Since its inception eight years ago, Airbnb has generated more buzz in the travel world than anything like it before, currently worth a cool $10 billion and still growing. The global site that utilizes the rental of privately owned rooms and spaces for travelers has amassed a great deal of both good and bad press: while international globetrotters and celebrities snap Instagram pics of their trendy accommodations, the company has also garnered some harsh criticism for its questionable legality, namely the lack of taxes or regulation in instances of fire safety and disability compliance.
Still, the company continues to flourish, with more than 800,000 listings and approximately 1,000 employees worldwide. August 16, 2014 marked Airbnb’s biggest night ever, with over 425,000 people staying in listed properties in more than 160 countries. The woman behind it all 44-year-old dot-com entrepreneur Varsha Rao, who stepped in as head of global operations a year prior.
Earning her undergraduate degree in economics and math from the University of Pennsylvania, followed by an MBA at Harvard, Rao worked as a management consultant at McKinsey & Co following graduation. “We were doing a lot of research on what was happening in the Internet space,” Rao reflected in recent interview with Marie Claire. “I realized the research I was doing was more interesting than my client work. I wanted to get more involved.” She left McKinsey & Co to start eve.com, an online beauty retailer, which would later be sold in 2000 to a private equity firm, now defunct.
After a three-year stint with Gap Inc., Rao went on to become vice president and general manager of oldnavy.com, noting that the latter company doubled in business during her tenure. Upon moving to Singapore to be closer to her husband’s family, Rao launched insing.com, a Yelp-like service, and later became the first employee in Asia of Groupon competitor LivingSocial, eventually running the international branch.
Returning to San Francisco in 2013, Varsha Rao continued at LivingSocial until Airbnb offered her a position later that year. Already a fan, she instantly accepted. “I loved it. It’s why I wanted to work there, absolutely,” she recalls to Marie Claire.
Traveling 10 days out of the month for work, Rao still stays in Airbnbs, vetting hosts and overseeing management in 16 other countries. A significant portion of her duties include “customer experience,” and the handling of issues accompanied by various teams in San Francisco, Portland, Dublin, and Singapore. Emphasising the positive impact of the company over the negative Rao tells Marie Claire, “The majority of our users are great people. You do have some folks who are not the kind you’d want in a trusted community, so we’re able to screen for that.”
Ultimately Rao looks forward to expanding Airbnb by strengthening the connection between guests and hosts, often drawing from her own Airbnb experiences to see if and where improvement is needed. “It’s a really great way to understand the product itself and connect with hosts,” she says, “which I think is invaluable.”