How Airbnb exec Laura Chambers landed her first CEO job at femtech startup Willow just as the pandemic hit


Willow CEO Laura Chambers and family

  • Just as the pandemic hit, Laura Chambers, GM for Airbnb hosts, got a call that would change her career.
  • The cofounder of Willow, who was also an NEA investor, wanted to discuss her becoming the company’s next CEO.
  • How did Chambers land a CEO role during the middle of a pandemic?
  • She had been working towards this moment for years, she tells Business Insider, making a series of strategic moves from finding mentors, to talking to her managers to becoming an advisor for VCs.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In February, just as COVID-19 was decimating the travel industry and Airbnb, Laura Chambers, general manager for host relations, received a phone call.

It was the cofounder and chairman of femtech company Willow, Joshua Makower, who is also a doctor and a partner at VC firm NEA. He wanted to talk to her about her dream job: Chief Executive Officer.

Chambers was at home on leave. One of her three children needed medical care, she told Business Insider. If she hadn’t been, she would have been in the center of the firestorm at Airbnb, which was dealing with unhappy hosts, tanking revenues and eventually, layoffs.

She’d been at Airbnb for two years, after spending more than a decade rising through the ranks at eBay and its various subsidiaries (Skype, PayPal).

The CEO role she was contacted about was at Willow, which makes a quiet, $500 in-bra breast pump for nursing mothers, that collects milk as the woman goes about her day and frees her from being tethered to a loud machine. It was a product that Chambers herself had used and loved.

That’s one reason why Makower thought of her for the role.

The other was because Chambers had decided a few years earlier that she wanted to become a CEO and had been doing everything she could to make it happen.

“The advice I was given is that you need to decide if this is your goal or not. Not enough people set themselves a goal to be CEO. But I have chosen to be very vocal about that and that’s been helpful,” she said.

For instance, by telling her managers, it caused them to “think about you differently and give you different stretch assignments,” she said.

And it pushed her to make career choices like getting involved with the VC community, including NEA as an advisor when it vetted femtech and other consumer tech startups. That’s what led Makower to think of her.

Don’t take the first CEO job that comes along

She also sought out good mentors, one of whom told her not to jump at the first CEO job she was offered. The mentor said, “It can be flattering if this has been your goal. But really think about the fit,” Chambers remembers. 

All of which meant, she’d talked to other companies about other potential CEO roles and some of those conversations had gotten far. “I was offered a CEO role before I went to Airbnb,” she says. While that didn’t pan out the experience taught her  “Always take the call,” even if it comes during a medical leave in the middle of a pandemic.

Her dinner with Makower, lasted for hours.”He was one of the last humans I saw before lock down,” she laughs. “I’ve been a senior executive pumping. I was telling him stories of my own pumping journey, highs and lows.”

One of the things that excites her most about Willow is its role in advocacy, which working lactating moms desperately need.

“I walk into a pumping room and the set-up is terrible. Three lounge chairs next to each other with a magazine. I wanted to be discrete, not be unclothed next to colleagues,” she said. Hourly workers, who get limited breaks, often have it even worse. Willow eliminates this need, Chambers points out.

That lock-down has also meant a strange initial few weeks for Chambers in her first CEO job. She’s done her 1:1 meetings with her nearly 80-strong staff over Zoom. She’s done a virtual walkthrough of Willow’s various international factories. 

And while the world is still in the throes of the virus and now, civil unrest, Chambers couldn’t be more excited about the future for working new moms and her new company.

Willow has 70,000 customers, she says, which grew 120% from 2018-19. While she wouldn’t share revenue numbers she did say 2019 revenue grew 140% year-over-year and is on pace to grow 50% in 2020, even with all the disruption caused by the coronavirus lockdowns.

SEE ALSO: This woman founded her company by purging her closet when no one would invest in her idea. She shares 5 ways to launch your business in an economic crisis.

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