Exclusive: Meet Airbnb’s highest-ranking female exec ever

July 13, 2015, 5:07 PM UTC
Courtesy of Airbnb

Belinda Johnson, Airbnb’s general counsel since 2011, is about to become more than just the company’s legal eagle. In her new role—chief business affairs and legal officer—Johnson will be one of Airbnb’s top business leaders, overseeing a sprawling domain that includes civic partnerships, public policy, communications, social and philanthropic initiatives and, of course, legal.

The first executive hired by CEO Brian Chesky, Johnson has long had a high-profile role at Airbnb. She leads the company’s efforts to work with city governments and has been at forefront of the dozens of legal issues Airbnb has faced in recent years. While the company has suffered some big loses—New York, for one, dramatically limits the circumstances under which people can legally list their apartments on Airbnb—lately, things seem to be trending its way. Johnson’s team can count San Francisco, Nashville and San Jose as wins; the cities have all passed legislation to legalize short-term rentals, with Philadelphia joining their ranks earlier this month.

In some ways, Johnson says the job is a formalized version of what she’s already been doing at Airbnb, though she points out that certain aspects, such as overseeing communications and philanthropy efforts will be new to her. Her team will also grow, going from about 90 to 130. The plan, says Johnson, is that the shift will allow her to zero in on development and implementation of strategy, freeing up Chesky to focus elsewhere.

Chesky, who recently talked to Fortune about his leadership strategy, agrees, saying “It’s very important that I spend my time looking over the horizon…A lot of the things I’ve been doing, maybe Belinda is a lot better at them than I am.” In a blog post expected to go up today, Chesky calls hiring Johnson “one of the best decisions we ever made.” In her new role, he says he expects her to become a “proxy for me…She’ll become more of the face and the voice of the company.”

Johnson is already Chesky’s right-hand woman. “I literally talk to her every day, multiple times a day,” says Chesky, adding that he considers her a friend—as well as a frequent brunch or dinner companion. “She’s one of the most empathetic and compassionate people I know.” Chesky says that under Johnson’s rule, the tension that often exists between the legal and business sides of a company has been virtually non-existent. “At the highest level, she figures out how to enable our business,” says Chesky.

Johnson says they established close working relationship right off the bat, recalling that, when she started, their desks were “literally two feet away from each other.” Plus, “Brian moves really quickly,” she says, so staying in constant communication is her best bet at “keeping pace with him.”

Excepting the three founders, Johnson is the company’s highest-ranking executive and its most senior woman. However, it is worth noting—as Fortune did in a March analysis—that Airbnb has no women on its board.

In 1996, after spending the early years of her career working at a string of law firms, Johnson was hired by Broadcast.com, one of the first companies to stream music over the internet. She ultimately became the startup’s general counsel and corporate secretary. Mark Cuban, who founded Broadcast.com, said via email that the company was venturing into uncharted legal waters, and “while other attorneys were afraid of what they did not understand, Belinda dove right in. She helped guide us…through that new world,” says Cuban.

When Yahoo bought Broadcast.com, Johnson became the tech giant’s deputy general counsel. She worked at Yahoo for more than a decade, fighting off a copyright infringement suit from Sony BMG, helping the company navigate issues of online privacy and working on deals like a Microsoft search agreement (which was just revised this year).

Johnson says her experience at Broadcast.com was what prompted her to reach out to Airbnb. Looking back, those early startup days popped out as “the most energizing period of my career,” she says. She was attracted to Airbnb’s mission and felt that her experience “diving in and helping clear a path” could help the company navigate the murky legal waters of the constantly evolving tech industry.

Another thing she missed about startup life: The way job descriptions are so often tossed aside in favor of doing whatever needs to be done. In her Broadcast.com days, she says she even pitched in with sales, cold calling universities in an attempt to convince them to stream live audio of their lectures. Now, by branching out well beyond her legal duties, Johnson’s new role will no doubt offer her another taste of that freedom.

“That’s what I love,” says Johnson. “To be pushed out of my comfort zone.”

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