What this woman entrepreneur learnt shadowing two Airbnb leaders in San Francisco


A popular saying goes – ‘Behind every successful woman is a tribe of other women who have her back’. But unfortunately, in the real world, the corporate rat race is so competitive that it is often a ‘Get ahead at any cost or get left behind’ attitude that works. So it is heartening to see real-life examples of women leaders like Airbnb’s Belinda Johnson and Varsha Rao taking time out from their busy schedules to mentor other women.

Tina Garg, Founder and CEO of Pink Lemonade Communications, spent four weeks shadowing Airbnb’s Chief Business Affairs and Legal Officer Belinda Johnson, and Airbnb’s Head of Global Operations Varsha Rao, as part of Fortune and U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership. Belinda and Varsha, along with their teams, gave Tina a crash course in leadership skills through one-to-one discussions, brainstorming sessions and networking opportunities at the Airbnb campus in San Francisco.

Varsha Rao (L), Tina Garg (C) and Belinda Johnson (R) at Airbnb Headquarters

Women entrepreneurs often find their way through ‘trial and error’ and have an even smaller support system and network of mentors than male entrepreneurs. Women also have to work doubly hard to prove themselves. The mentoring partnership aims to tackle such issues and pairs women from emerging markets with senior female executives (among Fortune’s Most Powerful Women), who use their experience and knowledge to help the mentees develop and hone their leadership style. The four-week-long programme was supported by the State Department, which set up meetings with senators as well as top business leaders.

Tina says, “What could possibly be more satisfying than being hand-picked from among hundreds of candidates, to be transported to one of the most dynamic organisations, in the world’s biggest superpower, only to do more of what you love? Precious little!”

Why the Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership is so impactful

Eighty-one percent of the women felt they were more effective leaders, and 88 percent were motivated to seek a new or higher leadership position after participating in the mentoring programme in 2014.

The partnership outlines the goals to help the mentee to include:

  • Help accelerate the growth of the mentee’s business
  • Develop strategies necessary to solve common business challenges
  • Encourage her to bring about more positive change within her organisation

Belinda believes mentoring involves give and take

Belinda says, “Prior to Tina’s arrival, we connected and she outlined her top goals for the programme and what she was hoping to learn from me and the various teams across Airbnb.”

Given that leadership and motivation were areas that she wanted to focus on, Belinda set up round-table sessions with other women in leadership inside and outside of her organisation. The Airbnb female employee resource group, ‘Women@’, hosted a panel session to welcome Tina. They also planned activities with outside organisations including Thumbtack, a local startup, and Goldman Sachs, in the course of her visit to expose her to different people and industries.

In their time together, Belinda and Tina discussed the ways they can support the next generation of women and found that they shared similar experiences being in a position of leadership at each of their organisations. They realised they both felt that managing sometimes involves taking a step back and allowing others to lead the charge to build up the team confidence.When quizzed about whether such partnerships are a learning experience to the mentor too, Belinda agrees, “Definitely! I didn’t get to where I am today all on my own. Becoming a leader involves listening and learning every day. Even in my current position where I’m overseeing so much of the organisation, I still rely on my team to bring their expertise and ideas to the table. Getting to know Tina over these few short weeks has been such a rewarding experience. The way she has grown her company and the efforts she’s made to support women who are new to the workforce, or who are taking a leap and changing careers, is truly inspiring.”

Tina’s primary takeaway as mentee is the supportive Airbnb work culture

Tina feels she had an absolutely enriching experience during her four weeks with Belinda and Varsha. She spoke at a session of ‘Women@’, which included a heart-warming initiative of donating menstrual hygiene kits to homeless women. It set the tone for her stint with the idea being women supporting each other, both at work and outside of it. Over the course of Tina’s four weeks at Airbnb, she learned first-hand about Airbnb’s core values and how much they are ingrained in the company culture.

Belinda Johnson and Tina Garg during Airbnb’s Week for Good (volunteer day at Urban Sprouts)

Tina shares,

No mention of Airbnb would be complete without mentioning the company’s emphasis on values, which I believe is the glue that binds people together. In the coming weeks, I will certainly be working with my team to define Pink Lemonade’s values and ensure it percolates through the organisation. The importance of a clear set of values cannot be overstated, because when the going gets tough, these values will act as a solid framework to guide you.

Planting the ‘giving gene’ in women leaders’ DNA

Upcoming women leaders are finally getting the tools they need to go beyond achieving their career goals. As more women get the opportunity of learning from successful mentors, we will hopefully see more who question the status quo and also take on top leadership roles in companies.

As Tina explains succinctly, “It is my belief that as we progress in the workplace, we must learn to pay it forward. When you empower one woman, you plant the ‘giving’ gene in her DNA.”


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