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While the Tesla gigafactory goes up near Austin and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez lures lone venture capitalists to the beach, Airbnb will build a new tech hub in a less-hyped city: Atlanta.
The company chose Atlanta for its future growth for one explicit reason: In order to meet its hiring goals for technical teams with a diverse range of perspectives, the company needed a location that produces diverse and creative talent and would continue to attract more. No other city could surpass Atlanta's potential to do that, Chris Lehane, Airbnb's senior vice president for global policy and communications, told Protocol.
"To get those levels, you just have to start to do things differently. You have to start to think about how you are going to be able to recruit and attract that younger talent," Lehane said. "We just felt incredibly strongly that we needed to have a presence in a place like Atlanta because there is a pool that exists right now."
The new Atlanta hub will eventually house much of the company's growing technical and programming work, including a product development team. The company will slowly add a few hundred employees in an office space, and, as hiring increases, it plans to eventually relocate to a new, as-yet undetermined location. The new facility will be selected in partnership with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms' office, and the company has not yet decided whether it will purchase an existing location or construct a new one. Airbnb headquarters will remain in California.
While it hasn't received the press attention of Austin and Miami, Atlanta has spent the last decade growing into a tech city with untapped potential. The Atlanta Tech Village houses a thriving startup community that birthed the Black-owned Calendly; LeaseQuery and Mailchimp both were founded in the city; and the head of Google for Startups lives there and helps lead the growing local VC community. Big tech companies have made impressive commitments in the last year, thanks to the energy of the local talent; Apple is co-founding a center to support HBCU technical education, and Google has named Atlanta as one of the cities where it will recruit new Googlers to help meet its diversity hiring goals. Within the last week, Microsoft announced that it will build a massive new headquarters in one of the city's historically Black neighborhoods, and T-Mobile said it would partner with Georgia Tech to build a 5G incubator.
Internally, Airbnb first chose Atlanta for the company's new East Coast tech hub in early 2020, after a search process in 2019 that entailed a detailed rubric with a series of requirements for the location, including a long history of creative culture and a wide network of colleges and universities that could provide a talent pool. Atlanta produces more Black college graduates than any other metropolitan area in the United States, and it houses the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of historically Black colleges and universities that have focused in recent years on improving their high-level computer science and engineering programs.
While the pandemic forced Airbnb to hit what Lehane called an "aspirational pause" on the Atlanta plan in the spring (the company laid off about a quarter of its workforce at the time), its surprisingly resilient recovery and massive December IPO gave it room to move forward now.
While Lehane wouldn't commit to the number of workers they hope to hire or the total number of jobs the new location will create — "It's better to under-promise," he said — the location could become its largest facility outside of Silicon Valley, and he anticipates that many new engineering and technical jobs will based primarily in Atlanta. The company chose to make the location a "technical hub" specifically because technical roles — rather than other corporate functions, such as marketing — will likely be the focus of job growth for Airbnb, and because the company's leaders have publicly set specific diversity goals for their tech department. By 2025, 20% of the technical workforce should identify as an underrepresented minority, and 50% as women across all levels of the company. Growing in Atlanta is key to the strategy to make that happen.
While city leaders across the country have been groveling for tech companies to invest in their municipalities (see the Nevada governor's proposal for tech companies to create their own local governments), industry critics are wary that tech companies could reshape other communities in the same way they transformed Silicon Valley, contributing to crises in housing affordability, transportation, poverty and culture. Airbnb is well aware of that problem, and it wants to preempt what it can by working closely with the community and the city government. The company will not accept any incentives or benefits that might be offered with the new location, and it plans to take the growth process slowly enough to allow for community-building relationships.
Ideally, many of the new jobs created in that location will go to members of the broader Atlanta community, Lehane said. "The objective here is to be able to attract and hire talent that's of Atlanta and from Georgia, and in so doing have a sustainable model for your office. This is putting money in the community, and going back into the community," he added.
The mayor's office sees Airbnb's announcement as the latest proof that Atlanta is an attractive location for tech companies, and they believe Atlanta will continue to grow as a tech capital without the problems that have plagued Silicon Valley. "It is possible to attract top talent and businesses while achieving increased equity and affordability," a spokesperson for the mayor's office said in a statement, pointing to Bottoms' agenda for equity and affordable.
As part of its plan, Airbnb also made a number of other community commitments. The company will help the Mayor's Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion create new educational and training opportunities for children and young adults in the city, develop partnerships with local HBCUs and provide hardware for students in need.
"Even the fact that you're planting a flag, calling Atlanta home for your East Coast hub, begins to create a sense of connection with the community. People as they grow up recognize the logo, recognize the name," Lehane said.
Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.