The Leading Lady Behind China’s Airbnb
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s at the helm of one of the world’s biggest travel markets.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
A meeting with Melissa Yang feels like an elegant housewarming. Drink her prized white tea, which she’ll tell you is “good for your health.” Admire the bright decor of her sunlit office, which matches her blinding pearly whites. And don’t forget to thank her for the gifts she’ll attempt to shower you with — like knickknacks that bear the logo of her company, Tujia, or “home while on a journey” in Chinese. It feels over the top, but perhaps this is the price of pleasing everyone.
Yang is the posh chief technology officer at Tuija and a world-class voyager in the world’s soon-to-be-biggest travel industry. You’ve heard the thundering footsteps of the approaching Goliath: With double-digit growth in outbound tourism, her native China is well poised to take over the world — and the hordes will ride tour buses and 747s. The number of newly middle-class Chinese with passports is expected to triple to 12 percent in the next 10 years, according to Goldman Sachs. Soon, fanny pack–toting Americans simply won’t be able to keep pace. Yang’s company is banking on this — and on her country’s construction boom that has left some 50 million vacant homes ready to be rented out for peak travel seasons, according to nationwide surveys. That’s more than enough to house all of California.
Sound familiar? Yang will be the first to tell you that Tujia is nothing like Airbnb. “China is no longer a copycat,” she says, referring to the long-standing accusations that the country rips off everything from iPhones to Under Armour. Tujia distances itself from its American rival with a philosophy that’s distinct from the self-starter spirit of Airbnb. First, it caters to nouveau riche Chinese travelers who are eager to splurge for a slice of high-class living, with round-the-clock services like daily housekeepers and fancy butlers. Plus, there’s the option to lodge at upscale accommodations managed by Tujia, rather than a stranger’s guest room.
As both a female co-founder and chief technology officer, Yang occupies a sadly rare position in the business world, and the technology she oversees at Tujia has helped the company distinguish itself from its competitors — a mobile app before anyone else on the market; an internal system that keeps system bugs at bay and pinpoints performance issues on the site; and a user analytics command center that aggressively identifies what makes customers tick. Yang is the core “driving force” behind Tujia, says Tujia’s senior vice president Zhuang Hai. “Almost all technical decisions run through her.” Now, Yang’s razor-sharp focus on customers and culture is helping her company edge out Airbnb’s influence in China. “She can always point out where the problems are.” Moreover, Yang also built the company from the ground up, including interviewing Tujia’s first chipper employees at a coffee shop, as well as making her company run smoothly from operations to product to technology.
Yang is sleek but pragmatic, a fitting trait for a boss lady always on the go. Today, she’s dressed in sensible layers after morning yoga: comfy black boots, a loose tunic and a stylish polka dot coat. She evokes the glamour of travel — and of her moneyed life. Tujia raised $455 million in funding from big investment firms including GGV Capital and Lightspeed Venture Partners, as well as other travel titans such as HomeAway and Ctrip in China. It boasts tens of millions of users and 400,000 listings, and just last year, it joined the vaunted league of unicorn companies valued upward of $1 billion.
It sounds ambitious: wedging a young company into an already crowded travel market with other travel juggernauts such as Xiaozhu and Zhubaijia in China. But Yang has some 15 years of experience, including as a former development director for Expedia and CTO at Escapia.com, a Seattle startup acquired by HomeAway in 2011.
For the bulk of her life, Yang has also been careening down the conveyor belt that produces successful career women. She was the model A+ student who graduated from an elite university in China — Tsinghua, which is China’s MIT — and built up her global cache with an education overseas at the University of Washington in computer science. Although she didn’t leave China until age 22, she’s making up for it now, aggressively expanding into parts of North America, Europe and the rest of Asia, with thousands more listings in the upcoming months. After gleaning business acumen in Silicon Valley for more than a decade, she’s back in Beijing to shepherd her countrymen to places that generations before were forbidden to see from behind closed walls. “China moves very fast, but [Tujia has] quite a bit of a head start over everyone else,” says Yulu Dai, one of Yang’s colleagues from her Expedia days. Dai uses Tujia religiously every time she visits China.
The startup scene in China has made leaps and bounds since Yang left for graduate school and then Expedia. Beijing’s Zhongguancun District, now known as China’s Silicon Valley, was at the time more known for the street vendors peddling pirated electronics. Now, “everything is different,” she says. “People are looking to China for better products and services, not just manufacturing.” And, unlike the Airbnbs of the world, Tujia can’t bulldoze into cities and worry about litigations later. (Airbnb prefers the term “direct people-to-people diplomacy,” says Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas, with a greater focus on its outbound travel from China, which has grown a whopping 500 percent in the past year.) Still, Tujia just may have an edge with its insider knowledge, says Yang. Tujia operates in communist China, where the government has a heavier hand in day-to-day business dealings; the startup has signed an agreement with more than 160 citywide and provincial governments across the country. This helps Tujia scoop up Chinese tourists who are traveling domestically too, Yang says.
Granted, her favorite postcard getaway is Cinque Terre, the brightly colored cliff-side houses on the rugged Italian Riviera coastline. But Yang hopes to discover exotic new vacation spots in her own great backyard of China — even if she needs Big Brother’s approval.
This is the sixth story in an OZY Special Series on “The Lady Bosses of China” resisting communist rule. Video by Melanie Ruiz.