Ron Conway and the Economic Empowerment Award

A message from Airbnb Co-Founder and CEO Brian Chesky.

When I came to Silicon Valley, the term “angel” was rampant, and I could never quite understand why the earliest investors were called Angel Investors. Thirteen years after starting Airbnb, after hiring thousands of employees, serving millions of guests, and managing through countless challenges, I now know why certain early-stage investors are called angels. 

As we end this most challenging of years and head into the holidays, I’ve been reaching out to many of the people who supported us in the early days to say thanks. While there were a number of people who believed in us, it’s safe to say that without Ron Conway, Airbnb wouldn’t be what it is today. I want to share a few thoughts about Ron and what he’s done for Airbnb.

Before I met Ron Conway, I had heard about him a lot. I was told that he was one of the most connected angel investors in Silicon Valley and that we needed to get him onto our cap table because his extensive Rolodex could come in handy. What I didn’t appreciate at the time is that Ron is much more than a Rolodex – Ron acts like a guardian angel for an entire generation of founders. In 2010, Ron became an investor in Airbnb through his fund, SV Angel, and we began a decade-long relationship.  

In the Spring of 2011, a few years after starting Airbnb, the concept finally struck a chord and our business was taking off. I was 29 years old and I was no longer having to sell collectible breakfast cereal to pay rent. We began fundraising and almost immediately, we realized we would need assistance in navigating the situation as demand flooded in. I emailed Ron to ask for help and he immediately jumped in, making key introductions and helping me manage numerous conversations.

Everything came to a head on June 22, 2011 when I traveled to New York City for a tech conference. As I waited to take the stage, Ron tracked me down and we game-planned how to complete the round. He pulled out a to-do list and started auditing the status of our conversations with each prospective investor. I couldn’t believe he had time for such tedious work, but we went through the list together and concluded that the deal was likely going to drive to completion that evening.

Ron and his wife Gayle were staying at a Manhattan hotel, and I stopped by that night – our fate, as it would have it, would be determined in a hotel. Gayle was trying to sleep while Ron and I were pacing back and forth in his hotel room with the lights on – Ron and I taking turns on the phone with investors until after midnight. I wrote down the final terms of the deal on the hotel letterhead that I found in the desk drawer of the hotel room.

If this had been the only time that I ever received help from Ron, it would be remarkable, but in actuality this was one of probably 50 times that Ron was there during a defining moment. And what’s particularly notable is that while Ron was one of our investors, he wasn’t nearly our largest. Ron was helping for some reason beyond purely financial motivations. Ron worked tirelessly into all hours of the evening, put himself on the line personally, and held everyone to a high standard of personal conduct. 

On January 31, 2013, I was at a tech industry award show, and was speaking to the audience about Airbnb’s earliest supporters. I told the crowd, “There are so many people for me to thank, but most of all, I would like to thank one person” – I dramatically looked up to the ceiling and said – “The Man Upstairs. Thank you, Ron Conway.” The crowd laughed. I wrote it as a joke, and even though I’m probably the only one to ever call him that, I know I’m not the only one to think of him that way. 

Ron Conway / SV Angel Economic Empowerment Award

Ron has always shared our belief that technology can be an engine for economic empowerment. Ron and I also share a desire to inspire more entrepreneurs to create companies that offer economic opportunities for more people and a commitment to making the tech industry more diverse and inclusive. In the years to come, I plan to take a number of significant steps to help achieve these goals. 

One of the ways we will do this is by creating the Economic Empowerment Award. Ron and I will select one Y Combinator company that is working to create more economic empowerment opportunities for people across the world. That company will receive financial support from Airbnb with no strings attached. Ron and I will also personally mentor them with support from SV Angel and my team at Airbnb. 

I want to close by extending my thanks to all the people who were there for us – our investors, employees, guests, hosts, members of the tech community, and countless others.

We are not here solely because of our own efforts, and we should never buy into the myth of the self-made person. We stand on the shoulders of others, and today I am filled with gratitude for all the people who helped us get here. So the next time you read a company’s story like ours, know that they are there because of the people who believed in them – people like Ron.

— Brian