As controversy swirls around Airbnb over allegations of racial discrimination on its home-sharing platform, the company is looking inward to address another problem all-to common in Silicon Valley ? a lack of diversity in the workplace.
On Monday the company announced Airbnb Connect, a Bay Area program focused on opening careers in engineering and data science to minorities, women, veterans and other groups underrepresented in the technology sector. Airbnb will select 11 candidates to participate in the six-month program that combines education and paid work at the company?s San Francisco headquarters, with the goal of ultimately offering participants full-time jobs.
?We will build better products if our team is as diverse as the community we serve,? Mike Curtis, Airbnb?s vice president of engineering, wrote in a news release. ?We are determined to attract and retain people from diverse backgrounds at Airbnb, and we hope that Airbnb Connect opens up new opportunities for people.?
The new diversity initiative comes days after Airbnb kicked a landlord in North Carolina off the platform for reportedly sending racist messages to a traveler who wanted to stay in his home. Co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky tweeted that the incident was ?disturbing and unacceptable.?
Meanwhile there have been widespread accusations that Airbnb landlords discriminate against African-American travelers, prompting the Twitter hashtag ?#AirbnbWhileBlack.? The outcry follows a January study out of Harvard Business School that found travelers with African-American sounding names are 16 percent less likely to be given a room than those with distinctively white names. Last week Airbnb announced it had brought on Laura Murphy, a former head of the American Civil Liberties Union?s Washington legislative office.
Airbnb faces a different problem with race within its own workforce ? one shared by many Silicon Valley companies. According to the most recent data released by Airbnb, 63 percent of its employees are white and 22 percent are Asian, but only 7 percent are Hispanic and 3 percent African-American. The company scores better on gender diversity, with a nearly even split between men and women.
Airbnb and other companies have been paying attention to diversity as of late, following a public outcry sparked in part by Ellen Pao?s gender bias trial last year against Menlo Park venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. In February, Airbnb reported increasing the ratio of its women data scientists from 15 to 30 percent.
The company says its latest initiative is intended to develop a ?lasting, positive culture.? Engineering program applications open in July for potential participants who have between two and five years of experience in nontechnical fields and have completed a training course in computer science. Airbnb will accept three participants into that program, with the hope of expanding in years to come. The data science program, which will accept eight participants, runs in conjunction with Galvanize, a company that offers tech-focused classes in San Francisco.
Laura Frey, who works to promote diversity in tech as chief operating officer and co-founder of San Francisco-based Change Catalyst, said the Airbnb program is a start, but it needs to go deeper.
?It?s not only finding the talent,? she said, ?but it?s also about creating a culture within the company so you will retain that talent and promote that talent.?
James Rodgers, a Georgia-based ?diversity coach? who works with companies in Silicon Valley and around the world, said the key is to prove that having a diverse team is worthwhile. He suggests studying the tangible benefits of hiring employees with different backgrounds and viewpoints.
?Just to increase numbers for the sake of numbers usually is not sustainable,? Rodgers said. ?So what I would suggest they do if they try this approach is try to demonstrate the real value of having diverse people on the staff. It?s got to be more than just another set of hands.?