin in Idaho to stay in while visiting friends.
After repeatedly trying to book the cabin at different times during different weeks and being turned away, Gilkes asked a white friend to try his luck. The friend, Gilkes told me, was approved for a stay immediately with no problems.
Rather than merely filing a complaint with Airbnb about his inexplicable rejection, Gilkes decided to turn his experience with the service into a business of his own: Innclusive, a homesharing site Gilkes says makes a point of welcoming people of color and other minorities that have experienced discrimination on Airbnb.
I spoke with Gilkes recently about his experience with Airbnb and how he wants Innclusive to become a service that makes inclusion and diversity integral parts of its business model. Gilkes and his team said they plan to launch Innclusive in the next six to eight weeks.
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This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Talk to me about trying to book that cabin in Idaho. What happened when you finally got a hold of someone from Airbnb?
An Airbnb rep explained to me that unless something had happened that was completely transparent, like using the N-word or something like that, there was no way to prove whether or not race was a factor. They told me that there could be a variety of reasons why [the woman] didn't accept me. They didn't do anything other than distance themselves from the possibility that race factored into why I was declined.
They ended the conversation by saying that they were going to reach out to me with a followup within a few days. I waited two weeks and nothing. No response, nothing. So I wrote about what happened to me and posted it to social media. The day after the story began to pick up, Airbnb called me. Even though I appreciated the call, it felt disingenuous for obvious reasons.
What were your feelings at that point?
I understand that it's a very difficult problem to solve, right? Unless you're able to read somebody's mind, their intention is very difficult to determine. However, what you do after someone contacts you for support or empathy, how you react to that is within your control.
That's what really sparked the idea for Innclusive. We want to build a platform where we're not just going to patch the problem, but address it directly.
How does Innclusive differ from its competitors?
It seems really simple, but we actually start with our marketing. For the longest while when you looked on Airbnb, there weren't many black people on their site as a part of their promotional material. We want all of our users to be reflected in our marketing and our imagery from the jump.
So how does your platform discourage users from discriminating against potential renters by canceling on them?
Let's say you tried to book my apartment through Airbnb and I told you those dates are unavailable. As a user, you still have that option with Innclusive, but once you say that certain dates are closed off, you can't re-list during that time period.
With all of the coverage about Airbnb's issues with racial bias, why do you think more of its users haven't tried to distance themselves from the idea that they might be racist for discriminating against people of color?
There's a demographic of people out there that just believe that there's an alternate explanation for any report of racism. No matter how many people express concern, there must always be another reason. Maybe she did change her mind. They'd never say that this is something that speaks to discrimination.
The other group of people don't even deny that discrimination is a problem with the platform. They're fine with it because, generally speaking, they don't have to worry about peoples' problems.
What would you say to those people who felt as if in creating Innslusive, you were basically segregating the population of people looking to homeshare?
I don't see this as segregation, because, again, we really want to be a place that is welcoming to everybody. We're challenging our competitors to be better. They have to make the call as to whether or not they're comfortable with a significant part of their user base considering an alternative service.