Meet the Airbnb disaster chief matching relief workers with empty beds

An Airbnb office in Toronto, Canada. Devex caught up with Kellie Bentz, Airbnb's first head of global disaster relief, to learn more about where she got her start and what's next for Airbnb's disaster response plans. Photo by: Raysonho

Kellie Bentz is familiar with post-disaster accommodations. She spent months, sometimes with no available bed, living in a crowded church basement as she coordinated volunteers as part of the Hurricane Katrina response in New Orleans in 2005.

Now, she’s one of the professionals spearheading a new Silicon Valley group working on harnessing the programs and reach of technology driven companies in disaster relief.

Bentz, 33, has already amassed a considerable amount of knowledge, primarily with nonprofit organizations, on how to respond to disasters. But as of May, she’s been doing so as the first head of global disaster relief at Airbnb, the online platform for finding and renting homes.

Her formative experience came in New Orleans, where after completing her year with the community service nonprofit Americorps in Atlanta, she was asked to start up a volunteer network in response to Hurricane Katrina for the HandsOn Network. There, she built a project management system and coordinated housing and meals for thousands of arriving volunteers.

Disaster response specialists and researchers came from around the world to learn from the response to Katrina, many of whom Bentz made lasting connections with. She went on to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav in 2008, followed by Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.

“Then I  realized I guess I do kind of have a niche skillset that I was building,” she said.

And she liked the work.

Kellie Bentz, Airbnb's first head of global disaster relief. Photo by: Airbnb

Bentz went on to work for Points of Light, a nonprofit organization focused on volunteering, and then for Target running global crisis management. In 2015, she began receiving emails from friends suggesting she apply to a brand new job opening up at Airbnb. She applied and — after a lengthy hiring process that included nearly 20 interviews — she got the job.

Now she’s helping develop ways for Airbnb to harness its 1.5 million hosts in 34,0000 cities to be able to respond to disaster.

“Immediately when I walked in, it was like this is where I am supposed to be; it felt like it was sort of a convergence of my background,” Bentz said. “With Points of Light I was focused on how do you direct people’s time, talent and resources before, during and after a disaster and so now I’m looking at that from a company perspective.”

The main way Airbnb does so is by activating its response tool in the area impacted by a disaster. Homeowners or hosts with listings on the platform receive a message that allows them to opt in to opening their property for free to either those affected by the disaster or to relief workers for a period of one day to three weeks. Airbnb also waives its fees. The idea itself came from the hosts on Airbnb in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in the United States.

Since then the tool has been activated after the Nepal earthquake in April 2015, following the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015 and most recently after the Brussels attacks. The company looks to step in especially in situations where all hotels are full in order to give relief workers a bed, rather than a floor, to sleep on.

Bentz is quick to note, however, that the response tool will not be activated in response to every disaster. Airbnb makes the decision on a case-by-case basis by considering the size of the affected community, whether local governments or nongovernmental organizations need the assistance and if the housing needs would be temporary.

Airbnb doesn’t yet have enough hosts to be able to activate the program in Africa, for example, though it’s a growing market for the company, and Bentz predicts that will change over time.

One of Bentz’s mandates is to build relationships with city, regional and national officials in preparation for disaster response, but another is working with NGOs. NGOs with relief workers can benefit from the program, but they’ll be better off come a disaster if the organization is already signed up. The biggest barriers in the wake of a tragedy has been that agencies aren’t registered and so there are delays as onboarded. So, she’s eager to work with NGOs to get them set up with a corporate account ahead of time.

Airbnb is putting the word out about its disaster response work through its own channels, but it’s also counting on word of mouth to spread the news, she said.

Bentz has also been working on how to combine her experience working in the nonprofit world with what she’s learning about the tech culture. In 2015, she joined a business consultation with the United Nations that convened about 12 companies. Several of those companies, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Airbnb, decided to keep meeting.

The group, temporarily called the Silicon Valley Disaster Group, is working to create a charter that outlines the core components that each company can offer. It will also work on a one-pager document to help educate people in the field and outline how to coordinate better and more efficiently when in a response.

“The reason I love this work is it brings people together, creates a bridge,” Bentz said.

And while working on disaster response can be stressful, she feels the it’s made her more resilient and adaptable, though she won’t be giving up her yoga practice anytime soon, either.

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About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.