Airbnb diversity chief: Tech should reflect ‘diverse tapestry of America’

Airbnb diversity chief: Tech should reflect ‘diverse tapestry of America’

Airbnb has hired its first diversity chief to accelerate efforts to bring aboard more women and underrepresented minorities.

David King III, director of the Office of Civil Rights & Diversity for the Peace Corps, is Airbnb’s new head of “diversity and belonging,” a nod to Airbnb’s marketing slogan: “Belong anywhere.”

The hire signals a heightened commitment from Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky to address lopsided demographics inside the company he co-founded. Airbnb serves markets all over the globe, but its staffers are not nearly so representative. In October, Airbnb reported that its workforce is 54% male, 63% white, 7% Latino and 3% African American. It also released its EEO-1, workforce statistics compiled for an annual report to the federal government.

“At Airbnb, we are driven by our mission to connect people and build a sense of belonging. This is only possible through a diverse community of hosts and guests around the world. There is no way we will be successful in that external mission if we don’t have the same goals for diversity within Airbnb,” Chesky said in an e-mailed statement.

In major Silicon Valley tech companies, men greatly outnumber women, accounting for as much 70% of the work force. A fraction of the work force is African American or Latino and, despite a recent outpouring of money, rhetoric and resources, progress has been halting and slow in boosting the ranks of underrepresented minorities.

Major tech companies have entire departments dedicated to increasing diversity. Airbnb is the latest high-profile tech start-up to designate a diversity chief as it faces an industry-wide challenge: Too few women and people of color.

In January, Pinterest recruited Candice Morgan, who worked for nearly a decade at non-profit Catalyst Inc., where she advised companies in a range of industries on how to build more inclusive work cultures. Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz’s productivity start-up Asana hired Sonja Gittens-Ottley, Facebook’s global diversity program manager, in December. Judith Williams, Google’s global diversity and inclusion programs manager, joined Dropbox in October.

King says he has ambitions to disrupt diversity inside Airbnb much the way Airbnb has disrupted the travel industry, by “thinking outside the box and embracing risk.” On his agenda: to look beyond established organizations and traditional recruiting methods to drum up fresh ideas and approaches.

“The numbers of individuals who use our platform are in the millions,” King said. “(The tech industry) really is the future. We need to make sure we reflect the diverse tapestry of America.”

It’s a mission that resonates with King.

“My drive to do work in this space is personal,” he said. “I spent quite a bit of my upbringing being other. I’m African American. I think when I was a teenager, being other it didn’t bother me as much until I became an adult and I was reminded every day that I was different. I went to predominantly white institutions, and typically had circles of individuals who looked different than me. It was in the workplace that there was a shift for me. I was called upon in organizations to be the poster child for diversity. I initially fought that, at least mentally. At then some point I embraced it because my thought process was: If I don’t do it, who will do it?”

King, an attorney, began his career in legal compliance with the Peace Corps, where he organized celebrations for Black History Month and Pride Month in his spare time.

That unofficial role led King to join the State Department’s Office of Civil Rights in 2005 to focus full-time on diversity and inclusion under secretaries Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, an organization he says, “really has a history of not being the most diverse and inclusive environment.”

“It was a struggle, but it built the foundation for me,” he said. “I learned to have hard conversations with people.”

During his tenure, he worked on increasing same-sex domestic partner benefits and the recruitment and retention of diverse foreign service officers. In 2013, King returned to the Peace Corps to work on diversity and inclusion.

He says Secretary Clinton met with him to discuss diversity her second week on the job at the State Department. King says he was drawn to Airbnb for the same reason: Commitment to diversity came from the top. Chesky, he says, is prepared to challenge ingrained attitudes and practices inside the industry and his own company.

“My first day on the job Brian sought me out to sit down and talk about what do we need to do moving forward to make sure Airbnb is a leader in the (diversity and inclusion) arena,” King said. “When you talk about belonging, I felt like I belonged from the first moment I walked in the door because the CEO looked to me to start this conversation and he wants to support the conversation throughout.”

That kind of commitment is critical to meaningful change, King said. Major tech companies have yet to make much progress in diversifying the ranks of employees, executives and board members.

“I could sit in a corner all day long and run metrics and create rubrics and work with employee resource groups but if there is not a connection to the upper echelon in the organization, nothing will ever happen,” King said. “Brian has really set the table at not only hiring for this position and seeking me out from day one.”


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