Why racism is the focus of Airbnb's annual conference

At its annual tech conference, Airbnb explored how to promote diversity and inclusion among its hosts. 

Dado Ruvic/Illustration TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY/Reuters
An illustration with the Airbnb logo. The company's annual conference on Wednesday took on discrimination.

Airbnb’s annual tech conference, OpenAir, took a different focus this year from its typical discussion about improving the platform and leveraging new technologies.

Instead Wednesday’s conference focused on areas where the company has picked up a lot of public flack recently: diversity and inclusion.

“This is a huge issue for us, [and one] we’re really, really focused on,” Airbnb chief executive Brian Chesky said. “We have zero tolerance for any amount of discrimination or racism on our platform and we take swift action the moment we hear about it."

A study from the Harvard Business School found that “requests from guests with distinctively African-American names are 16 percent less likely to be accepted than identical guests with distinctively White names.” Experiences of discrimination coalesced into a hashtag, #AirbnbWhileBlack, and a class-action law suit filed against the company for a host’s alleged racial discrimination.

Airbnb has reacted to specific instances of discrimination and racially motivated harassment by banning individual hosts from its site. The goal of this year’s conference was to move to address the issue from the top-down.

The conference included a panel of speakers on diversity and inclusiveness, from University of Washington sociology professor Hedy Lee to Ellen Pao, who made headlines and opened conversation about gender discrimination after she sued the Silicon Valley venture capital firm where she worked.

One question underlying the Airbnb event was how a conference about inclusivity and diversity would actually create change in the renters' marketplace.

Some analysts say that by holding the conference the company will attract the kinds of employees who are interested in this issue, helping Airbnb better understand and address discrimination and promote diversity on the platform and in the workplace. This is particularly relevant given that less than 3 percent of the company's current employees are black, while 63 percent are white.

“There’s such high demand for talent in the tech industry, there’s an arms race for who can offer the best work environment and the best benefits, and increasing diversity could help with that,” strategist Scott Ehlert of branding agency Siegel+Gale told the Los Angeles Times.

Airbnb also recently announced a new program to recruit more underrepresented minorities into computer and data sciences.

While this trickle-down effect of attracting diverse employees may take some time to actually reach the front lines of the platform's rental agreements, the conference theme itself is a notable switch.

Ronnia Cherry and Stefan Grant, two entrepreneurs who founded Noirbnb, a competing rental site for people of color set to launch this summer, suggest that Airbnb officials hoped that issues of discrimination would “go away.”

The two got this impression after meeting with Airbnb officials to present their project pitch for Noirbnb, a concept which the two started working on after neighbors thought they were robbing their Georgia Airbnb rental and called the police.

Their meeting with Airbnb was before #AirbnbWhileBlack. "We decided to do it on our own after we realized Airbnb wasn’t going to be directly tackling the issues," Ms. Cherry told New York magazine. 

If that characterization is true, it seems that Airbnb has used the conference to make an about-face on how strongly to focus on the issue.

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