As African-Americans continue their struggle to find temporary housing through Airbnb, a group of Black entrepreneurs may give them a run for their money. Noirbnb and Noirebnb – two tech start-up companies with similar names – are looking to develop services for other Black individuals in search of lodging.
Airbnb has come under fire in recent months for racist hosts discriminating against Black would-be renters. The hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack took off in April after a woman shared her experiences with the site. Many had similar issues, and they only found success if they changed their profile to appear white or had a white friend book the location for them.
That was the case for 40-year-old tech entrepreneur Rohan Gilkes, who is developing Noirebnb with co-founder and strategist Zakiyyah Myers, also 40.
In a blog on Medium, he recounts wanting to visit a friend in Idaho for Fourth of July weekend. He initially was able to book the dates, but later his host Jennifer told him her plans changed. Gilkes tried to book a visit for June but his request was canceled and all other inquiries were ignored. When a white friend applied for the July dates, suddenly there was an opening.
After that happened, Gilkes reached out to Airbnb and felt their response was “not empathetic.” The company told him they would email him, but two weeks went by without a response. Then, after the brand builder’s blog post went viral, Airbnb replied. They apologized and offered him free booking, but Gilkes declined it.
The start-up businessman – who has been launching new companies for nearly five years – said it is important to develop this platform not only because of his story but others who have reached out to him about similar experiences.
Gilkes told Atlanta Black Star Black people and other minority groups have a “burden that almost goes with you everywhere.”
“There is a need to create something of a safe space,” he continued. “Where people feel like they can travel and spend their money and be treated well and feel dignity and be respectful… we can build something where we can feel empowered and feel good and not have that burden on us and that can also be inclusive and safe for people of all backgrounds.”
“I want to build a platform where people can come and feel comfortable,” he added.
To weed out discrimination possibilities, Noirebnb will hire minority employees and focus on inclusion – that includes the faces featured on their website. Gilkes points out Airbnb’s website only showed white faces “for the longest time.” There will also be ways to alleviate the booking issue he faced with Airbnb.
“If a person says that their property is not available, that property cannot then be made available to somebody else,” Gilkes explained. Those safeguards also set it apart from similar services.
Since Noirebnb’s development in May, Gilkes has received “99 percent positive” feedback. After opening registration on June 6 for pre-launch updates on the website, 21,000 email owners have applied.
The platform will likely launch in eight weeks, and the first cities serviced will be Atlanta, Chicago and New York before branching out to the western United States.
Gilkes said he came up with the name Noirebnb because, “I wanted that feeling of speaking to certain communities” not unlike Travel Noire. That website targets African-American travelers, and Myers is a member.
Gilkes’ site is similar to Noirbnb, the company developed by 30-year-old start-up developer and artist Ronnia Cherry and 27-year-old record label owner Stefan Grant.
Gilkes, a Barbados native, said the companies learned about each other June 3 and have spoken every day since then.
“There are some cool people on that end…it’s definitely good, open communication and we’ll see,” Gilkes said. “We’ll see if something can work out. And if not, we will have to figure something out as far as the branding goes and so on.”
Cherry, from Miami, and Grant from Washington, D.C., were pushed to develop Noirbnb after a poor experience with Airbnb. They were able to book lodging in Atlanta for a gig in October 2015, but neighbors who thought they were robbing the home called the police. Cops showed up to the residence with guns drawn. Grant live tweeted the entire situation and ultimately was able to get a selfie with officers after the misunderstanding was handled.
Yo! The Air B&B we're staying at is so nice, the neighbors thought we were robbing the place & called the cops! 😂 pic.twitter.com/XUQjuyCXMO
— STEFisDOPE (@STEFisDOPE) October 9, 2015
That same month they began Noirbnb – named after the French word for its Black meaning — which “gets the point across right away.”
“It was up to us to solve the problem once and for all,” Grant told ABS. “We didn’t want what happened to us to happen to anyone else, and we also foresaw more discrimination issues which led to #AirbnbWhileBlack.”
As with Gilkes, the company offered the pair free lodging in response to their situation, but Grant said “the only time we got free lodging was when we went to San Francisco to pitch the original idea [for Noirbnb] at [Airbnb] headquarters.”
Ultimately, “nothing truly panned out” and Grant and his business partner Cherry, who has been coding since childhood, moved on with Noirbnb on their own.
“The experience creating the platform has been awesome,” Grant said. “Never have we had so many people so passionate and proud of what we’re building. It feels good to be filling a need and providing a service that our people can appreciate.”
He continued, “We created this to create a positive environment and get away from discrimination, so we wouldn’t want to perpetuate it. But, it is most definitely a place for Black people to feel empowered and inspired because we built it for us.”
To make sure other users don’t have experiences similar to theirs, the pair plans to enforce strict rules about discrimination. But they don’t expect that sort of behavior from those who will use the service.
“Our entire vibe is unity and inclusion, and we want to make sure it stays that way,” he said.
Since announcing plans for Noirbnb last weekend, the creators have received an “overwhelmingly positive” response.
“Very few people have accused us of ‘resegregation,’ but that couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re all about unity but, making sure our people feel comfortable traveling and taking part in this sharing economy is important to us.”
When it comes to Gilke’s Noirebnb, Grant told ABS they have been in talks over the names.
“He said he’s not married to the ‘Noirebnb’ name and would use our name. I thought that was cool of him. We’re still in [a] conversation.”
The decade-long writer-blogger said he and Cherry have a “variety of features and ideas that will separate us from other platforms out there,” but would not detail what they were. He promises there are “a lot of cool things in store” for users.
While there is no official launch date, the Noirbnb website is currently active and taking applicants. The company cannot reveal how many sign-ups it has received, but Grant said many people are interested. Locations worldwide will be available for visitors and hosts alike.
For their part, Airbnb has issued statements concerning all the backlash. CEO Brian Chesky called the most recent incident where a Black woman’s friend was called the n-word and not allowed to book in North Carolina “disturbing and unacceptable” in a tweet.
The incident in NC was disturbing and unacceptable. Racism and discrimination have no place on Airbnb. We have permanently banned this host.
— Brian Chesky (@bchesky) June 1, 2016
The company announced June 6 it will recruit more minorities and women through Airbnb Connect, based in San Francisco. It will select 11 candidates for the six-month paid educational program with hopes to give participants full-time jobs.