Welcome to our new interview series in partnership with Empowered Women, a nonprofit advocating for women to live a fulfilled life as they define it. We’ve teamed up to interview inspiring women who are forging their own paths and living what it means to be an empowered woman. Join us as we meet a new woman each month.
In the political world, shouting is often the best way to get someone’s attention. So when Katie Biber—a political operative who worked as an election lawyer and then as general counsel for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign—left Washington for the West Coast chill of Silicon Valley, there was, needless to say, a bit of an adjustment period.
But Biber, a Harvard Law graduate who last year was named one of Marie Claire’s 50 most influential women in America, wasn’t deterred. In 2013, she landed a job as senior counsel at a little-known startup called Airbnb. In the two years she spent there, she watched the company grow into a place where she says her East Coast friends “would kill to work.” Last year, she made the jump to another booming company, Thumbtack, which helps connect small business owners, such as landscapers or piano teachers, to people who need their services.
And this is just Biber’s day job. Biber and her husband are also raising their two boys (ages five and seven) to be “full-fledged individuals with opinions and thoughts and concerns about the world.”
Biber spoke with us about her mid-career transition, being 50/50 partners in marriage, and her plan to strand her kids in San Francisco (don’t be alarmed—it makes way more sense than you’d think).
Rebecca Nelson: You had been in politics for 15 years before getting into tech. What spurred you to make the switch?
Katie Biber: After the 2012 campaign was over, for the first time in my life I felt like I was done working in politics, at least as a full-time vocation. I hadn’t felt that way after any other cycle, so it was a pretty profound realization to know that I would be okay with not spending the next two years preparing for the 2014 election, and then positioning myself to participate in 2016. My husband and I ended up moving to San Francisco because he had a job out here. I pretty quickly decided that I really wanted to work for Airbnb, which my husband and I had been using since the early days, back when it was couch surfing and not a household name by any stretch. So I reached out to the newly-hired general counsel there and kind of stalked and bothered her on LinkedIn until she agreed to talk to me.
RN: Tell me about the decision to move from the East Coast to the Bay Area. What was that like for your family?
KB: It was a difficult one. I had spent my entire career working on the East Coast, working in politics, working primarily in D.C., and I felt comfortable. I had friends. I had a political and career network. I had all of the trappings of comfort and knew that I could find my next job in Washington in politics or at a law firm fairly easily. At the same time, my husband had spent virtually the last ten years being supportive of my career. He could have come out to San Francisco following graduation from business school, or graduation from college, and worked in tech way back when. It seemed like it was the right time for him.
All things being equal, D.C. is a great place for me to work. But surprisingly, San Francisco is an even more fulfilling and interesting place to be. So I’m glad that I took the chance and wasn’t so single-mindedly focused on staying in Washington after 2012.
RN: How is it more interesting and fulfilling?
KB: After a while working in politics and working in government, you begin to feel like you’re fighting over the pieces of a pie that somebody else has created. I wanted to get into the private sector and actually take part in baking the pie. It’s a very fulfilling thing to help grow something from nothing and watch people use the thing you created to help make ends meet, and to empower themselves to build their own small businesses.
RN: Your job kept your family on the East Coast for years, and your husband’s brought you to the West Coast. How do you balance two ambitious people’s careers in a marriage?
KB: We truly have a 50/50 partnership, for which I am incredibly grateful. He is as much of a parent to our children as I am. He is as much of a contributor to our household as I am. And I don’t think any of the things that I have accomplished would have been possible if he viewed our relationship differently, or expected something other than that from me. And as a result, I sometimes get a little bit irritated when I hear people talking about work/life balance as exclusively the province of women. My husband cares as much as I do about getting to spend time with our children—about having work he’s passionate about, but also being able to be there for our family. There’s nothing unique about that desire. It applies to men just as much as it applies to women. I strive to be as supportive of his career as he has been of mine, and the only way it works is to have the kind of very equal partnership that we have.
RN: What’s the hardest part about your job?
KB: I have learned that you cannot torture yourself over every single decision you make. My work only very rarely is going to hinge on one or two make-or-break choices. It’s a culmination of thousands of pieces of advice I give, thousands of choices I make, and if I make the right call 90 percent of the time, that’s a pretty excellent track record. I always tell newbie general counsels, “The hardest thing that you will ever have to do in this job is get through that initial paralysis of having to make dozens and dozens of choices every single day. You have to accept the fact that you are not perfect.”
RN: When you joined Airbnb, what surprised you most about the tech world that you didn’t expect?
KB: Unlike in politics, you can’t yell your way to respect with the people around you. I believe it was Margaret Thatcher who said, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” That absolutely applies in this context. You have to earn the respect that people have for you. You have to demonstrate that you’re worthy of it through your actions and your contributions. And you have to be respectful to everybody around you.
I have also learned to listen a little bit better than maybe I did in politics, when you got attention by jumping up and down and yelling and just talking louder than the other person. The chief legal officer at Airbnb gave me some excellent advice before I started this job: She told me to spend the first several months just listening to people. It is really hard advice to follow, but it is very good advice. I try to employ it whenever I’m tackling a new issue or thinking through something with someone. You can very easily shut down what would otherwise be incredibly interesting dialogue if you’re the first person to talk. So I strive never to be the first person who talks. I fail often, because it’s my natural proclivity, but I strive.
RN: That’s good counsel for anyone. What's the best advice that you’ve ever gotten, either career-wise or life-wise?
KB: You should not be afraid of failure. A friend once told me that everybody should be fired early in their career so they can see that their life isn’t over. And I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I often think about ways that I can encourage my own children to try things that they are going to fail at. I actually have this crazy dream—you’re going to laugh at this probably—of someday starting a problem-solving camp. It would be for eight- to ten-year-olds in San Francisco, would involve two or three weeks of free-range play in Golden Gate Park, and would be capped by giving each of them $10, dropping them off in a completely unfamiliar neighborhood with a bus map, and telling them to get home. It’s those sorts of opportunities that are most helpful to someone’s growth and problem solving skills.
RN: What’s a time you felt like you failed, and how did you get past it?
KB: Oh, man. I’ve had many failures in life. I think perhaps the most amusing, in retrospect, was this internship I desperately wanted at the White House in 2001. More than wanting it, I felt that I was entitled to have this internship. And when I didn’t get it—and to this day, I remember where I was sitting when I received the call—I was so crushed. I completely lost perspective. I spent several days pitying myself, and I thought that this was going to be so crucial to my career as a young lawyer that I might as well just throw it all away now. As it turns out, I had a great summer doing something else entirely.
Nothing is ever as bad as it seems. And who you become as a person, ethically and morally, depends upon how you react to things that happen. You normally can’t change those things. But you can change how you react to them.
And to speak of additional advice, one of the things that I often say to people is you have to understand what your priorities are before you get into something, or at the commencement of your career. And you have to base your choices around those priorities, whether it’s your religion, your family, your ambition, your desire for material reward, or your health. Those things all compete against one another. You can’t let circumstances make choices for you. Otherwise, you’re going to look in the mirror in ten years and you’re going to hate what you’ve become.
RN: We were just talking about professional failure, but you’ve had so many successes in your career. What’s been the proudest moment in your personal life?
KB: When I was a kid, and I would hear adults say, “My child is my greatest accomplishment,” I can quite clearly remember thinking, “I am not an accomplishment. I am a person.” But it’s my family, it’s my children. There are so many things that they do, whether it’s something they say in the morning that’s funny, or a thoughtful observation they make about life—all of those things make me incredibly proud to watch my two boys (who are five and seven) turn into full-fledged individuals with opinions and thoughts and concerns about the world.
RN: Of the people in your community—your husband, friends, coworkers, parents—whose advice do you rely on most often?
KB: My husband’s. He’s a great counterpoint to me. He’s the sort of person whose feathers can’t easily be ruffled. And when I’ve gotten myself worked up about a problem, or I’m really focused on something, he’s very good at giving me perspective and providing a little bit of an outsider’s viewpoint. Among my flaws, one of them is sometimes losing the forest for the trees, and he’s very good at bringing me back up to that second level and allowing me not to become so wrapped around something.
RN: Did you have a mentor along the way?
KB: Absolutely. And because I think mentors are so key, I’ve really tried to provide that same sort of mentorship to other people. But I had a couple of really wonderful mentors early on in my career. One is David Israelite, who is now the head of the National Music Publishers’ Association. He was really crucial in the early stages of my career, helping me make the right choices and giving me opportunities that it would have been difficult for someone as young as I was to get on my own. Having a real mentor, one you’ve actually worked with, and who trusts and knows your work, is incredibly crucial. It’s harder to get that sort of mentorship from just calling someone up and saying, “Will you go to lunch and talk to me about my career?”
RN: What’s your go-to to rejuvenate after a really stressful period at work?
KB: I love to go for hikes or really long walks where I can just put in my earbuds and listen to a book or a podcast or music and then just be in the zone for a few hours. By nature, I am an introvert, so I occasionally need those times of solitude to really recharge myself.
RN: What are some of your favorite podcasts?
I listen to Criminal, which I really love. I’m obsessed with This American Life. Mystery Show I really like—the goal for each show is for her to solve a mystery without using the Internet. You should listen to it.
RN: How do you make sure you’re the kind of person younger women in the field can look up to?
KB: I think the best mentors I’ve had have been candid with me, so I try to be very candid when I’m providing advice to people. And when I see them engaging in great success, I try to make sure to congratulate them and tell them how proud I am of the things they have accomplished. I want to be there not just to help them with problems and failures, but also in times of success.
I also try to show through actions that women can be successful. The best compliment I ever have received in my career was from a young woman on the Romney campaign. She said to me, after the campaign was over, “You have shown me that it’s possible to have it all, and it’s possible to be respected in the workplace, and it’s possible to be a woman who can be ambitious, and who also has a family and can try to balance all those things.” And I laugh, because from the outside it may look like that—these things are never perfect behind the scenes. But that meant a lot to me, because I really do strive to show younger women, by my actions, how you can be successful in male-dominated worlds by just being yourself.
Illustration: Sam Kerr