Airbnb’s Slow-Moving Mission to Win Over African Americans

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A year ago today, Airbnb announced a wise move designed to to increase the company’s presence in black neighborhoods: a partnership with the NAACP. By the time the press release crossed the wires, the move was a long time coming. Airbnb had been wrestling with how to eradicate racial bias on its platform since 2016, when a group of Harvard professors published a paper revealing that guests with traditionally black names found it significantly harder to receive a booking from a host than those with traditionally white names. The paper, along with mounting stories about racist acts, often shared under the hashtag #Airbnbwhileblack, caught the company’s founders off-guard.

The stories would be bad for any business, but for Airbnb, a company that encourages strangers to trust each other enough to share their houses, the press was damaging. As CEO Brian Chesky told me in a June 2016 interview, “Our mission and inclusion are the same thing. You can’t really separate these two issues.”

The paper, along with mounting stories about racist acts, often shared under the hashtag #Airbnbwhileblack, caught the company’s founders off-guard.

Since then, Airbnb has made several changes to its product to reduce discrimination. It now requires travelers to agree to a nondiscrimination policy, and removes those who don’t comply. It added an Open Doors policy that allows guests to report discrimination. While Airbnb investigates these discrimination reports, the company promises to rebook guests in a similar accommodation or at a hotel. And it added instant bookings, which allow travelers to book without being vetted by the host first.

These changes were significant. But the efforts that had the potential to transform Airbnb into a business that wasn’t just tough on hatred, but was actively embraced by people of color, was the company’s partnership with the NAACP.

If it took hold, Airbnb might achieve much more than simply building its standing among black people in the United States: It could dramatically increase the number of listings on its site, at a moment when growth is paramount for the company. By striking a revenue deal with the NAACP, Airbnb gained a motivated partner and advocate in local cities that could help it advance its cause with regulators in coming years.

So to mark the first anniversary of its announcement, I decided to check out how the partnership is going.

The answer, in a word, is slowly.

The partnership’s primary aim was to establish Airbnb outreach initiatives helmed by local NAACP chapters. These chapters would commit to launch grassroots outreach campaigns to educate African Americans about how to become Airbnb hosts. For every new host the NAACP recruits, Airbnb agreed to share 20 percent of its revenue with the nonprofit organization. The NAACP also agreed to help diversify Airbnb’s company staff and contract supplier base.

The agreement would be mutually beneficial. The NAACP saw an opportunity through the partnership to help black families earn extra income, and to earn a small profit itself. Airbnb would bring more hosts and guests onto its platform, both combating racism and helping the business grow.

But finding the markets that were both strategic for Airbnb and embedded near strong local NAACP chapters was time-consuming. It took nine months for the partnership’s first outreach to kick off. In May, it launched its first local effort in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood and the nearby suburban-feeling city of Miami Gardens. Airbnb’s head of national partnerships, Janaye Ingram, told the local press the company chose Little Haiti because it was the fastest growing neighborhood for hosts and guests in Miami-Dade county. Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert joined a Saturday afternoon gathering of nearly 100 people. The event featured testimonials by Airbnb hosts, and also suggested ways local businesses could take advantage of a growing tourism business in their neighborhoods.

In June, the second partnership went live in Los Angeles with an information session held at the Museum of African American Art that encouraged attendees to “promote travel within communities of color” and “earn extra income.” The actor Danny Glover, who has signed on to help Airbnb recruit people of color, attended, as did the actress Vivica Fox.

From here, both local campaigns plan to include phone calls and direct digital outreach. (Airbnb has set a goal of contacting more than 50,000 potential hosts in these two markets to encourage them to get involved with the site.)

Meanwhile, Airbnb reports it has made good progress in diversifying its procurement spending. In 2016, just one percent of the company’s procurement spending went to suppliers owned by underrepresented minorities, and the company set a goal to increase that to 10 percent by 2019. It has appointed a full-time supplier diversity manager and revised the methods it uses to identify and work with contractors and suppliers.

Airbnb blames the slow and tiny start on the planning involved in locating the best markets to target. To zero in on these places, it analyzed Airbnb listing data to find communities with strong, interested local NAACP chapters that also had low numbers of hosts. Airbnb and the NAACP anticipate they will target up to six more cities in the next year. San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and New York are all being considered currently, according to Marvin Owens, Senior Director of the NAACP Economic Department.

“This is a long distance run,” Owens wrote to me in an email. “Seeing any major change will require long term collaboration and hard work.”

The slow approach to the campaigns’ launch isn’t necessarily problematic. In fact, taking the time to build the relationship may ultimately help the partnership pay off. In order to keep expanding, tech companies can’t afford to just attract white people—even those companies that consist of white founders and a majority white workforce. The best way to expand the market is to diversify, and to build lasting, meaningful partnerships with people who are powerful within the markets a company wishes to serve.

In order to keep expanding, tech companies can’t afford to just attract white people—even those companies that consist of white founders and a majority white workforce.

That’s a business decision other companies may look to replicate: this partnership may create a model of how a company might diversify, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the only way to grow.

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