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Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Stacey Abrams is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, the Fortune 500 has only had 19 Black CEOs, and we meet the woman running Airbnb’s global hosting business. Have a thoughtful Tuesday.
– Online experience. Today’s essay is courtesy of Fortune senior writer Michal Lev-Ram.
Early on in the pandemic, not long after the Bay Area first went into shelter-in-place, I booked a virtual cookie-baking class through vacation rental site Airbnb. I’ve never really gotten into online classes, or baking for that matter. But I was running out of options for keeping my three kids entertained. Their school and daycare were shut down, the nearby playground was closed, and even flag football (my oldest daughter’s sport of choice) had gotten cancelled.
Yes, I could have baked cookies with my kids on my own, but I figured they were less likely to fight over who gets to stir in the chocolate chips if a stranger was watching. I was right. Not only was there less arguing, but I was into it too. The host of the baking session was located in San Francisco, not far from us, but some of the other families who had joined were Zooming in from all over the world: Argentina, Switzerland, and, um, New Jersey. It made the experience that much more special.
At the time, I had no idea that this online class, one of Airbnb’s fledging new “Experiences” offerings, was part of Catherine Powell’s domain—or who she was. Fast forward a few months, and I just finished profiling the Airbnb exec, who was originally brought on board to run the Experiences product in January 2020 and subsequently promoted to oversee all of “global hosting,” from vacation rentals to online cookie baking and more.
Before coming to Airbnb, Powell had spent the bulk of her career at Disney’s parks division, overseeing 120,000 employees. This was a huge career jump for her, a leap from a large, established brand to a much newer and nimbler one. And that was before the pandemic hit.
Shortly after the British-born executive joined the Silicon Valley company, COVID-19 had made its way across the globe, wreaking havoc on the travel industry. The tech company’s business tanked, dropping 80% in just eight weeks. Airbnb laid off 25% of its employees, borrowed $2 billion, and delayed its IPO. (It eventually went public in December.) “I have been through every emotion,” Powell told me in an interview over Zoom.
To be sure, she is not the only executive who has been on a roller coaster ride this past year. But in my interviews with Powell, I was struck by how she had kept her cool in the face of utter chaos and change—and a wholly new gig and team. (Because of the pandemic, she has only met about 30% of her direct reports in person.) The past months have been a true test of our ability to improvise, to adapt, to accept that the job we signed up for is not the one we are currently doing.
Just weeks into her new gig, heading up Airbnb’s Experiences division, Powell had to completely shut down the service she was brought in to run. Going into someone’s home to learn how to whip up sangrias or dance salsa just wasn’t safe or practical at a time when much of the world was entering shelter-in-place mode to ward off the virus. But Powell quickly turned around and transformed the service into an online offering. In just 14 days, she was able to launch a virtual version of some of the Experiences offered through the site—including the online baking class I proudly used as a makeshift babysitter for my kids one desperate afternoon.
Of course, some experiences don’t translate as well online. Touring a petting zoo just isn’t the same when done virtually. But then again, everything is different these days. And we all just have to embrace it. My new motto: Keep Calm and Cookie On.
You can read my full story here.
Today’s Broadsheet was curated by Emma Hinchliffe.