A year ago, Stefan ‘StefisDope’ Grant, 28, born in Jamaica with a music production background went from being held at gunpoint during his stay in Decatur, GA while renting an Airbnb to founding his own company Noirbnb to enhance and cater to the black traveler’s experience. Focused on positivity, what once took off as a hashtag, #AirbnbWhileBlack, is now considered a thing of the past as Noirbnb is aiming to be the future of travel.
Founder, Stef Grant, shares his journey that was the catalyst to garner media attention—from Forbes, USA Today, Huffington Post, Time, amongst many others—to entrepreneurship, so his community too can win. Stef talks his experience while renting with Airbnb, the journey to entrepreneurship and what to expect from Noirbnb in the future.
You’re known as StefisDope. What’s the origin of your name?
Dope stands for Driven On Positive Energy, which is what my whole mantra is about.
As a born Jamaican, how has your culture influenced everything you’ve done to date?
I think being Jamaican is dope. It inspires me to go hard and be great no matter what. For such a small island, Jamaicans have had such a major impact. Learning from legends like Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey, when you have that kind of representation for your culture all you want to do is go hard, be great and leave your stamp on the world. On top of that, I feel like people just know Jamaicans as good-hearted and fun loving people. That’s the vibes I want to represent as a person and being Jamaican as well.
You were known about a year ago, while you were staying in Decatur, GA for the A3C festival. Were you performing or just attending?
It was kind of both. I’d been there before and I wanted to do a show this time around, so we put together an event called The Underground Report.
You rented an Airbnb and since then it has become national news. You were featured in Forbes, which is huge, USA Today, Huffington Post amongst many other media platforms, blogs and websites. Bring me back to that day when cops were called and guns were drawn.
We rented an Airbnb in a nice neighborhood. It was a beautiful house. I guess the neighbors just saw a bunch of black people in the crib and for whatever reason assumed we were robbing the place. So, they called the police on us, the cops show up with guns drawn. It was a pretty crazy situation.
With all the racial tension and police brutality, how did you manage to ease the situation despite being held at gunpoint?
We had to let them know we were just renting the spot, we’re chillin’. I was in my sweats and rocking some slides. We showed them some paperwork and they finally believed that we weren’t robbing the place. While everything was going on, I asked one of the cops if I could snapchat this. He said yes if I got his good side. At the end of it all, I took a selfie before they left. We were smiling and joking with the cops in the selfie. From there I posted the selfie on Twitter, it blew up and took off from there.
What types of attention have you garnered since your selfie went viral?
It led to a lot of media reaching out to us, as well as Airbnb. They offered us vouchers for future stays but we realized this situation was bigger than just free future stays.
What made you start Noirbnb?
We started looking at comments from people in the community and a lot of people either never heard of Airbnb or have heard of it but didn’t want to use it because of what happened to us. We wanted to make sure we kept positive and see what type of direction we could take this in. We realized there was an entire market that had no idea about Airbnb or didn’t want to use it now. So, we wanted to bring that market in and focus on creating something that can not only make black travelers feel safer but, bring them into the sharing economy and help blacks connect on a bigger level and around the world.
We came up with the idea and pitched it to Airbnb over email and phone. They wanted to hear more so they flew us out there and we gave them the entire pitch. By this time the story kind of died down and I don’t think they were trying to focus on their African American demographic, so they turned down the idea but we maintained contact. A couple months later, Harvard came out with a story that said that there was a lot of discrimination on Airbnb and the #AirbnbWhileBlack had blown up a couple months after that. We’ve had people reach out letting us know about the unfortunate experience they’ve had and Airbnb wasn’t trying to solve the issue so we had to do it on our own.
Prior to the incident, did you ever see or interact with the neighbors during your stay?
I don’t remember seeing the neighbors at all before anything had happened.
You turned what seemed like a PR crisis for AirnBnB into entrepreneurship, founding Noirbnb. How soon was the turnaround from all the drama you faced till getting Noirbnb up and running?
I came up with the idea/name for the company about a week to a few weeks later. I began working on the pitch a couple of days after that. We pitched it to Airbnb about three weeks after everything happened.
Stick a pin. Initially, you came up with the pitch so Noirbnb can be a subsidiary of Airbnb?
Yea, initially I wanted Noirbnb to be a part of Airbnb.
[continues answer from the previous question]
We’ve spoken a couple of times but we didn’t think they were serious about making it happen. I bought the domain for Noirbnb back in January, made the twitter and Instagram profiles, email, etc but we were still waiting on Airbnb to see if they were going to pick this idea up and try to fix the problem. Months went by and they still didn’t try to do anything. Once #AirbnbWhileBlack took off we spoke with them to see what they were trying to do but, they still weren’t very adamant about fixing the issue so we knew we would make the announcement for ourselves and we did that on June 3rd.
Once you made the announcement that you all were a company, what was the overall response like?
Our goal that Friday [June 3rd] was to make the announcement about the company. We said if we have 100 emails by the time Monday [June 6th] rolls around then we’ll know we have an idea and we can run with it. By the time Monday came around, we were in the thousands.
Present day, is the site fully open and can people book a place to stay?
Not yet. People can sign up to list their homes but we’re going to have the phase one launch of the company in December where people will be able to book.
You accomplished one of your life goals by being recognized by Forbes before 30. Verified on Twitter and all. What’s next?
That was a huge goal for me. I think the next thing is to make sure the company and product are launched, providing an awesome service for people, people enjoying using the service and having great experiences. That’s the major goal. Of course, making sure the company overall is a major success doing a bunch of cool things, marketing, branding content. Connecting with a lot of great people and hopefully making Noirbnb the catalyst to do a lot of other great things to help push the world in a more positive direction—that’s the goal.
Not sure what their policy is like, but do you think with the situation that happened to you, if it was required for surrounding neighbors to know that houses in their neighborhood were being rented out this would combat some issues, specifically, the one you dealt with?
I’m not sure how Airbnb goes about that whole thing but we definitely want our users to let their neighbors in their community know, only because it makes it safer for them and the user. Also, it’ll be good for the community to know what our company goals are and a good promotional tool. Ultimately beyond connecting black travelers, we want to stimulate the economy within the community. And this is not only a great way to make money, pay some extra bills but connect and do something really cool for the community.
There is another company, Innclusive, formerly known as Noirebnb, with pretty much the same concept. How is that working out? Were they out already prior to you? How is Noirbnb different from other similar companies?
No. We’re the original Noirbnb. We own both names because it is the same name and we got the trademarks for the names. Noirbnb and Innclusive are two different companies, two different products, and services. Similar in certain ways but we’re focused on the black traveler’s experience and making sure it’s the dopest thing it could possibly be.
I wouldn’t consider Innclusive competition because the market we’re trying to cater to, there’s so many ways we can all do that, but what sets us apart is our mission, different features and how we want to create our community and promote what we’re bringing to the table.
What are some tips and suggestions for others who want to take that entrepreneurial leap?
Like Nike has been saying for years, Just Do It. Don’t wait for permission, don’t ask for permission. If you have a great idea and you know you can provide a solution to a problem that humanity is facing, just do it. Do as much research as you can whether it be on what you’re trying to do, your market, demographic. Do something cool. If you’re afraid to make mistakes you’ll never do anything great. Get out there, take that first step and make it happen. Make sure you pay attention to everything, your company’s mission, how you’re moving forward, productivity, finances. Stay on top and put together a great team and product. There is no such thing as the right or perfect time. Whenever you do it, is the right time. You’ve just got to do it, throw it out there and make it better as you go along. If you wait too long somebody else is going to do it.
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