Fixing #AirbnbWhileBlack

This post was first published on LinkedIn.

There have recently been several incidents reported of black customers of Airbnb being denied lodging.  Particularly disturbing was this story involving a host in Charlotte that was so egregious it elicited a response from Airbnb’s CEO. Sadly, there have been enough of these stories that #AirbnbWhileBlack is now a trending topic.

How much should we hold Airbnb accountable for these problems? Haven’t they strongly condemned racism and published an anti-discriminatory policy which all hosts are supposed to abide by? Shouldn’t we just chalk up these incidents as Airbnb reflecting the sad state of bigotry in our country and that in spite of all our progress, we still have a long way to go?

I propose there is much more that Airbnb can do to address these problems and that we should expect no less. I say this even though I’m a huge fan of the Airbnb story.  The hustle and creativity Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia exemplified in building their disruptive company is very inspiring and one of the stories we share when teaching Lean Startup methodologies.

To understand what more can be done, we should first recognize an underlying issue - the lack of diversity in the Silicon Valley bubble. While the Valley itself is an amazing melting point of immigrants from all corners of the globe, those of us working in tech firms tend to have very similar backgrounds, education and income. The problem is exacerbated by the even narrower diversity in leadership roles. Airbnb is far from being the only Silicon Valley company with these diversity challenges. (Airbnb has been making positive steps like hiring a director of diversity).

How many Airbnb employees do you think have been denied lodging because of their race? If you think the answer is somewhere between scant and none, is it any wonder then that #AirbnbWhileBlack hasn’t been addressed in the product design? Company statements and anti-discriminatory policies are a start. But there’s much more we can do to make our product experiences better for users who live outside the Silicon Valley bubble.

A friend asked me, “How do you address and prevent racism in product design?” My answer is that we solve it like any other product challenge - through innovation. We just need to make it a priority to solve.

In the spirit of innovation and being solution-oriented, I’d like us to all participate in a brainstorm of how Airbnb can fix #AirbnbWhileBlack. I’ll kick things off with a couple of ideas:

  • Restrict a host from offering lodging to a guest during a timeframe that they’ve said is not available to another guest.
  • On the host profile page, track how many times the host has denied a guest lodging.

The design principle behind these ideas is preserving the host’s right to deny lodging while introducing disincentives and increasing transparency. Are there other principles we should be considering?

I look forward to hearing your ideas. I’d especially love to hear from those of you who are hosts and can speak knowledgeably about that experience.