Meet the woman who took Airbnb’s ‘experiences’ online—in just 2 weeks

Airbnb took a hit early in the pandemic—but came back strong.
Mateusz Slodkowski—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

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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.

Michal Lev-Ram

Today’s Broadsheet was curated by Emma Hinchliffe


- Peace out. This year's long list of Nobel Prize nominees is out, and those nominated include the Black Lives Matter movement and Stacey Abrams. Politicians serving at a national level are permitted to submit candidates (Jared Kushner was also nominated); a member of Norway's Parliament said Abrams was nominated for "for her work to promote nonviolent change via the ballot box." Reuters

- Black corporate history. On the first day of Black History Month, Fortune published this look back at the 19 Black executives who have ever served as Fortune 500 CEOs. The only women on the list are former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns and former Bed Bath & Beyond interim chief Mary Winston. Roz Brewer will soon join them as CEO of Walgreens. Fortune

- Capitol trauma. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez broadcast an emotional Instagram live on Monday night, in which she described thinking she was going to die during the Capitol riots, hearing a man's voice yelling "Where is she?" as she hid in a bathroom. In the same session, Ocasio-Cortez said for the first time that she is a survivor of sexual assault, and connected that experience to her trauma from the Capitol. "When we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other," she said. New York Times

- Secret admirers. Fortune's annual list of the World's Most Admired Companies is out, featured in the February/March issue of the magazine. On the list measuring corporate reputation, 17 of the companies included are led by female CEOs. Fortune

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Mandy Ginsberg, the former CEO of Match Group, joins thredUP's board of directors. Carla Piñeyro Sublett of National Instruments joins IBM as SVP and CMO. The American Civil Liberties Union elected general counsel Deborah Archer as its new president; she succeeds Susan Herman in the role. Everlane hired Nike exec Sophie Bambuck as its first CMO. Udacity hired Dana Bennett as chief people officer. Digital marketing company Incubeta named Zoe Hall managing director of adtech solutions and Lauren Stearley director of programmatic.


- Super Bowl cleanup. During the Super Bowl on Sunday, Procter & Gamble will run an ad about the "chore gap"—that in 65% of homes, one person does most of the housework. (Of course, that person is often a woman.) Brands Dawn and Swiffer, part of many Americans' domestic duties, want to be part of the conversation about closing that gap. AdAge

- Out of work. The latest cover of New York magazine says it all: "This isn't working." Writers weigh in on the crisis facing working women, from how the state of the economy is disrupting women's lives to why women's advancement through the professional ranks was always a tenuous proposition

- Speaking out. Actor Evan Rachel Wood has long spoken out about being a survivor of sexual and physical violence. This week, she named her former fiancé, rock musician Marilyn Manson, as the perpetrator of that violence. "He started grooming me when I was a teenager and horrifically abused me for years," she wrote on Instagram, adding that she wants to "expose this dangerous man" before "he ruins any more lives." A representative for Manson didn't respond to request for comment. New York Times

- Fashion forward. Emilia George is a maternity wear brand with a focus on workwear. Founder Elle Wang is featured in Fortune's Startup Year One series, talking about transitioning from strategist at the UN to startup founder; having goals, like getting sold in Neiman Marcus, put on hold amid the pandemic; and what kind of clothing she thinks pregnant working women are looking for. Fortune


Dems deliver GOP ultimatum over Marjorie Taylor Greene Politico

The Three Mothers honors the women who raised Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin The 19th*

Serena Williams claims Australian Open delay has helped with achilles recovery Guardian


"It’s OK to be a boss. It’s OK for not everybody to like you 24 hours a day."

-Actor Natasha Lyonne on her career and launching a production company with Maya Rudolph

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