Gebbia Loves Providence

Airbnb Co-founder Joe Gebbia Talks Rhode Island’s Role in Planting His Startup’s Seeds

It’s not every day that I get to share the stage with a RISD grad whose disruptive international room-renting service is now valued at $31 billion. At the Chamber’s 2017 Economic Outlook Luncheon on June 5, I was joined by Governor Gina Raimondo and Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia, whose company has exploded in more than 191 countries in fewer than 10 years.


The company was famously founded by not one but two RISD grads: Gebbia and Brian Chesky, who was also in town last week to deliver the commencement speech at RISD. I’m grateful to both men for remaining strong advocates for our state and its business strengths over the years.


Chesky and Gebbia famously founded Airbnb in 2008 after renting out an airbed in their apartment when an overcrowded conference in San Francisco filled up every hotel in the city. “Anybody could have rented an airbed during the conference that weekend,” he told the luncheon crowd of more than 500 people. “It was really [about] looking at a problem and turning it into an opportunity. That was the basis of our company. Anytime there’s any kind of rejection, any kind of problem, that becomes an invitation to think of a new idea.”


Gebbia, who attended RISD in 2000 and earned dual degrees in graphic design and industrial design, now serves on the RISD Board of Trustees. During the luncheon, he traced both his startup mentality and Airbnb’s culture back to the experiences he had at RISD.


“We actually didn’t invent anything new,” Gebbia said of founding Airbnb. “There’s nothing proprietary about what [Airbnb does] as a company. It was really translating what RISD teaches so well—being able to see two different things and recombine them in a new and a different way.”


Airbnb has long been headquartered in San Francisco, but perhaps after the warm reception its founders received in the Ocean State last week, they may consider a move to the smallest state, as leading companies like GE Digital, Johnson & Johnson, Fidelity and others have recently done. In Gebbia’s own words: “The culture of Rhode Island and the culture of Providence is one that’s ripe to attract companies like ours, and part of that is the talent pool. A lot of cities don’t actually see the broader picture. Silicon Valley is actually an entire ecosystem. It’s not just one thing. In order for that to work you also have to have access to capital, media, culture and mentorship.”


Under Gov. Raimondo’s leadership, Rhode Island now has all of those things—and so much more.