Ten Minutes With Cecilia Yang
What makes the design leader tick
Cecilia Yang has been making things since she was old enough to hold a pen to paper. She hasn’t slowed down since, dabbling in a range of creative pursuits, including painting as a teenager and physical product design as a college student. These days, Cecilia puts her eclectic skillset to work as a design manager at Airbnb. She recently stepped into a new role, leading the Design team for our new Hotels business, following Airbnb’s recent acquisition of the last-minute-booking app HotelTonight—a role she’s made her own with an intuitive and deeply thoughtful approach to hospitality and leadership.
Today, we’re happy to announce that Cecilia is the inaugural participant in “Ten Minutes With”, a series of interviews that ask creative thinkers to share their unique perspectives on work and play. (Hint: Cecilia’s been channeling her younger self in an effort to rekindle her early love of drawing. Her choice of medium may surprise you!)
Scroll down for more—and check back for more interviews in this new series!
Imagine you’re mentoring a young woman who doesn’t see herself reflected in the leaders who have come before her. What are some key takeaways you’d impart to her?
One of my biggest shifts in my career has been not resisting the things that have made me who I am, but seeing the good in them.
I identify as an Asian American woman, and I come from a family of immigrants. My culture includes many norms that I once felt were antithetical to being a leader. For example: Assimilate, blend in, don’t stand out. The whole matters much more than the self. Respect your elders. Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to.
A big part of my life has been resisting these norms, trying to create an identity separate from them, and not accepting that they have, in some tiny or significant ways, shaped my personality and instincts. I didn’t see myself in the leaders around me—examples of more quiet, reserved Asian American women who were entrusted to lead large teams or initiatives.
Slowly, I’ve learned to not resist my instincts, and to see the good they bring. As an example: I may not like being in the spotlight, but it means I can lead from behind. I do my best to listen before I speak. I start with a belief in the wisdom of the leaders and people around me, and show up with a desire to absorb it. I respect my parents’ immigrant mentality that you must work hard for everything, that everything is earned and never guaranteed.
It’s been a journey for me to expand my definition of a prototypical “leader,” and appreciate the strengths of different styles. And I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve had managers in my career who have seen me for who I am, and never made me feel that I had to fundamentally change.
Yang’s trip to a traditional ryokan, or Japanese inn, made her feel a deep sense of belonging.
You recently landed a new role leading design for Hotels on Airbnb and HotelTonight, which is now part of the Airbnb family. Why are hotels an interesting challenge for Airbnb, and how has this transition stretched you as a leader?
At Airbnb, we constantly talk about how we can help our guests feel belonging. It’s a feeling that can come through connection between people, or a connection with place. It can happen when people feel seen or deeply cared for.
One of the times that I felt this spirit of belonging was in a hotel—a traditional ryokan in the tiny hot-springs town of Kaga Onsen. There, the hotel staff greeted my husband and me at the door and served us sweets made of adzuki beans, made by a family only steps away. They dressed us in yukata that didn’t drag on the ground, because they had asked us our exact height, down to the inch. Someone overheard us talking about coffee and printed us a list of their favorite coffee shops in Kyoto. They embodied the spirit of our best hosts on Airbnb, and the space – so rich with local culture and craft – embodied the uniqueness that people look to us for.
Airbnb is also a people-powered brand that celebrates community. Some of the boutique hotels we want on our platform offer community in deep and authentic ways; they may showcase murals painted by local artists, offer inventive cocktail bars where locals and travelers mix, or contribute meaningfully back to their community. We’re interested in how we might celebrate these hotels, and experiment with new ways of bringing people together.
For four years, I worked on products for our host community before moving to Hotels. Our hosts have always inspired me with their generosity, creativity, and entrepreneurship. I think all of our hosts—regardless of whether they rent out their guesthouse or a room in a boutique hotel—can learn from each other, as they share intent to provide truly memorable, personal hospitality.
I’m early in this journey, and this is the first acquisition I’m experiencing, but I’m so excited by the challenge. As a part of the integration, I’m hoping we can create a new culture and ways of working that meld the best of both companies.
Nature inspires Yang: A palm from Kauai and hand-foraged mushrooms.
You’re an experience designer by trade with a background in physical product design and engineering. What is your design philosophy and how has that impacted your approach to problem solving?
We design experiences to fulfill needs, and good design does so simply, in ways that are sharply attuned to the emotional context of the user. I believe in deeply understanding needs, not just problems. Needs go deeper than problems, endure longer than problems: you can create a feature to solve a problem, you can build a sustainable company around solving a need. For example, the need to belong is a fundamental human need that isn’t going to change until our hardwiring changes, and that’s the need Airbnb was built to serve.
Physical product design gave me a deep appreciation for process and order of operations. We’d take seemingly simple products, like a magnifying glass, and learn about the multitude of steps and manufacturing processes that would go into it (milling, lathing, welding). I learned the importance of getting things right upstream (for example, the wrong measurements on the magnitude of partial millimeters led to parts not assembling correctly at the end). Software is more forgiving, but the importance of identifying the right process for a problem is a value I try to uphold on my teams every day.
Yang, on the left. The natural world features heavily in her journey to self-discovery.
Beyond the daily grind of your 9-to-5, how do you seek out play, creativity, and inspiration?
Nature, which I think is the most brilliant and elegant designer. There are slime molds that can tell you the most efficient subway paths for a city: if you place them in a petri dish with oat flakes in the position of where the stops would be, they will form the most efficient transportation networks. There are tropical pitcher plants, Nepenthes hemsleyana, which have evolved into perfectly shaped sleeping pouches for tiny bats, because they benefit from nitrogen in the waste the bats leave behind. The trendy houseplant, Monstera deliciosa, will actually fruit in tropical climates – its fruit is covered in a swath of perfectly hexagonal scales that reveal a green corn-on-the-cob underneath, and tastes like pineapple and banana.
I will consume anything to learn about the ingenuity of the natural world. Some favorites are books (including The Fruit Hunters, A Natural History of the Senses, and Wicked Plants) and anything that has David Attenborough as a narrator (e.g. Our Planet on Netflix).
My first love in life was drawing; as soon as I was old enough to hold a marker, I drew on every possible surface I could find. In my 20s, I lost my passion for drawing because I wanted to make things look perfect. Recently, I’ve been combating this by forcing myself to use a blunt medium (like crayons) and tiny 3-by-5 canvases, so I can focus on expression and color more than realism and having every detail right.
The designer rekindled her love for drawing with self-imposed creative constraints.
Stay tuned for more thought-provoking stories from inspiring Airbnb creatives like Cecilia in the next installment of “Ten Minutes With.”