Rohan Gilkes, 40, a black startup entrepreneur was looking for a place to work quietly on a product launch last May.
He’d heard good things about Boise, Idaho, so booked a spacious cabin on Airbnb, and looked forward to rafting and riding an RTV over the July 4 holiday. The host accepted his booking but then later cancelled. When he tried to book alternate dates, he never heard from the owner again. Suspicious, Gilkes enlisted the help of a white friend, who was able to book the property for the same dates he originally requested.
Gilkes contacted Airbnb about his experience, but was met with a dismissive response, he said. “I felt like I was being abused a second time.” So he vented in a blog post on Medium. The next day, Gilkes woke up to more than 2,000 emails from friends and strangers, “many from people going through the same thing” of rejections based on race, sexual orientation or “Muslim-sounding names.” Others added their stories on social media, using the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack.
Major media outlets also came calling. The once dismissive Airbnb called back, he said, this time apologetic and with offers of discounts. “But it was too little, too late,” as the social media response had already inspired Gilkes to launch his own short-term property-rental platform, one that would be inclusive of all travelers, particularly black ones, as a means to circumvent the racial discrimination that they faced. “Airbnb called, sounding completely different the next time. If they had responded like that the first time, we wouldn’t have had Innclusive.” He had a landing page for his rental site within a month.
Since January, Innclusive has been testing in live beta mode with about 800 properties and has received $60,000 in bookings. The team has been working feverishly to officially launch by the end of the month, when they hope to have available 215,000 properties from around the globe.
The Innclusive staff, many who’ve worked jointly on other start-ups, recently moved in together in a house in Tampa, Florida, rotating couches when necessary. The 10 housemates uprooted from Las Vegas, North Carolina, Poland, the U.K., and even Idaho, and include a 4- and a 10-year-old. At this year’s SXSW, Innclusive snagged $10,000 in a pitch competition. “It’s been a crazy nine months,” Gilkes said.
A Harvard Business School study found that people of color are discriminated against on Airbnb, both as hosts and guests. Researchers found that listings of non-black hosts earned about 12 percent more than black hosts with similarly rated properties. Travelers with names like Rasheed or Darnell were much less likely to be accepted as guests than people with names like Brad.
For its part, Airbnb has acknowledged that it has struggled to fight discrimination. The lack of a significant vetting process makes it easy for bigots, racists and misogynists to slip through. In November, Airbnb instituted a “Community Commitment” for all users that outlaws discrimination.
But all the recent flap convinces Gilkes that they’re on to something with their newest entrepreneurial project. Airbnb is not inclusive in its branding, marketing or its hiring practices, he said. “African-Americans have lost a lot of trust in the platform due to revelations about hiring African-American employees,” Gilkes said.
Relationships with travelers or hosts of color are crucial, Gilkes said. “There’s a large demographic of black travelers but they tend to travel more in groups. This company didn’t even know that there was such a movement of travel groups that’s traveling now more than ever before.” His recent experience has taught him the importance of relationships, which is why he tapped world traveler Zakiyyah Myers, also 40, whom he calls a walking international Rolodex, as co-founder and Chief Operating Officer.
Innclusive has also been bolstered by the growing movement of young, black independent travelers that includes communities like Nomadness Travel Tribe and Travel Noire. Innclusive turned to Nomadness for its name when its original one caused a clash with a would-be competitor and the company plans to incorporate group travel into the platform. They already have thousands of global Innclusive Ambassadors poised to help spread the word and use their properties.
While the company has been initially marketing to black independent travelers, all will be embraced. “We really want to reflect our name,” Gilkes said.