For many brands across all segments of the travel industry, the topic of diversity and inclusion has become of increased importance in recent months following the surge of activity around the Black Lives Matter movement.
While some companies posted a black square in solidarity with little follow-up action (a move seen as a “slap in the face” to some), others have made their commitments public: Uber, for example, has pledged to become an “antiracist company” and to change its leadership.
In the startup community, one travel tech company is aiming to refine all aspects of its business to become an antiracist, diverse and inclusive organization – and encourage other startups to do the same.
Founded in 2018, Pluto Travel is a London-based travel tech startup that aims to remove the hassle from travel by helping travelers discover, organize and protect their trips.
According to co-founder and CEO Alex Rainey, prior to the killing of George Floyd in May, Pluto’s team – which comprises eight white men – would have said it considered diversity and inclusion important at the company without much to show for it.
As the Black Lives Matter movement expanded across the globe, Rainey says the Pluto team responded by asking, “What can we do more as a business? We [acknowledge] that we are a team of all white males, so that's not a particularly strong starting point because we don't even have diversity within our own ranks or within the room."
From there, "We wanted to take a really detailed and thorough analysis of every single part of the business - kind of tear it down and have a look at how we do everything from how we build our product, how we speak to our customers, the reviews we put on our site, to the marketing, the way we hire, employee policies.”
The resulting pledge encompasses 10 actions - some that can be accomplished in the short-term, some long-term - with the objective of "using our privilege to combat systemic and institutionalized racism and to improve diversity and inclusion in our industries."
In addition to updating its company values and setting hiring targets, Pluto is committing to establish diversity and inclusion as a business priority and include it within its quarterly company goals.
It's also pledging to work with companies that actively support diversity, inclusion and the Black community - "even if this means losing out on revenue or a partnership" - as well as to provide its team with time and money for education on racism and antiracism and to donate to organizations fighting racism.
Crucially, Pluto – which sought outside help from diversity and inclusion consultancy Hustle Crew - will report on its progress to the public and its customers, investors and employees and is encouraging other companies to take action by signing its Pledge for Antiracism, Diversity & Inclusion.
"Something that was really important for us at the beginning when we created this pledge was that ... [we realized] you can only really have an impact once you start to grow. So maybe a bigger impact we can have is by publicizing [the pledge] in a digestible way that's consumable and actionable for other startups."
Hard - but necessary
According to BLCK VC, just 1% of venture-funded startup founders are Black.
Kristina Liburd, founder and CEO of trip-planning app Viageur, says that because the startup landscape is so homogenous, some travel startups have never been made to feel like “the other,” meaning, “you probably feel like it’s entirely normal to have the room look like you, to have leadership look like you, or possibly to think you have done enough if one out of 20 people on your team looks a bit different than you.”
It’s much easier, she says, “to think that nothing is wrong with how you have conducted yourself if largely the system hasn’t asked why you haven’t done more.”
Liburd commends Pluto for taking a stand “because it’s hard. It’s hard to ask questions about how you could be perpetuating a problem than solving it.”
Yaa Priscilla Birago, co-founder and CEO of members-only home-share platform Femmebnb, says that while some startups have made efforts to make their office culture more diverse and inclusive in recent years, many did not make it a priority until now. “Recent protests about race and police brutality have amplified the importance of diversity and inclusion and has propelled many startups to look deeper into their company's culture and identify opportunities for improvement.
“We have a long way to go, but I am glad many startups have started moving in the right direction.”
Maybe a bigger impact we can have is by publicizing the pledge in a digestible way that's consumable and actionable for other startups.
Alex Rainey - Pluto
Compared to larger travel brands, Rainey believes it's much easier for startups to set principles and guidelines around diversity and inclusion from day one because it gets "much, much harder the bigger and bigger you grow."
Both Birago and Liburd agree. Birago says making diversity and inclusion a core value early on helps ingrain habits and expectations in a startup’s culture. “The lifeline of any startup is dependent on building innovative products for diverse customers. Studies have shown that companies with diverse teams have a higher chance of succeeding because diverse teams help businesses make better decisions, stay innovative and find effective ways to resolve problems.”
She says that as a woman founder and a person of color, diversity and inclusion has been her priority since the inception of Femmebnb. “I am very intentional about every person I bring on my team, as team diversity helps us make better decisions and creates an inclusive and innovative workplace and products.”
Similarly, Liburd says she started Viageur with the goal of hiring an international and diverse team – reflective of a product meant to be consumed by travelers throughout the world.
“Your early stage is your foundation. Your foundation won't change after gaining investments or growing into the next stage. The foundation and the culture of your startup stays with you. So if your foundation and culture has no problem being 90% white or not having a diverse leadership, then you will be perpetuating the problem.”
She says having diversity and inclusion in all aspects of a business should never be considered a hindrance but rather “an asset for growth for travel companies.”
“Now more than ever, consumers are becoming sensitive to how businesses conduct themselves.”
While Rainey hopes Pluto’s pledge will have an impact not only on the company but also the startup community at large, he still feels somewhat "pessimistic" that all the talk of diversity and inclusion could result in minimal action from others in the ecosystem.
However, "there are obviously a lot of really interesting and up-and-coming startups that are doing some incredible things in this space and [if that continues] that's going to be really, really positive.”