Belinda Johnson announced Friday, in an email to staff viewed by CNBC, that she is stepping down as COO on March 1. In the email, Johnson said that she needs to prioritize more time to spend with her family.
“It starts with one question I’m asked at every fireside chat, panel or media interview: ‘How do you balance a successful career with being a mom?’ Sometimes it’s the first question, sometimes it’s the last, but it is always asked,” Johnson wrote in the email.
Johnson, 52, isn’t leaving Airbnb entirely. She will join the company’s board of directors as its ninth member and third woman.
But it’s a big loss for the home-sharing start-up. Johnson has been at the company since 2011, and has been called “Airbnb’s Sheryl Sandberg,” a reference to the Facebook COO who works closely with CEO Mark Zuckerberg. She was Airbnb CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky’s first executive hire.
Chesky credits Johnson with helping the company see through the noise and working with regulators.
“Growing up, I just assumed that when people don’t like you, you should avoid them. Belinda taught me better. She told me that we should meet the people that don’t like us. As she said, ‘It’s hard to hate up close,’” Chesky said in a statement.
For eight years, Johnson has served as Chesky’s de facto No. 2. Before taking the COO role, she served as chief business affairs and legal officer and steered Airbnb through regulatory and legal turbulence. In large part due to her, Airbnb has taken a different approach with regulators than other gig economy start-ups such as Uber — one of collaboration.
As a result, Airbnb has positioned itself as a friendlier disruptor and has worked with regulators on policy. Still, the company is facing a slew of regulatory disputes over taxes and rental rules with a number of city governments, including New York. Most recently, Airbnb lost a ballot measure in Jersey City, New Jersey, that would regulate home-sharing companies.
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