Sunday, December 17, 2017
Business

Tampa-based start-up takes on Airbnb by promoting inclusion, diversity

NEW TAMPA — Last May, Rohan Gilkes attempted to book a property in Idaho on the home-sharing platform Airbnb. 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, believed the incident occurred because he is black. He said he submitted a complaint to Airbnb but thought the response lacked "empathy." He decided to share his experience on social media.

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

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

"At the core, we are doing the same thing," Gilkes, a native of Barbados, said.

RELATED COVERAGE: Airbnb bookings spike in Florida for MLB spring training

The difference, he said, is creating the technology that will decrease discrimination and recognize a host's approval patterns. He said the platform has been working mostly with professionally managed properties or vacation homes — an operation run more like a hotel than a person renting a room out of their home.

"We want people that understand we attract a very diverse collection of people from a range of backgrounds," Gilkes said on the ideal host for Innclusive. "They must commit to treating people fairly."

Innclusive is not the only home-sharing site looking to decrease discrimination. Misterbnb provides travel options for the gay and LGBTQI community; Noirbnb targets people of color, and Accomable helps find disable accessible options.

Home-sharing discrimination

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

Ben Edelman, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, found a "request from guests with distinctively African-American names is roughly 16 percent less likely to be accepted than identical guests with distinctively white names" in a 2017 study.

"Before my article, folks were prepared to sweep the problem under the rug," Edelman said in an email. "But with my statistical proof of the problem, and then with dozens of reports from affected guests, the problem is undeniable."

Edelman suggests home-sharing platforms, specifically Airbnb, remove the names and pictures of guests, which he calls "totally unnecessary," as the sites can verify the person's identify without sharing that information with the hosts and guests.

"Airbnb hasn't yet removed guest photos, nor host photos," Edelman said, who also found in a 2014 study that non-black hosts could charge about 12 percent more than black hosts for the equivalent rentals. "That is what ought to be done and has not."

While Airbnb hasn't fully taken Edelman's suggestions, Airbnb Florida spokesman Ben Breit said the company is implementing new practices to decrease discrimination.

Two of those initiatives include Instant Book, which allows for "immediate booking" without approval for each guest, and the Open Doors policy, which permits guests to notify the company of discrimination so a representative will step in and help them find housing.

Breit also said Airbnb requires users to agree with the community commitment 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 that violate Airbnb's policies.

Chasing the tech giant

For any start-up, the journey is never straight forward and easy, especially when the business is challenging 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.

RELATED COVERAGE: Bed-and-breakfast owners closing their doors blame Airbnb, local government

Innclusive is playing catch-up.

The site has over 100,000 subscribers and 200,0000 properties, mostly in the United States and Europe. However, it is uploading 12,000 new properties daily, Kevin Pereira, the company's chief product officer, said.

Since it started accepting bookings in May, the company has accrued more than $250,000 in revenues between rental stays and group travel trips.

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

While competing against Airbnb and other home-sharing platforms may be tough, Gilkes believes he has a strong team to help. In the last five years, the Innclusive team has built six other businesses, two of which have been sold. The team specializes in subscription-based businesses and tech software.

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

"We all have had individual success as entrepreneurs," said Gilkes, who also owns the D.C.-based house cleaning service Maids in Black that brings in $2.5 million a year. "Together, we focus on what we are best at. We are fully committed to each other and this project. Everything else, we will figure out as we go."

Moving forward

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

"Although we have been self-funded and won multiple pitch competitions, funding would allow us to accelerate listing acquisitions, tech development and allow us to further grow our community," Pereira, 28, a native of San Jose, Calif., said.

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

Edelman, who said he is a "big fan of competition," acknowledges that the alternative home-sharing sites will face difficulty winning over guests and hosts alike.

"Guests have every incentive to go to the service with the most hosts, and hosts go to the service with the most guests."

He doesn't believe the problem will be fixed simply by competition, rather by government oversight, ligation or public pressure.

However, Gilkes is optimistic that his platform will thrive.

"We are not saying we are going to solve every problem," he said. "But, we can mitigate it."

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

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

 
Comments

Bitcoin futures begin trading on CME, price little changed

NEW YORK — Another security based on the price of bitcoin, the digital currency that has soared in value and volatility this year, began trading on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on Sunday. The CME Group, which owns the exchange, opened up bitcoin f...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Fueled by indulgence and machismo, restaurants are a hotbed for sexual harassment

Fueled by indulgence and machismo, restaurants are a hotbed for sexual harassment

When Brenda Terry was 16 and living in St. Louis, she was a host and food runner at a sports bar where female employees wore cute little cheerleading skirts. One night, she said, a patron grabbed her crotch. She ran to her management team and they de...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Taxpayer subsidies of Tampa golf courses are on the rise as struggles continue

Taxpayer subsidies of Tampa golf courses are on the rise as struggles continue

TAMPA — For the half of the year that Harry Nichols lives in Oldsmar, he plays 18 holes several times a month at Rocky Point Golf Course. On a good day, Nichols said he shoots close to par on the Dana Shores course. And if he’s really lucky, it’ll on...
Published: 12/15/17
Updated: 12/16/17
Pigs can be therapy animals too. So can horses and rats and cats and llamas and … (w/video)

Pigs can be therapy animals too. So can horses and rats and cats and llamas and … (w/video)

Shrieks of laughter echoed off the walls of the hospital as Thunder the mini pig flopped onto his side and the children huddled around him, scratching his pink, hairy belly. He and his wet-nosed partner, Bolt, drew patients in wheelchairs and bandage...
Published: 12/15/17
Vology landlord challenges property tax assessment

Vology landlord challenges property tax assessment

LARGO — Eight months after paying $10.15 million for the office building that houses IT services company Vology, a New York company is suing the Pinellas County Property Appraiser and Florida Department of Revenue contending its $5.5 million tax asse...
Published: 12/15/17
Florida’s $1.1 billion Hardest Hit Fund winding down after some hard knocks

Florida’s $1.1 billion Hardest Hit Fund winding down after some hard knocks

In 2010, Florida was in the throes of an unprecedented housing crisis. One in every eight homes was in some stage of foreclosure. Today, the foreclosure rate is one in every 83. Because of that enormous drop, Florida’s Hardest Hit Fund will s...
Published: 12/15/17
Report: Rich will get still richer unless policies change

Report: Rich will get still richer unless policies change

By ELAINE KURTENBACHTOKYO — Global inequality has stabilized at high levels in recent years, a report said Friday, despite gains among the poor in China and much milder disparities in incomes and wealth in Western Europe. The World Inequality Report ...
Published: 12/15/17
How the Disney/Fox deal will shake up Hollywood

How the Disney/Fox deal will shake up Hollywood

Associated Press NEW YORK — After years of tremors, the earthquake that had long been predicted finally shook Hollywood. Disney’s deal to purchase most of 21st Century Fox ends the era of the "Big Six" major movie studios, toppling one ...
Published: 12/15/17
St. Petersburg’s Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement set to be complete in 2019

St. Petersburg’s Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement set to be complete in 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — The Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, under construction since 2015, is scheduled to be complete by the summer of 2019.The five-story, 137,100-square-foot building will house businessman and collector Rudy Ciccarello’s...
Published: 12/15/17
Obamacare enrollment ends today, but some can get an extension

Obamacare enrollment ends today, but some can get an extension

Today is the day that open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act will close for most people. But those affected by the slew of hurricanes that pummelled Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and other states earlier this year can take advantage of a two-week ...
Published: 12/15/17