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Diversity takes center stage at Airbnb’s annual tech conference

Diversity takes center stage at Airbnb’s annual tech conference
Airbnb's vice president of engineering, Mike Curtis, addresses the audience at the company's annual OpenAir conference. (Tracey Lien / Los Angeles Times)

Airbnb's annual tech conference, OpenAir, has traditionally focused on engineering challenges: how to grow a platform, how to use big data, how to better match people looking for short-term lodging with those who have rooms for rent.

This year, the conference focused on a different challenge for the company and the tech industry: diversity and inclusion.

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These represent new areas of focus for a company that has long received mixed reactions, from travelers who love it as an alternative to hotels, regulators and residents who want to reign it in because of its effect on local housing stock, and now customers who accuse it of doing too little to curb racism on its platform.

The San Francisco company attempted to address the latter Wednesday at OpenAir. Its 2016 conference agenda gave weight to the tech world's present public relations crisis, with panels on building an inclusive company, mitigating bias in hiring and managing and nurturing trust.

Panelists included Ellen Pao, an entrepreneur whose high-profile gender discrimination lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers made her the face of the movement against Silicon Valley's homogeneity; Stephanie Lampkin, chief executive of job matching app Blendoor; and Hedy Lee, a sociology professor from the University of Washington.

"This is a huge issue for us, [and one] we're really, really focused on," Airbnb chief executive Brian Chesky said. "We have zero tolerance for any amount of discrimination or racism on our platform and we take swift action the moment we hear about it."

Chesky told the audience at OpenAir that the company will look into the design of its website to make sure it encourages inclusiveness.

It might seem strange for a company facing accusations that its hosts have canceled reservations due to the race of guests – and one whose workforce is less than 3% black – to draw so much attention to a problem it hasn't come close to solving.

But in doing so, analysts say, Airbnb may be able to diversify its workforce and improve its image with customers.

By hosting a conference about the tech world's failure to cultivate diversity within companies, Airbnb probably will attract an audience of industry types who are passionate about the problem. Those are the candidates Airbnb wants to meet.

"There's such high demand for talent in the tech industry, there's an arms race for who can offer the best work environment and the best benefits, and increasing diversity could help with that," said strategist Scott Ehlert of branding agency Siegel+Gale.

Just in organizing the conference, Airbnb has shown that it's thinking about the issue, said Neeru Paharia, an assistant professor at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business.

"It humanizes the brand," Paharia said. "Airbnb has some liabilities, especially with the recent news about the percentage of people who accept or deny bookings from minorities. That's definitely a liability which could be overcome to some degree by having an event like this."

Though Airbnb welcomed discussion of its diversity shortcomings, there was little conversation at the conference about another issue of contention for the company: gentrification.

Airbnb has been accused of causing displacement in cities across the country, as landlords could stand to earn more by turning rentals into hotels. That the conference failed to discuss Airbnb's effect on cities such as San Francisco makes it "a bit myopic," Ehlert said.

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"What are the macro impacts on African American neighborhoods in San Francisco? Who is getting squeezed out of the city?" Ehlert said. "Skipping over those macros rings a little tone deaf."

Also absent at the event was any discussion about a Monday vote by San Francisco's board of supervisors that would allow regulators to fine short-term rental websites that host listings that aren't registered with the city.

Technology companies such as Airbnb are increasingly having to find a balance between fighting regulation that could stifle their business models, and currying favor with the public. Despite regulatory action in San Francisco and other cities, Airbnb has still managed to cultivate one of the warmer, fuzzier public images in tech, thanks to the narrative it has spun about sharing and discovery and being a boon for tourism.

Using its annual conference to examine one of its biggest troubles won't hurt that effort, Ehlert said.

Among its more concrete initiatives pertaining to diversity, the company launched earlier in the week a six-month paid work program for people from underrepresented backgrounds seeking a transition to a career in tech. It also announced that all proceeds from its conference will go to Code2040, a nonprofit that creates awareness and opportunities for black and Latino coders.

"These are hard problems, but we're not going to stop until we have solutions," said Mike Curtis, Airbnb's vice president of engineering. "But you also need to know one company can't solve this problem alone, so we're hoping part of today can be us having a discussion."

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Twitter: @traceylien

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