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What’s the Fix for the Racism in Sharing Economy?

Nathan Blecharczyk, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, co-founders of Airbnb.Nathan Blecharczyk, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, co-founders of Airbnb.
Nathan Blecharczyk, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, co-founders of Airbnb.Photograph by Peter Yang

Airbnb (AIRBNB) has really had a tough go of it lately when it comes to race-based and other incidents of discrimination on their platform. They’ve been the subject of a lawsuit, hashtag activism, and embarrassing public relations disasters.

It’s become increasingly clear that the sharing economy reveals some really troubling things about race, gender and power. In the world we live in, and in which Airbnb operates, certain ‘sharing’ is more desirable than others. And all the diversity managers in the world aren’t going to be able to fix that.

Alison Griswold of Quartz diagnoses the problem at hand:

“Discrimination is different. It pits Airbnb hosts against Airbnb guests. It creates situations that are legally and ethically ambiguous, because most hosts aren’t professional hoteliers, but rather individuals choosing to rent out their private homes. It suggests that—contrary to all branding—the Airbnb community perhaps isn’t so diverse, and its home-sharing movement not really for everyone.”

The company is conducting a 90 day internal review of processes, lead by a very determined Laura Murphy, a former ACLU stalwart. They’ve added important diversity hires and have made public pledges to increase diversity in their ranks. Admirable stuff. And all of it should ultimately make a difference to their current and future employees, and as they share findings and best practices, within the larger business ecosystem, too.

It will be interesting to see what comes next for the platform. Photo-less profiles? People aren’t going to want to let someone into their homes that they haven’t seen.

And if you think diversity training at your job is a grim bit of business, (one that has been proven to be largely ineffective) imagine how fun it’s going to be from the comfort of your own home! In a world that’s beset with racial problems, it’s hard to imagine a solution that truly heals.

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But it’s also hard to believe that a truly diverse set of founders, funders and advisers wouldn’t have seen this coming from the start. You know, the type of folks who come from a long line of people who have trouble hailing cabs, renting apartments, getting promoted or finding funding. Or, who routinely feel at risk because of who they are perceived to be.

In the rush to find or be the next unicorn, people either don’t know enough to raise nuanced issues of inclusion, or don’t care enough to get the answers. (The press included.) And if the business case for diversity is real, then understanding the biases baked into society has got to be a pretty unique credential.

Yesterday, Airbnb’s CEO, Brian Chesky addressed the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Silicon Valley, and said, “The next great entrepreneur may not look anything like the last great entrepreneur.” We should all hope he’s right.


When she’s not writing about the world’s greatest rock star-leader, Ellen McGirt is busy working on Fortune’s raceAhead, a newsletter about race and culture.