When Airbnb Goes to Court, They Call Her
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because even a stodgy law career can take you to the top of a sexy startup.
By Sanjena Sathian
The Epcot-like headquarters of Airbnb in San Francisco features rooms modeled after those in popular hosts’ homes: the Moroccan room has bedouin prints everywhere, red carpet and yellow walls, while the Washington, D.C. room includes a cowskin carpet and a model fireplace complete with firewood. It’s perhaps no surprise the company was founded by designers — you expect style here. But the right hand of those designers is a confident, sharp lawyer.
Already, Belinda Johnson’s seen the company through no shortage of legal and public affairs conflicts, including issues over taxation, through a New York Supreme Court case, and via some ire in San Francisco as residents argued the company allows the wealthy to push out longtime tenants. It’s also been her job to manage the wild web of international regulations as the company establishes itself as a global operation. Sharing-economy companies like Uber and Airbnb, says NYU Stern business professor Arun Sundararajan, face a legal and governmental regulatory landscape that is “much more complex.”
Meet Belinda Johnson, Airbnb’s top legal mind who recently landed a promotion as CEO Brian Chesky’s go-to-woman. (“Hiring her was one of the best decisions we ever made,” Chesky tells OZY.) Fresh to the title of chief business affairs and legal officer, the 48-year-old Johnson was deputy general counsel of Yahoo in its heyday before coming to Airbnb, the reportedly $25-billion sharing-economy giant that allows individual homeowners to rent out their properties — whether that be apartments, refurbished vans or even tree houses — to everyday travelers.
Exciting times in the biz aren’t restricted to her Airbnb days, though.
A Texas native, tight-lipped and impeccably groomed, Johnson tells me she never saw herself going the traditional law firm path, instead feeling the magnetic pull of the tech industry during its first boom. Johnson’s career has indeed taken her a different route. In the tech world, lawyers are rarely responsible for simply interpreting on-the-books precedent — Johnson’s job feels more like navigating policy and sculpting a new regulatory framework; very little of the industry deals with established laws, says Vivek Krishnamurthy, clinical professor at Harvard’s Cyberlaw Clinic. Johnson learned to look by analogy at other industries, she tells me, and to think about self-regulation.
It’s easy to feel Johnson’s authority in her presence. She’s got a helluva handshake and doesn’t exactly evoke the warm hospitality I expect of a Southerner — or of an Airbnb host for that matter. Raised in suburban Sugar Land, near Houston, Johnson was a gymnast and always ambitious. Though she’s a litigator — the kind of lawyer who sometimes stands up dramatically in court — she says she wasn’t the kid who argued at the dinner table with mom and dad. She loved policy, advocacy, taking a position. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom who worked occasionally as a real estate agent, but it was her dad — a banker — who influenced Johnson’s career hunger.
Hers is a persona that Airbnb needed in public, amid its flurry of media coverage. I ask Johnson if she’s ever witnessed the anger of San Franciscans on the anti-gentrification bandwagon. Her mouth clamps shut and she glances around. “Um,” she says. No; those were “isolated events.” Though Airbnb is sometimes lumped with Uber as a company that allows everyday people to make money by way of other everyday people, Sundararajan draws a distinction. Airbnb, he says, has made its mark by trying to include its hosts in legal and business matters. Meanwhile, Uber (which didn’t respond to our request for comment) has a reputation for focusing things centrally, away from its drivers.
One major challenge Johnson has faced down since she joined the company in its third year, impressively early for a lawyer: New York’s attorney general butted heads with the company, arguing that nearly three-quarters of Airbnb hosts used the platform illegally. But Johnson quickly developed models for adding taxes to users in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon.
Exciting times in the biz aren’t restricted to her Airbnb days, though. Before Yahoo, Johnson took the music-streaming business Broadcast.com public. And as a litigator specializing in employment law — fittingly, years before sharing economy companies #disrupted it all — she enjoyed a few court appearances. Mostly, though, those days were slower, full of junior-level work, taking depositions and the like. After 12 years at Yahoo, Johnson grew “antsy,” and went gunning for the Airbnb gig. The company’s founders were “incredibly cognizant,” she says, of the regulatory challenges they’d face, and brought her on quickly — she walked right into many late-night phone calls trying to puppeteer the international goings-on of the company from afar.
Today, Johnson enjoys working out (you can tell) and lives with her two daughters down the highway, in Redwood City. I ask about her favorite stay: an Airbnb in Berlin, where a fellow mom showed her around the city. And does she host? Of course, she says. I’m curious — does she throw parties for guests, give them a splash of a time? She’s a bit vanilla in her answer; she asks them what they like to drink, what they like to do. She’s efficient in handshaking me out of the room. After all, she’s a lawyer, not a host.