As a torrent of sexual harassment revelations continues to rock the tech world (not to mention Hollywood, Wall Street, and every other industry), even the companies that seem to have emerged unscathed are doing some soul searching. In a recent conversation with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, we asked him about the evolving culture of Silicon Valley, what’s next for Uber, and how tech startups are adapting to their new place among the world’s most powerful companies.
This is an edited excerpt of a longer conversation. Read more about Airbnb’s expanding Experiences business here.
What’s your take on the crisis of sexual harassment coming out of Silicon Valley?
I think it’s incredibly disappointing when you read these headlines. I can’t speak for every company and what happens at all these companies and VC firms, so I’m not totally aware. But I guess I’ll say the following: I think people expect more of Silicon Valley. We, as an industry, are trying to show the world a path forward of what the world can one day look like. And so we’ll put out some new technology and a new way of doing something. And people have an idealism that maybe that will spread. And so for an industry that is so progressive to not honor that ideal from a workplace perspective and a gender diversity and inclusion perspective is I think extremely disappointing.
I will say that when I came to Silicon Valley in 2007, I never heard a word about it. So I think the conversation is newish. I mean I know I heard about stuff in 2011, but I think it is changing. I think it’s changing because people talk about it and people value what they hear and talk about. So that’s a positive development—if there is a silver lining to some of the challenges, people now are talking about it. I think they’re taking it seriously. I am extremely optimistic about that path forward. I’m an optimist by nature generally. I do see a lot of change happening. I think it takes a lot of courage of women standing up. I think they’ve made a huge difference.
But I also think that there’s an enormous amount that we want to work to do. I don’t think Airbnb is immune to anything.
Has Airbnb experienced any of this thus far?
I don’t think that we’ve experienced what’s been reported. We try to do our very, very best to be a leader by example. Whether it’s creating an inclusive environment where people really feel like they can belong and be themselves, to having a really diverse employee base. I do think there are areas we need to work on. We need to have more women leaders, we need to build a diverse board with women on the board. And those are two things I spend quite a bit of time on, pretty actively, every week.
So I think that we have a lot of work to do in the area. I will say, though, that when we started Airbnb there were a couple of things that were different. The first is that Joe and I brought a little of that RISD studio culture to Airbnb. And that is a very open, welcoming, diverse environment. Because at RISD you have to be welcoming because you have to be creative. And if you’re shooting people’s ideas down you can’t be creative. So it kind of inherently started as a certain kind of culture that somehow has some roots in RISD.
We also hired women at our company really early. And I have noticed that companies, even if all the founders are men, if they wait to long to hire women, it’s hard for the culture to recover from that. I think we benefited from the fact that our second or third employee was a woman and we started hiring women pretty early. And so it kind of moderated things that you would otherwise not consider to be completely inclusive, like 10 guys working in a room are going to develop habits and things that maybe are going to be difficult and take time to overcome. But I do think it’s going to change and I do think there is change. I know people are disappointed it’s not fast enough and it’s probably not.
I also want to ask you about what Facebook is going through right now [Russia’s malicious use of the platform to influence U.S. elections], which is an example of new technologies having unintended consequences. No one would say that Facebook set out have this happen, the same way no one would say you set out to have racial discrimination on your platform. What are we to take away from the fact that these new technologies can also have these harmful consequences?
I think the culture on these kinds of issues has also changed. Just like I talked about discrimination and diversity and I said that 10 years ago there was less conversation than today. It’s the same vector: Ten years ago, the culture around this stuff was very different. I remember coming to Silicon Valley and we had a more hands-off approach. We had a different sense of responsibility for what happened on our platform. And I don’t think technology companies were as powerful. So we didn’t worry as much. This is the world I remember entering. We did not worry as much about the notion of unintended consequences. We weren’t powerful enough for those consequences to maybe be felt with the same magnitude. And we had an ideological view that was, ‘We design these systems with these algorithms and they’re pure and we’re really smart.’ And I think the Valley didn’t intersect with the real world a lot.
So we sometimes could fool ourselves into believing that we kind of knew better about all these different issues. I think Airbnb, and I, had some of those inclinations in the very early days. I think we kind of had to grow up fast. A lot of tech companies only experience these type of issues when they’re really big. We experienced them much earlier. And I believe the reason we experienced them earlier is because our business exists in the real world.
You mean safety and city issues?
Safety, and discrimination, and all the issues around affordable housing and city legislation. The law around New York City [the law making short-term rentals in dwellings of 3 or more units illegal] was [passed in] June 2010. That was less than two years after we launched. And that was like a bomb in our business. EJ [Airbnb’s first major ransacking incident] happened less than three years into our business. We had all of the lawsuits and the issues of the Attorney General five years into our business. And we had discrimination six or seven years into our business. So because our business exists in the real world, in many ways we had to grow up– we’re still growing up–but we had to grow up really fast. And I think for a lot of tech companies they’ve been able to live in a world where the consequences were only internal. Machines and algorithms can govern things. And they haven’t maybe historically had to engage. Eventually everyone goes through some transition where you realize you have to engage with civic leaders and politicians and have to be mindful of the byproducts and the outside environment that your product creates. So I think we’re all going through that. And I think it’s a reminder of how important technology is—that because it’s becoming so important, the responsibility is to more than just your user’s immediate needs. And I think we were all trained a little bit more about your user’s immediate needs, and all the metrics are based on user’s immediate needs: Do they like it, do they churn, are they adopting it, are they using it, are they happy, your employees, are they happy? But there are other factors that we’ve had to take into account now.
Some say that the tech world has a too optimistic approach where leaders choose to see the best in everyone and assume that people have only good intentions. And that they have to employ people in their organization whose job it is to see the worst case scenario.
I think that’s right. And we played a fair amount of that out with [the company’s new] Experiences [business]. We had a lot of people saying, ‘well if you’re going to approve all the hosts, are the hosts diverse?’ Something that we didn’t think about with homes, where we just let anyone list anything. And we weren’t even thoughtful about where we advertised and the demographics when we advertised. [With Experiences,] we had to be much more thoughtful about diversity. We had to be much more thoughtful about building social good into the fabric of Experiences. We have a goal that 10% of Experiences would be social impact experiences. We’re probably half way to that goal. So taking a very responsible approach where you build things into the DNA is I think a learning curve that all of us in technology are going through. I think the outrage that some people have, I can understand where it’s coming from. Having met a lot of the technology leaders, I would say that as far as I can tell, they all are taking these issues seriously. And I think they have the right intentions, I just think that some of these issues are really big and they come at people faster than they thought.
Have you met Dara Khosrowshahi, the new CEO of Uber?
I know him really well. And I sent him an email, I wished him luck. He jokingly said, ‘well at least I don’t have to compete with you anymore.’ But we’re friendly. We kind of have that friendly back and forth. I’ve known Dara since 2011. And I think he’s great.
So you think he was a good pick for the role?
Yeah, I think Dara is a really good leader. He wasn’t very well known outside the travel industry, but he was very well regarded in the travel industry. And I think when he was appointed I think you probably saw that praise of people in the travel industry have a real respect for him. When he assumed [the role at ] Expedia, there were some challenges. And they were maybe a little off track vis a vis where booking was going. And I think he left behind a really good legacy there.