On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, two sets of guests grapple with the issue of immigration and where Silicon Valley stands. Charlotte and Dave Willner, creators of the hugely successful Facebook fundraising campaign called “Reunite an immigrant parent with their child,” talk about how they raised more than $20 million in one week for RAICES, a legal services nonprofit in Texas. Later in the show, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky (who is Dave Willner’s boss) talks about the factors that tech executives must weigh if they want to be involved in political issues.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Kara Swisher: Hi. I’m Kara Swisher, editor at large of Recode. You may know me as a granddaughter of immigrants, but in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media podcast network. Today we’re doing something a little different on Recode Decode. Over the course of two interviews, we’re going to talk about the Trump administration’s appalling zero-tolerance immigration policy and how it intersects with the tech industry.
Later in the show I’ll be talking to Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, but first I’m here with two people I really never met, but admire completely, Charlotte and Dave Willner. They created a fundraising campaign on Facebook called “Reunite an immigrant parent with their child.” At the time we’re recording this, it has raised nearly $19 million for the Texas nonprofit called RAICES. By the time this episode comes out, it will almost certainly be more. Facebook calls it the largest fundraiser on its platform to date. Charlotte and Dave, welcome to Recode Decode.
DW: Thank you so much.
This is astonishing. I think over the weekend it was three ... an astonishing thing.
So let’s go into your background really quickly, because I think this the topic that just infuriates much of the country, and thrills much of the country unfortunately, the other half. I don’t think it’s that many people. I think this is great. Talk about what you guys do. You work for?
CW: Pinterest. I’m at Pinterest. I’m head of trust and safety there.
Right. And you had been working where? At Pinterest all along?
CW: No. I was at Facebook for seven years and moved to Pinterest about four-and-a-half years ago.
Okay. What did you do at Facebook?
CW: The same thing, trust and safety.
Okay. And Dave?
DW: I work at Airbnb. I run our community policy team, which helps figure out sort of the rules of how we govern the site. I actually also was at Facebook before for about six years and did a variety of things there, including content policy and trust and safety work.
All right. So you are both typical techies, right? Typical techies in Silicon Valley? And you had been political? Would you call yourselves political or not?
CW: Not particularly, no. I think certainly for all my time at Facebook I felt very conscious and very ... Just not to be political. When you’re building a platform that’s meant to be a platform for everybody, in my time there there wasn’t really a place for “I feel this way” or “I feel that way” about an issue. The driving factor was openness and connecting the world and allowing different people to talk to each other.
CW: So this is certainly the most political I’ve ever been.
Right. Right. So what about you, Dave?
DW: I would say that historically I was more political than Charlotte, but the same answer very much applies around sort of in a professional context, definitely something where inviting content policy for Facebook ... They’re very much trying to be a platform for all ideas, and so that neutrality was important. But, yeah, I’d say I’ve been engaged for quite a while.
Yeah. All right. So tell me how you thought about doing this. You used Facebook as a what? How do you use it usually?
CW: I’m on all the time because I’m a mom and I have lot of friends who also have kids and everybody is on there. You get to see what’s going on. For me, over the last year or so I’ve actually been running semi-regular fundraisers on Facebook. We call them WTF Wednesdays, Want To Fund Wednesday. Typically the target is $500, and it’s for whatever cause is dominating the news that week.
Why did you start doing this?
CW: I think I felt like I needed a way to help on issues where I didn’t have any expertise or any connection. We’ve raised for ... Our most successful one to date was $1,200 for Austin Sound Waves, and that was in the wake of the Austin bombing campaign. There was a child there who was killed opening a package on his front porch, and Austin Sound Waves was the music program that he really loved.
Traditionally, we’ve focused on issues like that, and it was just an easy way for our friends group to say, “You know, I’m upset about this too and I would like to give $20.”
To do something? Exactly.
CW: A feeling of doing something.
DW: It’s more productive than just yelling about it on the internet.
Yeah. Yeah. Which is what I do, but I try my hardest ...
CW: It also has its place.
Yeah. Yeah. It does. I think it works for me to yell. So you’ve done these small things, these tiny little things.
And, Dave, did you do that too, or what was the ...
DW: No. She’s largely been sort of the mover on that. I always end up donating to them and boosting them, but I sort of figure that dividing efforts, that was probably not as productive as focusing on a single thing, so we tend to tag-team stuff.
It’s also sort of funny, I mean, obviously we’re married, but we’ve also worked together at Facebook for six years, so we have a bit of division of labor mentality between the two of us.
Right. Right. I see. So how did this thing start? What happened?
CW: Yeah. So I had been out of the country on vacation actually for the week prior to starting the fundraiser, and when I came home obviously ... Actually our daughter was being cared for by her grandparents. It was our first big vacation away from our daughter, who’s 2 and a half.
When we came home we were just so happy to see her and we felt so great to be with her and we just ... We’re in that moment of appreciation, just being reunited with our child after a voluntary separation, and one of my Facebook friends shared a photo that has now gone very viral by John Moore. It is the photo of a little Honduran girl the same age as my child, crying at the feet of her mother and a border patrol agent, and her mother isn’t allowed to pick her up. And her face in that image is the face that I think any parent or anyone who has a child in their life would recognize.
She’s terrified, she’s traumatized. And it was something in that moment that really touched me, and I think we’ve clearly had a very sort of ambient awareness of what’s going on at the border and what’s been going on at the border for many years, not just under the Trump administration, but with the zero tolerance policy a lot of that has changed in practice.
A lot of things weren’t being enforced.
CW: Right. And truthfully, we got to the policy of this about what, six days ago?
DW: Five days.
CW: Right. I felt in that moment that that of course was a wonderful WTF Wednesday topic. I did a little research on is there anyone working to help these kids, help these families. At that point, we knew that some families had been separated, but the night actually after I started the fundraiser we found out that it was 2,000 children had been separated from their parents. Over the course of the week it got worse. Now there are over 2,300.
So I thought we could raise bond for one family member on RAICES. This is an organization ... They do a lot of direct action directly with the parents, and that’s why after some research I said these people look good, because they’re the ones going to the courthouse saying we need to get this parent out because their child needs them.
DW: They have essentially no overhead. It’s like 50 lawyers to support people and represent folks.
Right. So you just picked that one charity, which now raised too much money. We’ll get to that in a minute. So you put this up, and explain what happened.
CW: Yeah. So I published it at eight o’clock on Saturday.
What did you say? What did you guys say? Because there’s a lot of stuff on Facebook like this. I’ve seen a lot of it all over Twitter. Everyone is angry, but this was different.
CW: Right. What I explained is that because we had started seeing it everywhere people were really worked up about it. I just said we are collectively just so distraught over what we’re starting to hear about these families and we need to be able to directly help them, and RAICES is an organization that does do that direct help and they can work to reunite these families within our legal system, within the immigration courts. So our goal is to raise $1,500, which is the minimum bond set in these immigration courts for one parent. And it was Father’s Day weekend and we thought, you know, if we get one parent reunited with their child that would be good.
Right. And did you think this was going to take off?
DW: I don’t think either of us did. I re-shared it immediately. I think I probably quoted Frederick Douglass or something on re-sharing it. I often find other people more eloquent than I am.
He’s a pretty eloquent guy.
He’s not living, by the way. [laughter]
CW: I hear he’s more and more recognized all the time.
DW: But we then proceeded to sort of basically just invite as many people as we possibly could.
How many Facebook friends do you have?
DW: I think I have like 1,700. All the Facebook people friend all the other Facebook people when you work there. Now we work other places, so we both have pretty large friend graphs and we both hit the invites pretty hard, and people responded. I think they responded to the image. I think they responded to Charlotte’s very clear positioning of what this was for. And then from there it really started to gain steam.
Why do you think that is? It started with 1,500 and then it passed ... How quickly did it go up? Extremely quickly?
DW: Extremely quickly. Yes. The initial goal was $1,500, and by the end of the first day we had raised $120,000.
What did you think? Wow?
Was it in big chunks or smaller chunks?
CW: It was both. Actually, I’d love to talk about that, because that is something that I think really set this apart — certainly from any of the fundraisers that I’ve ever done before. A few minutes after I posted, I had a private message from someone who I sort of knew at Facebook, but didn’t know well. We’ve all since moved on in our careers.
They wrote to me and said, “Hey, I see this. I will match donations up to $25,000.” That matching process was something that I think really pushed us into what ultimately became our reality. I grew up in the Bay Area. My network is actually not traditionally tech. I went to a conservative Christian high school. I have a very different background, I think, than maybe a lot of people moving to Silicon Valley to do this.
So we were in this position where we had someone who was able to really put up a lot of money, and then I was able to go to all of the people I know who don’t have $25,000, but do have $25, and say, “Hey, you can donate and have $50 in your name, or for your cause. You’ll double it. Double your money.”
I was astonished at how fast people started sharing it, because they knew they were going to be able to have more impact collectively. So we got to the situation where our small donors were starting to race our large donors. And as soon as we got close to that 25,000 target we had other large donors saying, “Hey, it looks like you’re almost out of matchers. I have $1,000 for you.” We ended up with matchers doing grants anywhere from $50 to $100,000 in the end.
DW: It was all over the place, and particularly early on. The matching campaign began completely spontaneously. We had not put any of that through, and then someone very generously came forward. And then after that we sort of were like, “We probably know some people we can get to donate some money,” and sort of went around and beat the bushes on that, and I think that definitely helped early on in terms of accelerating things.
CW: Yeah. I mean we only have — “only.” I think we only have $360,000 in matching donations. The vast majority of this money has come from people giving less than $40.
DW: Yeah. The average donation on the Facebook event itself is under $38 at this point from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., and 26 countries at this point.
CW: Right. It just took off like crazy.
So what was the mechanism for giving money? It’s not a pledge, so they have to give it, right?
CW: Right. So through Facebook ... Facebook has this way you can hook up your credit card on it.
I know how it works.
CW: Okay. Yeah. So on Facebook you can say, “Yes, I would like to donate.” They have some suggested amounts or you can type in your own number, and then they actually take your credit card information and process it directly to this fund, that is then transferred directly to the charity. Facebook actually last year waived all fees for charity fundraisers, so the nonprofits that get raised for, they get 100 percent of the money.
DW: Unlike some of the other funding platforms, it actually disburses on a rolling basis.
CW: Meaning once it comes in, it goes out.
DW: Yeah. So the fundraiser doesn’t ... Not quite, because there’s obviously some time to let the charge come through and do anti-money-laundering things and whatever else, but the fundraiser does not have to end for the money to start to go out the door.
I see. I see. So you started to do this. How quickly did it get to $1 million?
DW: I think we got to $1 million Monday morning.
So you started this ... I’m sorry ...
DW: Saturday. Saturday morning.
So on Monday you had $1 million?
DW: Yeah. Maybe by Sunday night.
Amazing. And what did you imagine? Like it must be like, “Oh, my God.” Did you tell RAICES?
CW: We did.
Did they know ... Did you know anybody there?
CW: No. We swiftly were able ... We called in a few friends and said, “Hey, this is getting actually pretty popular and we need help doing FAQs, and something we’re really going to need help with is contacting this organization. Does anyone know anyone there?”
Nobody did, so one of our friends wrote up an email to ... They have some email addresses on the website and we just emailed Saturday after we had raised ... We were on target for $250,000 at that point, and just said, “Hey, just so you know, we’ve raised a lot of money and we think we’re going to keep raising,” because Dave was actually doing analytics to see the rate, and the rate was going up and up and up.
You were doing analytics?
DW: Oh yeah. The Facebook fundraiser was definitely not built for this scale to raise, so it has no built-in analytics. All those graphs I’ve been posting, I’m just doing that in graph sheets, because I wanted to have a sense of what was happening.
And to say where it’s coming from and what’s going on?
DW: The where it’s coming from data we all collect anecdotally from what people say, because there’s literally no analytics in this product, which we’re going to give feedback on.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Good. Mark of success for doing something nice. So you called them. How did ... Explain.
CW: We did a cold email.
Where are they? They’re in Texas, right?
CW: They’re in Texas.
DW: San Antonio is their main office.
CW: Yeah. They have six offices across Texas. The big one is in San Antonio. I mean, they do okay, but I’m guessing this much money has never been raised.
DW: Their yearly budget is about $7 million.
CW: Yeah. Exactly. Right. So they called us back immediately and were just floored. We started a conversation about ... Okay, we had been talking about it as a bond fund. It turns out that they actually ...
What’s that? Explain that. Oh, just devoted to bonds specifically?
CW: Right. They have two fundraising goals, and actually this is an incredible story. RAICES in May set two fundraising goals. They wanted to be able to bond out parents who had been incarcerated, because the main reason these children are held is because their parents are in jail. So if the parents can get out of jail they can reclaim their kids. That’s the mechanism anyway.
So they had a dedicated bond relief fund and they had a dedicated fund for universal representation for unaccompanied children, is how it started. In Texas last year, 76 percent of children who were in the immigration system for this went unrepresented, and it was something like ... It was either 31,000 or 13,000. I think it was 31,000. We’ll get the number.
DW: Part of the deal there is that in the immigration courts you do not have the right to an attorney in the sense that the government will not provide you one if you cannot afford one. So you can genuinely go unrepresented and there’s no official division to have anyone speak on your behalf, and we’re talking about children. Like some of these people are 4 or 5 years old, and not only don’t speak English, don’t speak Spanish.
CW: They have to go to court not only without a lawyer, but even without a parent.
CW: I think as a parent, no one would send their child to court alone.
And then what do they do with them? They just disburse ...
CW: Well, you know, there’s a variety of things that end up happening, especially with unaccompanied minors. But what we do know is with RAICES at work, 90 percent of children who end up with a lawyer, who end up represented, have a successful asylum case.
And then become adopted if they’re unaccompanied?
CW: Right. Then they go through the system. They’re reunited with relatives who are here, even though they crossed without one. A variety of things end up happening. But RAICES had set these goals in May, and specifically said on their website these are big and aggressive and risky goals and we have no idea how we are going to meet this need, but we know we have to try, because the current situation is unsustainable. It’s inhumane to these families.
CW: So very quickly after that call Saturday night our goal became, we are going to fully fund these two goals, these two things, which initially it was just to let one parent out.
DW: One parent out.
All right. When we get back, we’re here with Charlotte and Dave Willner. They have raised $19 million in a Facebook fundraiser that was supposed to raise $1,500. It’s called “Reunite an immigrant parent with their child.” Those simple words, all that money. We’ll talk more when we get back.
We’re here with Charlotte and Dave Willner, who I now want to marry myself. They’re the creators of the Facebook fundraiser “Reunite an immigrant parent with their child.” I actually want to be their child. You raised this money. You got to a million by Monday, Sunday, something like that.
DW: Sunday night, Monday morning. Yeah.
All right, it is Friday.
How did it get to $19 million?
DW: Well, we raised $7.5 million yesterday, so that helped a lot.
$7 million was raised as this full annual budget.
DW: Yes. We raised more than their annual budget yesterday.
Now what did they say? Do they want all this money? I mean, it’s a lot.
DW: We checked.
Yes. Yes. Yeah.
DW: They do.
They do. Okay.
CW: We would love to talk about that because ...
Okay, because from what I understand, I talked to their sister organization and ...
CW: Yes. Yeah. The common question we get now is, “Oh my gosh, can they use all this money?” The answer resoundingly is yes. RAICES is, has been from the very beginning, so committed to sharing these resources with every organization in Texas who needs them and who is partnering with them. They can now provide lawyers to a bunch of the pro bono projects. We could say, “Okay. You’ve got a paid lawyer now.” The process of reuniting these families is going to be extremely expensive.
One wonderful thing — we saw a Slate article about this earlier this week — but one wonderful thing about the way that RAICES works and the way they’re structured is so much of their costs, their operating costs, are direct legal services, right? Unlike some of these charities I think we’ve heard about in recent years where they build up all this money and then it’s kind of sitting there, they can expand their run rate almost indefinitely.
Yes, until ... Yeah.
I only give to legal groups because they ...
CW: Exactly. It’s all spent directly on what ...
CW: What used to happen.
DW: Particularly with these asylum cases, they can go for a couple years. I mean, there absolutely is a use for pro bono attorney work but they also do really need dedicated workers who are working on this in a sustainable way because you can’t take a week off and finish one of these cases.
Right. Now that they’ve been broken apart and they’ve seemed to have done it in a way that’s completely haphazard and they don’t know where they’re from. They didn’t even link the children with their parents, correct? Is that ... That can’t be correct.
DW: There are databases but they are both hard to access because they exist on the sort of unaccompanied minor side, and access, very appropriately, is locked down because we’re talking about data about kids. And then on top of it, frankly, the government has not exactly been helpful, even when people are bonded out. Folks are dropped off at the San Antonio bus station with a giant stack of paperwork in English and no instructions on what to do.
CW: To find their children.
DW: Right, and one of the things RAICES does is meet everyone at that bus station.
CW: And try to find their kids.
DW: And try to help them find their kids.
Talk about what lies ahead. This idea of reuniting these children is ...
And they’ve been sent all over the country.
CW: They’ve been sent all over the country and there has been, so far, I mean, we’re talking Friday morning, there’s been, so far, very little will or engagement from the U.S. government on this. The way we feel is that if the government won’t reunite these families, we will, and if that takes $19 million, great, if that takes $40 million, we’ll figure it out, you know?
Right. Right. This is the government you and I pay for?
CW: Yes. Yeah. It is a curious feeling to have your charity fighting your tax dollars. I think that is sort of an interesting place where we are.
That is funny, except it’s not.
CW: Yeah. Yeah.
DW: The joke target, once everything went crazy was, “What’s the total annual budget of ICE?” It’s a lot of money.
CW: We’ve also been asked if we raise $30 billion, if we can prevent the wall, so we’ll see.
CW: Yeah, so the plan right now is ... Actually, while we are recording this, there’s a call ongoing about specifically what’s going on with reunification. There’s been a lot of conflicting reports this morning about whether prosecution is on hold for these families, whether charges are being dropped for these families. We know that 17 cases were dismissed yesterday but obviously there are thousands that remain. So far we have only ... I believe this is as of last night ...
Now they’re not splitting families?
CW: Well ...
CW: Maybe, right. We heard a report this morning that Secretary Nielsen said that perhaps separation would continue. It’s a very fluid situation. What we know is that RAICES has been doing this work for decades, and they, along with their partner organizations, are the most qualified people to be on the ground making these decisions right now.
What should be done?
CW: What we have to do is pump as many resources ...
In the form of money.
CW: ... as we can to support that effort. In the form of money, but in other things, right?
DW: Expert help.
CW: Expert help. Their website was down.
DW: We destroyed their website.
CW: We really ... I’m sorry. We pwned their website, but that is now back up and that’s up with the help of people who do ...
Know how to use websites.
CW: Yeah, site reliability engineering, exactly.
Talk about this idea, because a lot this happened during the Muslim ban, everyone rose up in Silicon Valley and then it died down. It’s going through the courts appropriately, by the way, they have nothing to do ... It has worked its way and is working its way in the way this country is supposed to work. Do you think there’s a new feeling of doing something in Silicon Valley? I mean, look, you worked for Facebook. Facebook’s under siege this year over what happened during the election and appropriately they are being criticized for it. How do you think people in Silicon Valley have changed? Because there’s been such a libertarian “don’t get in involved.” Mark is always talking about the platform being benign. It’s not. Obviously it’s being used. The tools are being misused, that they’ve extended. Do you think something has shifted in mentality here?
CW: Truthfully, Dave and I both work in the trust and safety space, and the side of Silicon Valley you’re describing is actually not a side we have ever seen in our work. Something that a lot of people don’t know about Silicon Valley is the huge sort of underpinning force of people who work every day to do what’s right by people.
CW: Users. Well, users, people, I mean everybody. A lot of actions that are taken online affect people who do not use those platforms, right?
CW: In trust and safety, specifically, we have hundreds of people, at this point, probably ...
DW: Probably thousands.
CW: Probably thousands of people spread all through the Valley, who, every day, come in and work child welfare cases. They figure out what’s going on with stalking, with child grooming, with separated families.
DW: Property damage, in our case, interpersonal conflict.
CW: Right. And so when we started this, even just within our own network, there is such a strong sense of wanting to help, not just in this crisis but in many crises, because what we do is crisis response, and I think that does not get as much air play, understandably, but what we are now seeing is that spirit, which has coexisted with sort of this libertarian whatever you wanna call it.
Which does exist.
CW: Which does exist, absolutely, but it’s not what we see in our day to day. What we’re seeing, I think, is a reorientation, perhaps, or a refocusing on the other values that these companies often simultaneously carry.
CW: The response we’ve gotten from, obviously, our tech friends, but the tech leaders we’ve also been put in touch with, people are really passionate about this issue. It’s not a political or partisan issue. Families need to be together. Children should not be separated from their parents.
DW: It’s worth hitting on, Charlotte sort of alluded to it earlier, but this is not something the two of us did. It started as something the two of us were doing and at this point ... What? Yesterday? The day before?
DW: We had a spontaneously self-assembled operations team in our living room, helping us stay on top of all our notifications, answering people’s questions. You’ve obviously been in touch with some of the press folks, who all just came forward and volunteered their time and their services. There has been an enormous outpouring of desire to help .
CW: We have so much food in our fridge right now. I mean, every delivery app ...
DW: Please don’t send donuts. We have so many donuts. But there are a lot of people who are helpers who work in tech and they are helping. No one stays in trust and safety who isn’t motivated for authentic reasons, because it is not necessarily the most glorious job and it is hard, hard work.
DW: All of the people who endure are there because they care about these things and this is a spontaneous outburst of that spirit and helping.
Right, if it exists there then I’m with the good Silicon Valley. I don’t mean to ... The reason I’ve been so hard on them is because it’s moved very far away from that in a lot of ways.
In terms of, not just wealth, it’s not a question of wealth, because someone was asking me yesterday, “Oh, these people, all they care about is money.” I go, “No, that’s not really it,” but they really are very firm in the fact that they aren’t involved in the world. And that, they are, that’s always been a problem as far as I was concerned, and I didn’t feel like you could, especially given the current political environment, ignore some very stark choices that have to be ... That you have to ... I had an argument with Mark Zuckerberg about this. He was saying, “Well, I don’t want to sit in my desk in California and make choices.” I said, “That’s called values and you have to have them. There’s just no getting away from them.”
DW: Not acting is a choice.
Yes, exactly, exactly. It’s a really interesting debate going on because if you have responsibility over these platforms, you have responsibility over these ... You know what I mean? It’s sort of ... As parents, you know that, right?
We make choices. We give our children values. We decide which way to live. That’s me ranting about it.
What’s next for this? What next? We’ve got about five more minutes. Not just what can people do, what’s next for this? You keep raising this money.
CW: Right, so we are working ...
Is there gonna be a stop to it? Do you wanna say, “No more raising of the money.” Or no?
CW: I mean, because it disburses every two weeks, we have no reason really to end it. I mean, if we can keep getting $1,500 a day for a while, that’s wild, let’s do it. You know?
Yeah, those Austin Sound Works people wish they could ...
CW: I know. Well, I’ve gotta start another one.
The last biggest one.
DW: Well, and that is a piece of product feedback. You can’t change the target, so ...
The target organization.
DW: The target organization is set.
No, you wouldn’t.
DW: Well, but you also just ... Mechanically, you can’t co-raise. You pick an organization and they get all the money.
And they can do what they want with the money, right?
CW: Yeah, block grants, redistribution, totally.
CW: I mean, I think, in terms of what’s next, our top focus is reuniting the families we know have been separated and preventing this from happening to any other families. The solution that’s on the table right now reads a lot like indefinite detention for these families and that is also unacceptable.
CW: We are going to be working to ...
Indefinite until they’re processed or a system that may or may not be processing them, right?
CW: Correct. Yeah, and some ...
DW: I wouldn’t say, after the chaos we’ve seen, I would invest any confidence in anything that is stated to be the plan.
No, they’ll just be sitting there, and the people who run private prisons will make the money from it, who are friends of this administration. It just goes on and on.
DW: It’s appalling.
CW: Yeah, so our desire is to get the people who have donated to this, and who have shared this, and who were passionate about this with us this week, to allow them to enter into some more permanent space on Facebook, whether that’s a group, or a page, or something like that, to get people organized.
CW: The No. 1 question we have gotten is, “How else can I help?”
“What do I do next?”
CW: “I want to do something now.” Exactly, and so many people felt like they needed to do a thing and this was the thing at first, but now this is going to be a thing, it is the first thing, and they want to do more, and so we have to get people connected with local opportunities in their area. We have to get people registered to vote and supporting measures that stop these things and stop practices like this all over the country.
So you now have a political organization, in a way.
Yeah. Yeah. You are. How do you feel about that? Thinking, when you started this, you talked about not being political. Everything’s political, by the way.
CW: As it turns out. As it turns out.
I know, it’s hard. It’s hard for Silicon Valley, it really is.
DW: I think that we’ve been very mindful to keep what we ask these people to focus on very narrow, so that the consensus can stay very broad, right? The position that ...
Explain that. That’s a really smart thing that you just said.
DW: The position that toddlers should be with their parents is the closest thing I can think of as a self-evident truth that exists.
DW: The corollary that no toddler should be in prisons, even with their parents, for infinite periods of time, is the next-closest thing, and I think ... Again, we are assembling this airplane as we’re flying it, but we are going to try to keep the momentum very tightly focused on those two points, because even with all this goodwill, even with all this money, fixing this is going to take a long time. It should never have happened in the first place and we need to ensure that it never happens again, and the more of this outrage we can keep focused and keep consensus together on that narrow topic, the better off we will be on this question.
On this question.
DW: On this question.
Although toddlers not in prison is a very low bar for our country.
CW: It certainly is.
DW: You’ve gotta start somewhere.
Let’s not do that. Yeah, I agree.
CW: We had a friend today who said, “Oh, you know, any updates you can provide on these kids would really help people sleep at night.” Dave said something I think is really true, which is, “People shouldn’t be sleeping at night. No one should sleep at night until this is fixed.”
DW: I don’t.
I don’t. I agree. I wake up sick every morning. It’s interesting that one thing ... Everyone’s like, “Why are you focused on this and not that?” Which I think people tend to do, and I’m like, “So what? You’re focusing on ...” It doesn’t ... Because it is something that does ...
DW: It’s showing up to an AIDS fundraiser and asking why it’s not about breast cancer.
Right. Right. Right. Yeah. Exactly.
CW: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
DW: Those things can be bad at the same time.
Yeah. It does remind me, interestingly enough, I’m a lot older than you, about the AIDS crisis. There was a moment where everything shifted, that everyone was just angry and they stayed angry until it was ...
Not fixed, but it was fixed. Things happened.
CW: Progress was made.
Progress was made, which was really interesting.
DW: That is worth noting, particularly, I mean this obviously started in the tech community, a lot of the other volunteer efforts that have helped us not be able to be crushed under this have been other tech people, just because that’s who we know, but the donor base is extremely diverse, very broad, and it is not a narrow segment of people who probably were already yelling about Trump on the internet.
DW: This really touched a nerve.
This is a broad segment. People don’t know what to do, and that’s with that part, and the part that I keep trying to tell tech people is, “You know we run the internet, we can do something, we have power.” It’s one thing ... I’m glad you quoted Frederick Douglas, but I’ll quote Alexander Hamilton, which is, “If you stand for nothing, you fall for everything.”
I think this is precisely the kind of thing, and it’s not just a feel-good story, because I mean obviously there’s a feel-good story that you can do this, but $19 million in one week makes a difference.
CW: It will.
ANd it will be $30 million, it’ll be $40 million.
CW: It will. Every family will get a lawyer. Every child will get a lawyer. We will be able to have the resources to get these kids back to their parents.
Well, anything, last things? What do you say to people?
CW: Make sure every representative you have, from city council on up, hears from you every day, and if you’re uncomfortable on the phone, you are nowhere near as uncomfortable as these kids right now, so get on it.
Yeah, that is a great way to put it. Where can people go to keep giving money?
CW: Yeah, so of course they can go directly to the website, RAICESTexas.org. They can, of course, also give on the fundraiser, the fundraiser is called “Reunite an immigrant parent with their child,” on Facebook.
Which is yours.
CW: Which is ours.
The biggest one.
CW: It’s the one with at least $19 million in it. There are a few copycats. There’s some people trying to make a quick buck, saying it’s the same ...
CW: Right, but it goes directly to their ...
CW: Facebook’s been great about taking those down when they see them, but just double check, make sure it’s ...
DW: They will keep trying.
Because people are trying to take their own money, take your money that should go to these kids.
DW: Everywhere there’s a big pile of money, someone will try to steal it.
CW: Yeah. Yeah, so look for the one with almost half a million donors, and you’ve found the right one.
Are you still accepting matching grants or does that still …?
CW: We absolutely are, so if you have anything between $50 and $100,000, or more ...
DW: We will take your money.
You wanna take my money?
DW: Whoever’s money wants to give it.
I will do a matching grant.
CW: We would love that.
I will do $10,000.
CW: Oh my gosh.
DW: Fantastic. I’ll hold you to it.
CW: Thank you.
It’s not Mark Zuckerberg money but ... Has Mark given you money?
CW: News Feed informs us that he has, but we do not know the amount, and it surely wasn’t $1 million.
I am gonna shame him right now, all right? I will get ... I know a lot of billionaires, by the way, just FYI.
DW: We broke the donor panel because it wasn’t designed for this scale, so I don’t strictly know who’s given us money at this point because it won’t load.
CW: They’ll fix it.
If you need help, I have people I know there, all right? I know you do, but I know higher up.
DW: Every little helps.
All right, great. Thank you so much.
CW: Thank you.
I really appreciate it. This is incredibly moving and it makes me feel good about tech, which I usually don’t every day. Anyway, thank you so much. And now you’re going down to Facebook to talk to them about it?
CW: Yes. Yeah.
CW: We’ve got a big conversation to have with their fundraisers team to thank them for the work they’ve already done to this point, and to ask them to do a little more work.
Good. All right, so you’ve got a list? You’ve got a punch list?
CW: Oh, we’ve got a list.
DW: The needs are quite clear.
Thank you, David and Charlotte Willner, you are kind and good people and it’s really nice that you’ve done this. They’re the creators of the Facebook fundraiser, “Reunite an immigrant parent with their child,” you can find it on Facebook. Please give money. Match what I just said I committed to giving, and I hope you get to $100 million. Thank you.
CW: Thank you so much.
DW: Thank you.
It was great talking to you, Charlotte and Dave Willner. Thanks for coming on the show. We’re talking about immigration on this special episode of Recode Decode. We’re gonna take a quick break now and we’ll be back with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, after this.
I’m back in the studio for Part II of this special episode of Recode Decode. I’m now joined by Brian Chesky, the CEO of Airbnb, who was just at our Code conference. He and his co-founders publicly denounced the Trump administration’s family separation policy earlier this week, one of the first and the strongest, I would say. Thank you for coming in.
Brian Chesky: Thank you very much, Kara, for having me.
What we’re doing here, we’re trying to talk ... You know one of my themes over the past year has been this issue of Silicon Valley not stepping up in terms of social stuff and everything else like that. Airbnb has actually been pretty good on a lot of these things on immigration. I just interviewed Charlotte and Dave Willner today about the raising of all this money and there’s a lot of activity within the tech sector about this topic, about immigration. I’d just like to get your thoughts on how you think of this. I’m using you as a typical Silicon Valley CEO because you’re dealing with all kinds of social issues coming at you every week, it seems.
I think that we’re realizing, all of us, all of us tech founders and CEOs, that we probably have a greater responsibility than we used to think we had. When I came to Silicon Valley, 2007, people said my responsibility was to build a great company, to grow and to get return for investors. They didn’t say you had to speak out on social issues and try to make society better. I think that we are now reckoning with the idea that companies have more power than ever, they’re more global than ever. And even governments and policy makers that I meet are seeking more leadership from us. So I think that we in Silicon Valley have been slow to accept the responsibility the world is looking to us for and I think that explains some of the backlash that tech is receiving.
So we decided that we have to step up. If you are a tech CEO, you have to choose your issues. I can’t follow every issue and step in on every issue. You have to pick, there’s a couple issues all of us will agree in tech, and in Airbnb’s place in particular, you’ve got to pick issues that are relevant to your mission. I don’t know about every issue, I know a lot about belonging and connection and travel and bringing people together. So last January when Trump instituted a travel ban, that was a pretty big issue for us to be able to step forward. The idea of families being ripped apart, pretty easy issue for us to step forward again, and we have some credibility in this issue because it is at least somewhat related to our business and what we do.
Right. Because you wouldn’t go, “Oh, Space Force, we shouldn’t have that,” right?
No, that would be ...
How do you feel about the Space Force?
I don’t have strong feelings about that. I don’t spend too much time there so, yes.
There’s not going to be a Space Force.
In any case, when you think about this, talk about the calculations. I want people to understand, because one of the things ... I was arguing with another tech leader about this, they’re like, “Well, we’re supposed to grow our company and yet we can’t speak on everything. If we stop doing one thing, do we do another?” They were talking about how difficult this is. Go through the thinking of how you all decide to do ... first talk about the travel ban. I don’t want to, you missed this thing, you guys, didn’t you have a tragedy last year when you were in Paris with your whole team? There was a shooting.
Two years ago.
Two years ago. Everyone’s getting dragged into all kinds of global issues all along, but let’s talk about the travel ban itself, when that happened. What happened? So people get a sense of what you’re thinking.
I remember that Trump was inaugurated, if I recall, only a couple weeks before and I think the tech industry was completely holding their breath. I even remember people saying, “Maybe it won’t be so bad.”
Yeah, and you didn’t go to the meeting, right?
I did not go to the meeting.
Were you invited?
I was invited and I declined the invitation. It was convenient that I had a vacation so I said, “I’ve already got plans to be with my family.” I declined, I just did not think that would be a good idea. I was surprised at the attendance, but people made their own decisions. I remember the travel ban happened on maybe a Thursday or Friday and I was just so surprised. I think it was a Saturday morning.
It was a Friday when it happened.
And I remember we had a meeting Friday night. I was so flabbergasted by what had happened. We’re like, “We have to do something.” We didn’t know what we were going to do. We were like, “This is crazy. We have to speak out. I don’t know if speaking out’s a tweet, like a little statement, or something greater.” I could feel, on Saturday morning, it started bubbling. And actually, somebody sent an email, Sam Altman sent an email to like 20 tech CEOs. I’m in a thread with all the big ones. There was this ...
Why aren’t I on this thread?
I don’t know. I figured you probably got it forwarded to you by somebody.
There was this accumulation of outrage that I hadn’t seen from anyone in tech before. I’d never seen us united. I always wondered, like, “Why is the tech industry not united in more issues? Everyone seems to only worry about their own business.” This was the one time I saw everyone united. As the day bubbled, I was on the phone with the teams the entire day and started realizing, “I can’t only do a tweet.” Everyone seemed to do tweets.
That’s what everyone does, yeah.
Social media outrage.
Protest by tweet, yeah.
There’s no action here. I was on the phone with Joe, I was with my dad, I think, or my girlfriend and her father on the way to a Golden State Warriors basketball game. I’m in the back of an SUV and I’m on the phone with Joe and I said, “What’s the biggest idea you have? We have to go bigger, and a tweet isn’t the biggest idea.”
Right, or a statement.
Yeah, a statement. And Joe said, “We have to do an action.” I said, “What’s the action?” He said, “What if we just provide housing for anybody who is stranded or doesn’t have a place to stay because of the travel ban?” I just put a simple tweet out and I said, “Airbnb will provide free housing to anyone ...” And I don’t have a huge Twitter following, it got 200,000 likes and 100,000 retweets. My phone almost melted. I had no idea. Then my team was so inspired that they came to me and they said, “We should do a Super Bowl ad.” I’m like, “A Super Bowl ad. I’ve never done a Super Bowl ad. Why would we do a Super Bowl ad?” They said, “Well, we can buy 30 seconds for $3.8 million,” and I said, “That’s a lot of money. What are we going to say?”
They had previously made a video. They recut it. It was around this idea of acceptance. And I said, “I think it’s a great message,” but I had two issues. No. 1, I don’t want to be viewed as arrogant, patting myself on the back, so I said, “If we do it, we’d better have a very light touch to the branding,” like we didn’t even have the word “Airbnb” or anything. I said, “If we do it, we’d better have an action.” So I thought, “What’s the action?” Joe and I go around again, “What the biggest idea you could think of?” And we came up to, “What if we commit to housing 100,000 people for free via our community over the next five years.” We decided to agree to do that, it was a bit of a scramble. I mean, it was a ...
In order to put it into place?
Yeah, because to do that over five years will probably cost tens of millions of dollars.
And housing for free meaning ...?
Meaning that somebody who’s a refugee, a service worker, or somebody displaced by disaster will get placed via a system that we partner with these disaster organizations who vet the people and then they place them in Airbnb host homes.
And you pay for it?
Yes, and we pay for it. And that is surprisingly expensive and inefficient because you can’t just, like, there’s a lot of vetting. You’ve got to care for these people and the government does some reimbursement so there’s a lot of red tape. Since then, we’ve housed 11,000 people so we’re about 11 percent towards our goal. We felt like, “Well, this is an issue. We can’t solve all social issues. But housing for people in need, we provide housing for hundreds of millions of people, why didn’t we do that?” So I think that more companies in tech, I’d love for them to use their natural ...
Whatever they have.
Superpowers to make so much of a difference. I met with so many policy makers, saying, “Thank you for doing this.” We weren’t going to build a technology platform, that would have taken five years for them to do it.
Did you hear a lot from your employees? Is that a big pressure point for you? A lot of companies feel, when you think of who’s your base, like Trump talks about his base, your base are your employees, and your customers, obviously. Do you hear a lot from, first, your employees about this? Is it an important part of being a CEO?
100 percent. I do think that a lot of pressure, I think that the classical two pressure points for a CEO, other than investors and I think people think the investors, I don’t think they realize the actual two pressure points of a CEO are their employees and the press. Those are extremely strong pressure points in addition to investors. In our case, I’d say we have an additional pressure point which is our hosts, our partners, because they are very, very loud. They feel like they’re partners with us. The travel ban thing happened so fast that we reacted before the employees ...
Before you got suggestions from them.
I would say, Black Lives Matter and our challenge of the #AirbnbWhileBlack, that was a lot of pressure internally. We started hearing personal stories, we had a lot of town halls, Q&A, so that was one that, I think, was more of a slow build and I really felt that. It was deeply personal for all of our employees that were personally affected. Whereas the travel ban, it was one of the most proud moments, morale went up quite a bit and people felt like, “Thank God this is the time he takes a stand.” And I’ve got to be honest. I was pretty nervous when we did the ad. So nervous that two nights before the ad, I called Jonathan and I asked him to sell the ad. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I was in that like ...
Nobody would like it.
I thought the right would kill me and Trump and this and that. But I was actually more worried about the left because I thought, “They’re going to think we’re self-aggrandizing.” I thought everyone would hate me. I’m like, “This was a bad idea. We shouldn’t be running social issue ads.”
That’s why it’s a good idea, if everyone’s going to hate you, in case you’re interested.
And then Jonathan, either they couldn’t sell the ad or he told me he couldn’t sell the ad. I was having cold feet and like, “Okay, fine. If we can’t sell the ad, we’d better do this.” But he couldn’t sell the ad. He said, “Nope, we can’t get ...”
Who affected you though, just yourself? You were like, “Okay, you’re going to get attacked.”
I just got cold feet. I just temporarily lost courage, got a little cold feet for like one night and I called them. I didn’t actually try to pull the ad, I just said, “Can you please ask if I can get that money back?”
Did you think about your investors at all or not? Because one of the things you said onstage was you have more constituents than you realized, like lots and lots, not just investors. Silicon Valley doesn’t think of all the constituencies it has.
I thought a little bit about like, if this goes horribly wrong, I have a responsibility for this not to go horribly wrong and the business to tank and us to ... the calculation of it going horribly wrong is that it’s horrible for everybody: Our hosts, our guests, our investors, employees. So you start to think about everybody and realize, “Am I creating more problems or am I actually solving problems?” It turns out, it was a good thing to do. I’m glad I did it. It was a good lesson. I’m glad I pushed for it in the first place.
And now this one. So what happened here?
This was a lot easier.
Because you’ve done it.
I’m already on the wrong side of the White House so that’s fine. At this point, it was pretty easy. I’m pretty proud of the culture of the company because they were the ones that said, “Here’s what we should be doing. We should be speaking out against this.” Again, it was an obvious thing. I’m like, “Oh, of course we should.” So I didn’t tell our team, “Let’s do this.” Our team is like, “We’re ready to go. We know what to do,” and it was all teed up. So Joe and I just approved, like they said, “What do you want to say?” gave us some ideas, saying, “Okay, based on your ideas, we’ll write a set statement.” It was like four sentences, it was pretty simple. What I didn’t know was that we’d have much more extraordinary acts than a tweet, like Dave and Charlotte Willner. And Dave Willner has been with Airbnb for three years, he’s a trust and safety manager and leader. And he, I think, had the intention of raising like $15,000.
Oh, $1,500. That’s ridiculous.
As of this morning, you said he raised ...
Nineteen, $20 million by $38 donations on Facebook. Airbnb can take zero credit for his generosity. I do want to take credit for hiring people like that. And I do think that we attract a lot of really great people and Dave is one of those people.
The action here, for this one. What do you do? Do you feel buffeted by having to take actions? Is there an action here?
Oh. That’s a really good question. We’ve donated, and Nate donated, Joe donated, I’m donating, I’m in the process of donating. That’s the action. The other thing is, we do want to take an action. I’ve asked my team, I said, “Can we help?” I know this organization, RAICES, is going to have $19 million. My question for them is, “Well, what are they going to do with $19 million?” Do they have technology? Do they have a platform? Can they house these people? Could we help? My first question was, “We’re housing families anyway, can we help house? Can we do something more than just give money?” As far as I know, our team is in the process of figuring that out, if we can help.
Of figuring out what you what you want to do.
And these are the kind of things that you want to move fast, but there’s so many organizations so it’s hard to ...
You want to figure it out correctly.
You don’t plug and play.
You do have a foundation, too, correct? Do you have foundational work, you guys?
CW: We do a lot of foundational work, we don’t have a nonprofit.
Right. Last question, because I know you’ve got to go. When you get back to this idea of Silicon Valley having a conscience or values, a lot of people do push away from that idea. I just interviewed Rose Marcario who’s head of Patagonia who, they sued the Trump administration, they’ve done all kinds of actions and everything else. Their revenues have quadrupled since she’s been CEO, very aggressive, political values, not just political, all kinds of values. They embrace it. Why is that so hard for tech people?
Well, there’s two reasons why you should speak out: Either because you believe in it or because you have a self-interest. I can’t speak about whether people in tech believe or don’t believe in anything, you’ll make a personal decision. I would say, for a purely self-interested greedy standpoint, you may as well lean to social issues. And the reason why is that young people today care about what they buy and they care about who they buy from. I don’t think this is the 1950s, I think that it is great for business when a company stands for their values. And as long as they don’t have extreme values that only like 100 people believe in, if you have mainstream values that many people can stand behind, it’s going to be great for business.
So I’m not surprised that Patagonia is being so well received. Our business was significantly buffeted by the Super Bowl ad. There was a small debate internally that even if we attract a few more people on the left, we’re going to lose the entire right, that’s like 50 percent of the country. How could that possibly be good for growth? What I can tell you is that we lost very few people, I mean, I probably got like 20,000 angry emails, but in the grand scheme of hundreds of millions of people, it was totally fine.
You also, in Charlottesville, kicked people out of houses.
Yeah, yeah. We actually found people that were trying to stage Charlottesville after-parties. We kicked them out. White nationalists really don’t like us at this point. We got on their list, I’m on the list of the angry right-wing talk hosts now. And it hasn’t seemed to affect business. In fact, it seemed to be good for business because the right people double down for you.
Is there any way tech — last question — can get together on these things? There is a mentality, it is more tolerant, it is more socially forward. I know a lot of viewers will say they can’t be conservative in tech. I don’t think that’s as true as they say it is. But, whatever the debate is, do you feel like there’s a way that you can all group together? Or just not, just everyone take individual action?
I think that the tech industry should. What I saw in the wake of the travel ban was, that didn’t seem like a political issue, that didn’t seem like a left or a right, that was just completely insane. I don’t care what side you’re on. I think ripping families apart didn’t also seem like a political issue, that was just totally insane.
It’s an awfully low bar, if it is.
Yeah, my God. So I feel like there’s a handful of issues that we, as an industry, could be aligned on. I think that the tech industry ... Maybe what they’re waiting for is some people to stand up to bring everyone together. There may be just a lack of a centralized leadership within the tech industry that can galvanize and bring all the leaders together. I want to acknowledge there are people like, Ron Conway stands up on gun control. And he’s been really good on the wake of Sandy Hook. And you have a number of people who are doing this stuff.
But we need probably more people. To the extent that I can help, I don’t know if the industry looks to me, but to the extent that we can help, we’ll do our part.
Okay. Brian, thank you so much.
Thank you very much, Kara. Thank you for having me.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.