These New Startups Are Aiming to Fix the Sharing Economy’s Discrimination Problem
Companies like Innclusive are hoping to create a community where users can "travel with respect, dignity, and love, regardless of race, sexual orientation, [or] gender identity."
Last month, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky announced that his company was hiring former US attorney general Eric Holder "to help craft a world-class anti-discrimination policy." Holder, as part of the assembly of a team of anti-discrimination heavy hitters from the ACLU, Harvard, and more, is intended to help the company combat implicit and explicit user bias on its platform. It's a response to the viral #AirbnbWhileBlack movement, in which thousands of African Americans shared on social media experiences of last minute cancellations and ignored requests while using the platform.
While the hirings do represent a form of progress, it's likely that sharing economy discrimination happens in spite of these platforms, not because of them. Earlier this year, a Harvard Business School study found that Airbnb guests with names of African American origin were 16 percent less likely to receive a response from hosts, raising concerns as to whether implicit bias is baked into the platform itself.
A new class of sharing economy platforms, created by and for POC and LGBTQ travelers, is betting that's the case. The new sites aim to combat the problem by catering to the needs of minority customers in a way that sharing economy giants can't. By offering opportunities for users to connect with travelers like them beyond the transactional host-guest relationship, they're creating communities of users who are sensitive to the needs of those unserved by established players like Airbnb.
Rohan Gilkes created Innclusive, a short-term rental platform launching this month, in response to #airbnbwhileblack and the discrimination of marginalized people on other platforms. He aims to create a community where users can "travel with respect, dignity, and love, regardless of race, sexual orientation, [or] gender identity." And he is doubtful Holder will be able to spur significant change at Airbnb: "[They hired Holder] for power," he told VICE. "You don't hire an attorney general to do discrimination policy. [Startups] connect with these powerful people who can get policy passed or delay legislation."
Gillkes says the Innclusive platform will include algorithms and processes that identify and flag practices of implicit bias—hosts are not shown user profiles until after they approve a stay, for example, which preempts the possibility they can reject applicants based on appearance, and the system will track metrics like average cancellations to ensure hosts are accommodating users fairly. The end result, he hopes, will be an improved short-term rental experience for people of all racial, ethnic, and sexual backgrounds.
"This is not just a race issue," he said. "The entire thing is a mess."
San Francisco resident DiMarco McGhee agrees. McGhee, who is gay and black, failed to receive responses from Airbnb hosts three consecutive times. "After the third time, I just decided to book hotels and stop using the service," he said. "It's been a lot less stressful. It's less home-y, but it's nice to be treated like a person."
Gilkes's platform is partially modeled after Misterbnb, the largest and most fleshed-out gay short-term rental company. Misterbnb offers a slew of features that specifically cater to a gay customer base, from an extensive list of gay events to integration with Scruff, a gay-dating app, for users to list and find rooms using their dating profile. Gay-ville, an LGBTQ-focused travel community established in 2011, shows mutual Facebook friends between users and hosts (it's "a very small big gay community," as its website notes), and also offers gay-focused events calendars and maps of "gayborhoods" to help guests connect with their community. Demand for the companies speaks to the idea that marginalized peoples travel differently, with different sets of needs.
The purchasing power of the LGBTQ community (known as the pink dollar) is currently $917 billion and quickly approaching $1 trillion. The black dollar hovers a bit over $1 trillion. Established travel chains, from Southwest Airlines to Hilton and Marriott, are jumping on the queer bandwagon in response. Each have initiatives meant to directly appeal to LGBTQ customers, particularly during pride, which vary in scope from advertising campaigns emphasizing equality to diversity initiatives and gay-focused travel itineraries and packages.
HE Travel, a gay-travel agency based out of Key West, has been creating vacation packages for gays and lesbians under different corporate names for 40 years. Marketing director Zachary Moses uses three primary metrics to gauge the LGBTQ-friendliness of potential destinations: the existence of non-discrimination policies and diversity training, an overall "welcoming feel," and whether they offer a local gay community with which visitors can connect.
The latter is perhaps least considered by major travel chains looking to court LGBTQ customers, who need more than promotional brochures and Out magazine subscriptions in order to feel comfortable. Sensitivity to the material realities of traveling while LGBTQ, Native, Asian, Latinx, black, or more is easier when one's hosts are themselves intimately familiar with those realities—perhaps the primary factor behind Misterbnb's success.
Misterbnb CEO Matthieu Jost built his platform after a ruined vacation in Barcelona where an Airbnb host treated him and his partner with disdain. What distinguishes his clients from those of Airbnb, he says, is their desire to "connect with community when traveling," which is what led the platform to include gay city guides, gay events calendars, and the aforementioned Facebook mutual friend indicator.
After all, any travel—whatever your identity—should be about having fun and meeting new people. And it's easier to do both when one's safety and security are assured.
"If we do our part, we can advance humanity," said Gilkes. Through travel accommodations that take race and sexuality into consideration, Gilkes envisions the world "not as a place where we segregate, but a place where we travel with dignity."
Kim Tran is a doctoral candidate in comparative ethnic and gender, women's, and sexuality studies at UC Berkeley. Find more of her work on her website.