For helping grow—and strengthen—a rising force in India’s tourism economy
Things were moving fast when Lovy Bhatia joined Airbnb back in 2017. She was in the center of the action as the hospitality giant looked to build on its skyrocketing business in one of the world’s largest markets: India. Over the next four years, Bhatia, had a 360-degree view spanning operations, compliance, tech and innovation. She also helped develop KPIs and data analytics to chart growth.
The results are clear enough: In 2019 alone, Airbnb contributed more than INR22 billion to India’s GDP, supporting close to 50,000 local jobs. COVID put a big dent in those numbers, of course. But the company says it came close to pre-pandemic levels last year, buoyed by a spike in domestic stays within rural areas of India. And Bhatia, who recently left the company to take on a new role, is just getting started in her career.
It wasn’t long after graduating university with a degree in telecommunications engineering that Bhatia realized her true career calling. It wasn’t just coding in the background. "I wanted to get in the front seat and make things happen," she says.
Bhatia has a bias for action when it comes to change, too. In 2019, she helped launch EMPower, an internal Airbnb innovation platform she conceived that allows employees to share solutions. The inspiration for it came when Bhatia realized that colleagues often came up with ideas to overcome challenges but didn’t speak up.
"Don’t just complain—go ahead and change it," she says. "Because you have the solution and this is your company, too. It’s as simple as that."
Ideas cover a wide range: iterating product features, improving employee work-life balance, giving back to communities. But the goal remains consistent: "Change employee complaints into empowerment," she says.
We sat down for a chat with Bhatia and talked about everything from being inspired by Walt Disney to breaking the gender bias.
What did you think you’d be when you grew up? Who was your role model?
I was always a curious kid. If something was wrong with the TV or electricity, I would always jump in and try to fix things. For a while I wanted to be a designer, but then I started doing engineering.
Walt Disney was a role model—and it wasn’t just that I liked the cartoons. I did a study of him and the way he created Disneyland and Disney World and that influenced me to get into building businesses. I looked at building products, of course. But it was also about: How do you establish a business? Why do people adopt what you’re building? So I’ve been really influenced by him.
Tell us about a formative early working experience.
I joined Ericsson as a telecom engineer in 2010, working with others fresh out of university. We were building things, but my excitement came when I could raise questions to supervisors, talk about what my team was doing, talk about what is and is not working. Then it hit me. I wanted to run projects.
What did setting up Airbnb’s operations in India entail?
It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done. From 2017, when I joined the company as a project manager, to the middle of 2022, when I left, we grew about 70 employees to more than 1,600. Initial work spanned hiring and training, ensuring regulatory compliance, and setting up new offices and IT infrastructure. More recently, I focused on data analytics, tech expansion and performance management efforts that support growth, and setting up an Airbnb Capability Center, which functions as a center of excellence.
Most STEM fields are still male-dominated. How have you navigated that environment?
When I first started working, I was the only woman on my engineering team. During team meetings, managers would discuss new projects and give them to men to lead. Or leaders would ask for their opinion but would never ask me. Nobody even urged me to speak.
But that situation actually inspired me to speak out and step up. I had so much to say, so many things to challenge. I started volunteering. I started asking questions. So I’ve learned to be proactive, that women have to be proactive.
What’s the best part about working as a project manager?
I love that project management comes with such diverse programs and projects and responsibilities—you’re learning every day. It’s a cross-functional role. I touch so many other individuals and teams doing amazing work. Having that exposure is amazing. It’s a new day every day.