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Former Airbnb Chief Ethics Officer Says Integrity is a Superpower in Business

Rob Chesnut

Rob Chesnut

Former Chief Ethics Officer at Airbnb, Inc.
Rob Chesnut was most recently the Chief Ethics Officer and General Counsel of Airbnb, Inc. He is the author of "Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution" (St Martin’s Press, 2020).
Rob Chesnut

The following is adapted from “Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution” by Rob Chesnut (St. Martin’s Press, July 28, 2020)

At Airbnb, the founders of the company realized from the beginning that integrity had to be the foundation of a business based on hosting complete strangers in your home. For one thing, we have data about some of our customers’ most personal activities—where and how they live and where they travel. Beyond that, our Airbnb hosts welcome strangers into their homes; our business model relies on our customers’ basic trust that this will be a safe, pleasant, as-advertised experience where both parties benefit. The damage to our reputation can be swift and severe if any of us—the hosts, the guests, or Airbnb as the facilitator—do not act with integrity.

More and more companies accept that a commitment to diversity and inclusion, a preference for less environmental impact, and a promise to avoid suppliers with offensive labor practices and even customers who exhibit behavior inconsistent with their values are positions they should embrace publicly. These companies are well positioned to lead broader progress in each of these areas—if they act with integrity.

It’s also true, by the way, that forging a better relationship with stakeholders will give them insights that support every facet of their business.


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For example, an Airbnb employee named Srin Madipalli helped open our eyes to a very important set of stakeholders in our guest community: individuals with physical disabilities.

Put simply, these guests need more information about listings than we used to provide. Srin has a medical condition that requires him to use a powered wheelchair, which he has done for his entire life. He also loves to travel, but travel becomes challenging when accommodations are not as described, or when listings lack the details he needs to determine if they will work for him.

After Srin came to work at Airbnb, he not only helped improve how we help hosts be specific about access issues (in fact, we’ve added 27 different measures to our host profile forms), but he also helped us make sure our own activities and facilities don’t unintentionally exclude employees with physical challenges.

Seeing the world through the eyes of a single stakeholder acting on authentic concerns and issues can help a company create a more inclusive corporate culture, and in this case, it literally made the world easier to navigate for millions of other people with physical challenges.

To me, that’s a bold endorsement of Intentional Integrity.


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Intentional integrity

Srin was born in London. He began his career as a genetics researcher before becoming a corporate lawyer. Later, he realized what he really enjoyed was business, and so he enrolled in Oxford to get an MBA. After that, he taught himself to code and launched a startup.

As his resume would suggest, Srin is a high-energy person with a bias for action, even though he was born with spinal muscular atrophy and has been in a powered wheelchair since childhood. His family never had the resources to travel with him when he was growing up, so before he went to Oxford, he and another wheelchair-bound friend decided to take a four-month trip around the world. And what they discovered was that for individuals in wheelchairs, to say travel can be difficult is a profound understatement. The overall supply of accessible accommodations is low, and there are few resources to help people find them.

So Srin started his own company called Accomable to both gather data on wheelchair-accessible travel options and encourage hoteliers and others to outfit their accommodations to be reliable choices for disabled travelers. He wrote software tools that made it easier for the hospitality industry to specifically describe and display photographs of their physical grounds and features so travelers with special needs could make good decisions.

Imagine navigating a world where you have taken a long flight, arrive in the middle of the night, pick up your key, and then realize that there are two significant steps between you and your motel room—and no ramp. You call the innkeeper for help and say, “This room is supposed to be ADA compliant,” and then you hear, as Srin once did, “Well, once you get past the steps, it is.”

In the beginning, the Airbnb platform treated wheelchair accessibility as a yes/no question. The host might check yes, not realizing that the question is not just about stairs and ramps. Wheelchairs often require extra-wide doorways, especially in bathrooms. A guest who needs assistance from a person or a special sling for getting in and out of bed needs extra room around the bed.

When Airbnb CEO, Brian Chesky, realized there was a gap between what some of our listings promised and the experience of people with disabilities, he challenged us to address that gap.

In 2017 we acquired Accomable, and Srin and his team joined us to work on shrinking that gap. Today, Srin is a product manager helping to create products that provide hosts and guests with much more specific information about accessibility in our reservation system. Employees like Srin are critical to giving us the insights to understand some of our customers and do a better job. He can help us make the world better for disabled travelers.


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I was thinking about our intentional efforts to address needs of physically disabled travelers when I read Apple CEO Tim Cook’s 2019 commencement speech at Stanford. Cook noted that too many tech companies invent innovative technologies but then shrug and throw their hands up when there are complications or consequences for society that they didn’t anticipate:

“It feels a bit crazy that anyone should have to say this. But if you’ve built a chaos factory, you can’t dodge responsibility for the chaos. Taking responsibility means having the courage to think things through.”

“Intentional Integrity” is available wherever books are sold and can be purchased via StartupNation.com.

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