Tampa-based startup takes on Airbnb by promoting inclusion and diversity

NEW TAMPA — Last May, Rohan Gilkes tried to book a property in Idaho on the Airbnb home-sharing platform. After two failed attempts, the black entrepreneur asked a white friend to try, and she was “instantly” approved for the same property and dates.

Gilkes, 41, believes the incident happened because he is black. He said he filed a complaint with Airbnb, but felt the response lacked “empathy”. He decided to share his experience on social networks.

The next day, he said, he received more than 2,000 emails from people with similar experiences with Airbnb, leading him to believe there was a chronic problem with denied access. to guests because of their race, gender identity, sexual orientation or religion.

The episode prompted Gilkes and fellow entrepreneur Zakiyyah Myers to co-found Innclusive, a Tampa-based home-sharing platform similar to Airbnb but dedicated to eliminating discrimination and promoting diversity and inclusion. . By mid-June, the company had created a landing page and started working on the platform.

“Basically we’re doing the same thing,” said Gilkes, originally from Barbados.

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The difference, he said, is creating the technology that will reduce discrimination and recognize a host’s approval patterns. He said the platform primarily works with professionally managed vacation properties or homes – an operation run more like a hotel than someone renting a room out of their home.

“We want people who understand that we attract a very diverse group of people from diverse backgrounds,” Gilkes said of the ideal host for Innclusive. “They have to commit to treating people fairly.”

Innclusive isn’t the only home-sharing site that seeks to reduce discrimination. Misterbnb offers travel options for the gay and LGBTQI community; Noirbnb targets people of color and Accomable helps find accessible options for people with disabilities.

Discrimination in home sharing

Allegations of discrimination on Airbnb have been well documented for years. Social media blasted the site for using the “AirbnbWhileBlack” hashtag where people shared stories of racial prejudice and discrimination.

Ben Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, found that a “request for guests with distinctively African-American names is about 16% less likely to be accepted than identical guests with distinctly white names” in a 2017 study.

“Prior to my article, people were ready to sweep the issue under the rug,” Edelman said in an email. “But with my statistical proof of the problem, and then with dozens of guest reports involved, the problem is undeniable.”

Edelman suggests that home-sharing platforms, especially Airbnb, remove guest names and photos, which he calls “completely unnecessary” because the sites can verify the person’s identity without sharing that information with anyone. hosts and guests.

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“Airbnb hasn’t yet deleted photos of guests, nor photos of hosts,” said Edelman, who also found in a 2014 study that non-black hosts could charge about 12% more than black hosts for equivalent rentals. “That’s what should be done and hasn’t been done.”

Although Airbnb did not fully follow Edelman’s suggestions, Airbnb Florida spokesman Ben Breit said the company was implementing new practices to reduce discrimination.

Two of these initiatives include Instant Book, which allows “immediate booking” without approval for each customer, and the Open Doors policy, which allows customers to inform the company of discrimination so that a representative can intervene and help them to to find accommodation.

Breit also said Airbnb requires users to agree to the Community Engagement Policy to “treat everyone in the community with respect and without judgment or bias, regardless of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or age.” and will ban users who violate Airbnb policies.

Chasing the tech giant

For any startup, the journey is never straight and easy, especially when the company challenges a tech giant.

San Francisco-based Airbnb, which is valued at $31 billion, operates in more than 191 countries with more than 3 million listings.

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Inclusive is catching up.

The site has over 100,000 subscribers and 200,000 properties, mostly in the US and Europe. However, it uploads 12,000 new properties a day, said Kevin Pereira, the company’s chief product officer.

Since it began accepting bookings in May, the company has racked up more than $250,000 in revenue between rental stays and group travel.

Innclusive plans to launch its full website later this month and a mobile app a few weeks later. The platform also organizes group trips to countries like China and Bali and offers a week-long in-person training program for entrepreneurs called Innclusive Grow.

While competing with Airbnb and other home-sharing platforms can be tough, Gilkes thinks he has a strong team to help him out. Over the past five years, the Innclusive team has built six more businesses, two of which have been sold. The team specializes in subscription-based businesses and technology software.

After creating Innclusive, many team members decided to join Gilkes in New Tampa. In most cases, they had never met in person, communicating online or via Skype. Most of the team now live together in a four-bedroom house, which doubles as the company’s office.

“We’ve all had individual successes as entrepreneurs,” said Gilkes, who also owns the DC-based household cleaning service Maids in Black, which brings in $2.5 million a year. “Together, we’re focused on what we do best. We’re fully committed to each other and to this project. Everything else we’ll figure out as we go along.”

Move up

Innclusive is also in the venture capital market to help it compete in the global home-sharing community.

“While we are self-funded and have won several pitch competitions, funding would allow us to accelerate list acquisitions, technology development and allow us to further grow our community,” said Pereira, 28, from San Jose, California.

Last month, French start-up Misterbnb raised $8.5 million from investors Project A and Ventech. Pereira said he hopes Inclusive can reflect a similar financial gain.

Edelman, who called himself a “big fan of competition,” acknowledges that alternative home-sharing sites will struggle to win over guests and hosts.

“Guests have every reason to go to service with the most guests, and hosts go to service with the most guests.”

He does not believe that the problem will be solved simply by competition, but rather by government surveillance, ligation or public pressure.

However, Gilkes is optimistic about the prosperity of his platform.

“We’re not saying we’re going to solve all the problems,” he said. “But, we can mitigate it.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story listed an inaccurate ethnic reference for Rohan Gilkes.

Contact Tierra Smith at [email protected] or (414) 702-5006. Follow @bytierrasmith.

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