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.
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.
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.
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."
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 tsmith@ tampabay.com or (414) 702-5006. Follow @bytierrasmith.