Three months after joining Airbnb's policy team in 2014, David Owen '09 found himself at a city council meeting in Portland. Despite a protracted debate and opposition from some neighborhood groups, officials unanimously approved short-term rentals in private homes. The law has been refined since, but it was the first time an American city explicitly gave the green light to Airbnb's model of home sharing.
After the meeting, Owen went to a cafe to eat dinner in the warm night air. The scene felt surreal, like he'd been dropped in the film Being John Malkovich. “It felt like everyone in the city was talking about Airbnb,” Owen says. “Watching laws change and being part of it from the inception is really cool to see.”
For Owen, who was promoted to Airbnb's head of policy strategy in January, watching laws change is part of the job description. During Owen's tenure, the company has weathered a series of challenges, including New York City's June decision to fine people renting out whole apartments for less than a month and the dissolution of a deal with one of the country's most powerful unions earlier this year.
In one of the latest skirmishes, Airbnb sued San Francisco late last month over the Board of Supervisors' decision to fine the company $1,000 a day for every unregistered host using its service. Airbnb is arguing that it cannot be held liable for illegal listings, just as websites aren't accountable for content that users publish. The company's request for a temporary injunction won't be heard until September. But in mid-July some supervisors already introduced revisions tempering the penalties.
Owen couldn't say much about the lawsuit: "I'm very engaged on that issue, and I look forward to working out solutions with the City."
But overall, he says the challenge is part of the reward. “We are in a new space that's constantly evolving, and there's a lot of opportunity for creativity and innovation. I really enjoy it, even when it's stressful,” he says.
Owen planned to wind up in policy when he enrolled at UC Hastings. He'd already spent more than five years working for elected officials after graduating from the University of Utah with a political science degree in 2000. The fact that the campus was in the heart of San Francisco's political geography helped him stay engaged. As a student, he worked with a housing nonprofit as part of the community economic development clinic and taught legal skills at a local high school. He also focused on studying negotiation and alternative dispute resolution. “I still use those skills every day,” he says.
After graduating during the recession in 2009, he spent two and a half years running a solo practice focused on policy issues. He worked with clients ranging from medical marijuana dispensaries to billboard companies. But he knew he didn't want to be a practicing attorney for long.
In 2012, an old connection presented him with the chance to become partner at Platinum Advisors, a well-known San Francisco lobbying firm. He jumped at the opportunity, and Airbnb became his first client. Two years later, he joined the growing startup's team full-time as the first employee dedicated to engaging state and local lawmakers in the United States. Since then, the team has grown significantly in the U.S. and abroad.
In his new role as head of policy strategy, he focuses on the big picture. “It's part legal, part policy, part strategy, and part crystal ball. In other words, it's a lot of fun,” he says.
Owen says his law degree has come in handy, even though he isn't practicing. “Being able to speak the language is so critical,” he says. “I'm always asking: 'What are lawyers going to care about here, and how do I translate this for folks who don't have a legal background?'”
Despite the challenges – and spirited debates – his job brings, Owen feels he is at the forefront of regulatory innovation.
“It's been surprising to me how quickly change can come and how something that seems like an outlier can become the norm. Technology enables a lot of that, but it's imperfect so we're always iterating,” he says. “It's exciting to be part of something facilitating change.”