Airbnb’s Tara Bunch on making it as a gay woman in tech and why diversity makes ‘magic happen’

Tech industry leader and Airbnb’s global head of operations, Tara Bunch, tells PinkNews how her identity shaped her career, the power of the diversity of thought in product design, and how the home-stay platform’s commitment to diversity and community is at the heart of their DNA.

Growing up in central California, Bunch seemed destined for a life in tech. With a mechanical engineer for a father, and a mother involved in IT for a school system in central California, she was “surrounded by computer and floppy drives and all kinds of scraps of parts for computers”.

While studying engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay, Bunch began to figure out how her own identity would shape her career. “It didn’t take long to realise that I was one of the very few females in mechanical engineering,” she says.

“It was the first time I was introduced to the gay community, if I’m honest. Realising that I was gay, and being in such a supportive and gay environment, gave me a lot of confidence to be a lesbian [and] being a woman in the engineering field.

“It was a fairly transformational period in my life.”

Tara Bunch joined Airbnb in 2020 after tenures at other tech giants Apple and Hewlett-Packard. (Airbnb)

She landed her first role in tech with Hewlett-Packard, but had to relocate to Colorado in the early 1990s, where conservative groups helped to lobby for an anti-discrimination law to be revoked. Amendment 2, as it was known, effectively stripped away vital protections.

It sent a message that LGBTQ+ people were not deserving of equal protection under the law.

“I went from being out in the Bay, to being pretty closed off in Colorado,” she remembers. “I kind of went out and back in, then had to find my way back out again.”

After climbing the corporate ladder at Hewlett-Packard, Bunch went on to serve as vice-president of operations at Apple. She took up her present role at Airbnb in 2020.

Tech’s role in shaping progressive policies

The tech world has always been perceived one of the most progressive industries. From benefits and policies that are truly inclusionary, to embracing remote working during the pandemic, others have had to follow its lead.

Bunch believes that progressive nature comes from innovation. And to truly innovate, firms need a diverse group of people. “That kind of collective creativity doesn’t happen in an environment where people feel oppressed,” she points out. “The best talent in the world [is] not going to come to a place where they don’t feel they can show up as their whole self.

“I see it every day, when people can come to work and feel they can express themselves in any way that feels right for them.”

The ‘magic’ that a diversity of thought creates

Bunch says that diversity of thought is what helps to fuel the innovation that is inherent to Airbnb’s commitment to its users.

“We have this huge platform with a massively diverse set of guests and hosts [who] interact not just digitally, but also in real life,” she says. “The passion and commitment inside the company to build a platform that’s welcoming to everyone is kind of fundamental to who we are.”

Airbnb can make life easier for trans people making a booking. (Getty Images)

Bunch cites examples such as Airbnb’s instant book feature and the platform’s requested booking setting, which allows hosts to confirm a booking without seeing the guest’s profile picture.

“We found that in some cases, people of colour’s bookings were accepted less often,” she says. “We’ve tried to build a product that does not enable discrimination in any form.”

She also credits this diversity of thought for a recent update which allows people to use their preferred name – many in the trans community have to put their legal name on travel platforms, rather than the name with which they identify.

These types of features aren’t created in boardrooms but are “the kind of things that passionate employees come up with,” Bunch insists. “They’re experiencing the world with their own diversity, and they bring that diversity to work.

“These are all things that come from people’s sense of what’s right, and you have to have that diversity of thought to come up with these types of solutions.

“That’s how this kind of magic happens.”

Airbnb’s commitment to community

Airbnb’s employee resource groups (ERGs) cultivate the diversity of thought that fuels innovation.

Bunch is the executive sponsor for the brand’s “AirPride@” and “Trans@” ERGs.

“We spend a lot of time [as executive sponsors] with the leaders of those teams to understand what the employees need,” she says.

As Pride month kicks off, Airbnb will host and sponsor many celebrations but they will also shine the light on what Bunch calls “the T, the Q and the plus” parts of the LGBTQ+ community.

 “We try to create an environment where we educate, mentor and celebrate together.”

Members of Airbnb’s Pride@ employee resource group in San Francisco’s Castro district. (Airbnb)

The work done within these ERGs filters out to the community that the business serves. The platform has introduced a community commitment policy, where every host and guest had to pledge not to discriminate.

“The sad part is that it resulted in us removing 2.5 million people from the platform [who] refused to sign it,” Bunch admits.

Praising their work, Bunch acknowledges the company’s dedicated anti-discrimination team, a group that works internally to ensure that what they do doesn’t unintentionally introduce any discrimination.

“It informs everything we do, it’s part of our DNA. It influences the way we design products, our policies and how we support our community on a day-to-day basis. It’s how we hold ourselves accountable to our own community commitment.”

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