(Melissa Moy is special projects associate for Glasspockets.)
Two friends were struggling to pay their rent when they realized they could earn much-needed funds from travelers. In 2007, they charged their first three customers $80 a night to sleep on an air mattress in their San Francisco apartment when local hotels sold out during a conference.
And the rest is history.
Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, friends and former Rhode Island School of Design classmates, expanded their enterprising idea. With Gebbia’s former roommate, Nathan Blecharczyk, the trio founded Airbnb in 2008 and revolutionized the art of renting home space. As Gebbia explained in a TED talk, Airbnb designs for trust to create a “culture of sharing… that brings us community and connection instead of isolation and separation.”
Within 10 years, the trio has groomed Airbnb into a $30 billion tech giant, a disruptive and controversial force that has transformed the travel and tech industry and popularized the idea of the “sharing economy.” As Airbnb has grown, so have controversies and debates over its impact in already tight rental markets. Criticism that the company has contributed to community displacement and a reduction in available long-term rentals have led to ongoing legal battles. Yet, despite the regulatory struggles, even hotels are rallying to find ways to imitate the trendsetting Airbnb.
Now the entrepreneurial trio – who are each worth an estimated $3.3 billion and among the youngest on the 2016 Forbes 400 billionaires list – have started making visible strides in the original sharing economy by engaging in philanthropy.
The Airbnb co-founders are among the youngest to join Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates in the Giving Pledge, whereby wealthy individuals pledge to give away the majority of their wealth within their lifetime. When they joined the Giving Pledge last year, it also marked the first time all of a company’s co-founders committed at the same time.
In a Fortune interview, the entrepreneurs credit Warren Buffett and Bill Gates with their decision to join the Giving Pledge. Gebbia touted Buffett as a “Jedi master of philanthropy.” And Chesky said Buffett’s argument resonated with him – wealth beyond a certain point has zero utility, and such wealth could have a greater social impact.
Still relatively new to philanthropy, the trio acknowledge they are taking their time to give away their wealth. However, openness is at the heart of the sharing economy, and the Airbnb co-founders understand a public expectation of openness in philanthropy exists.
“I’ve always believed that you should [be public about giving], such that you can be very public about your values and what you stand for,” Chesky said in a Fortune interview.
As the Airbnb co-founders design their philanthropic strategy, the company is experimenting with different ways to use its platform for good.
The San Francisco-based company has created a disaster response platform that brings together hosts and community groups to provide free temporary housing for individuals and families displaced by disasters, as well as relief workers. When a disaster occurs, Airbnb contacts local hosts who may volunteer to provide free housing; if no hosts are available, Airbnb will subsidize the housing cost.
“I’ve always believed that you should [be public about giving], such that you can be very public about your values and what you stand for.”
Airbnb connects hosts to help support local and national disaster relief efforts, and arranges disaster preparedness training. Airbnb also contributes travel vouchers to support advance teams and large groups of relief workers for major national and international disasters.
More recently, the company has pledged to use its disaster response platform to aid refugees affected by President Donald Trump’s executive order. Over the next five years, Airbnb has committed to provide short-term housing for 100,000 refugees and those barred from entering the United States. Airbnb also pledged $4 million to the International Rescue Committee over the next four years to support the most critical needs of displaced people worldwide.
Airbnb also recently announced a scheduled launch of a humanitarian division next month focusing on global issues such as displaced populations, rural flight and bias against strangers.
Given that building community is one Airbnb’s central philosophies, the company’s platform supports a number of opportunities for Airbnb hosts to make a positive social impact via global volunteerism and “Open Homes,” which provides housing at free or reduced costs for medical treatments, college visits, or family gatherings.
Through a “social impact experiences” program, Airbnb guests enjoy culture and learn about local causes in the cities they are visiting. Local community leaders and volunteers are invited to create an opportunity that brings people closer to their work. Nonprofit leaders and Airbnb hosts lead the experience, and the nonprofits receive 100% of the social impact experience fees.
Airbnb hopes this will connect guests to issues they care about or introduce them to new causes. The social impact experiences run the gamut, from visiting a local artist or animal shelter to attending a dinner and theater event, or spending a day with an urban gardener to create green space in Los Angeles.
Airbnb has committed to fighting homelessness in New York City, where the company recently settled a lawsuit involving legislation that would fine Airbnb hosts up to $7,500 for renting out certain types of apartments and homes for less than 30 days. Last year, the company donated $100,000 to WIN (formerly Women In Need), a group that helps homeless women and their children. Additionally, Airbnb pledged to recruit volunteer hosts and guests to assist WIN clients with professional skills training, such as resume building and interviewing for jobs, and increasing children’s literacy.
The trio’s individual giving appears to be driven by a spirit of entrepreneurship; they want to give others the opportunity to achieve their dreams and support “future creatives and entrepreneurs.”
In Joe Gebbia’s Giving Pledge letter, he described his hope to help other entrepreneurs: “I want to enable as many people as possible, especially in underprivileged communities, to experience this magic firsthand… and achieve their dreams.”
The 35-year-old Georgia native added, “I want to devote my resources to bring the moment of instantiation, when someone who has an idea sees it become real, to as many people as I can. It can unlock the understanding that they can make things happen, that they can shape the world around them.”
Gebbia serves on the Board of Trustees at his alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). In 2014, he pledged $300,000 to RISD for a $50,000 term scholarship and an endowed fund for talented students in need of financial aid.
Nathan and Elizabeth Blecharczyk
In Nathan and Elizabeth Blecharczyk’s Giving Pledge letter, the couple said they are in a “unique position to have significant positive impact” by giving away their wealth. “We feel a responsibility to share our good fortune, and we pledge to dedicate the majority of our wealth over time to philanthropy,” the Blecharczyks said.
Nathan Blecharczyk, 33, who developed Airbnb’s website, demonstrated his entrepreneurial spirit early on. When he was 12 years old, Blecharczyk learned how to code and wrote customized programs for clients; he developed popular programs for e-mail marketing. By age 14, he founded an Internet software business and funded his Harvard University tuition with the sale of his business.
The San Francisco residents cited their upbringing – his parents taught him to be inquisitive, confident and motivated, and her parents and teachers taught her to be self-aware and use her strengths to help others – as the reason to direct their philanthropy toward the “potential of children” and “transformative ideas.”
“Airbnb went from an off-the-wall idea to a transformative company as a result of assembling the right team – cofounders, mentors, investors, and later employees – and now we want to help others pursue unconventional ideas that can make the world a better place,” the Blecharczyks said in their letter.
The couple said their interests are in the areas of education, scientific research, medicine, space exploration, environment and effective governance. “Our philanthropic approach will be reflected through the lens of our own passions and experiences but rooted in analysis to ensure we are choosing wisely,” the couple said.
Brian Chesky, 35, wants his philanthropy to spur youth entrepreneurship. “We all live with unknown potential. The younger you are, the more unknown it is,” Chesky said in his Giving Pledge letter. “But the clock ticks by each day of your life. And each day someone young isn’t exposed to what is possible, their potential slowly dims.”
The New York native credited a high school teacher and RISD professors for helping him to dream and see that he could “design the kind of world I want to live in.”
“You can have a lot of impact on someone just by showing them what is possible,” Chesky said. “With this pledge, I want to help more kids realize the kind of journey I have had. I want to show them that their dreams are not bounded by what they can see in front of them. Their limits are not so limited. Walt Disney once said, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’ I would like to help them dream.”
-- Melissa Moy