Kati Schmidt on why persistence matters when pursuing big dreams.
Sometimes, it all comes down to a small green card. Again and again, Kati Schmidt applied for that most coveted of plastic squares, the document allowing recipients an indefinite stay in the United States. In her eighth year in a row of entering the high-stakes raffle, with alternative plans already being laid into place, Schmidt was finally notified, against tremendous odds, that her name was selected in the Diversity Immigrant Visa programme – also known as the Green Card lottery. Within a few months, Kati was on her way to San Francisco. Her goal: the Airbnb headquarters in the heart of the West Coast metropolis.
San Francisco was not just another item on Kati’s bucket list – she knew for years that one day, she would live on the American West Coast. “I always wanted to work where the tech industry was born,” she says. Yet, she did not want to rely on chance alone. Instead, she planned on writing her master’s thesis in San Francisco. Not an easy undertaking – the American universities’ demands are as high as the number of applicants. Schmidt applied to forty colleges in the Bay Area before San Francisco State University invited her to spend the summer as a guest researcher. “I instantly fell in love with the city, with the people here, with the vibe, the dynamic,” the native Münsteran said. And she wanted to come back – for good. An aim she pursued consistently ever after, meticulously documenting her efforts on her personal blog, KaliforniaKati.
Her goal of moving to San Francisco first took her a bit off course, but nonetheless forward, to Hamburg, Germany, where the first international office of Airbnb was located. “I knew that the company had its headquarters in San Francisco and that the job would allow me to constantly go back and forth,” she says. “Of course, that was not the only motivation I had. I love the idea behind Airbnb, the product and the community. I was part of Airbnb’s first international office and worked for the company in Berlin and New York. But I couldn’t get San Francisco off my mind.” So when she finally won the Green Card lottery, she started planning her move to the city right away.
Kati was fascinated by the air of unwavering optimism she encountered in San Francisco. “The atmosphere is unique, especially for young entrepreneurs. The city is situated right next to Silicon Valley. You have great universities here which focus on entrepreneurship. Successful founders are not just role models but also pass on knowledge and reinvest money into the local startup landscape. This attracts great minds from all over the world.” According to Kati, entrepreneurs are met with more trust than anywhere else. “Nobody has to justify their crazy ideas, even if their business concepts aren’t bulletproof yet.”
Trust. It’s the foundation of Kati's work. “If you work in a startup, you have to trust yourself as well as your colleagues. You have to believe that one day all that hard work will pay off.” The job requires a lot of risk-taking. In return for overtime and chaos, however, entrepreneurs are rewarded with greater responsibilities than anywhere else. “This not only applies to small startups, but also to well-established companies like Airbnb,” says Kati. “Whether at the office or at home, everybody owns his or her workspace. You can paint walls or change processes. When you see something that needs to be done, you do it. If you see something you don’t like, you speak up and change it.”
If you really want something, it’s probably not going to be easy.
Even though Airbnb has long outgrown its startup status, the company encourages entrepreneurial thinking and continues to develop new products – like Airbnb Trips, which Kati has been working on over the past months. With Trips, Airbnb moves beyond accommodation by allowing travellers to book tours and excursions offered by community members. In doing so, the company aims at granting travellers access to local interests and personalised activities, like violin-making in Paris or marathon-running in Kenya. This would allow users to immerse themselves in communities around the world and meet fellow travellers and locals alike, the company says.
It is this state of constant change that keeps Kati from leaving Airbnb. She has been with the company for five years now, which seems like half an eternity on the startup calendar. “Even though it isn’t a small startup anymore, Airbnb constantly reinvents itself. It allows entrepreneurial spirits like me to be happy and to work as freely and autonomously as we would in a smaller company. Having been here for five years, I constantly gut-check myself: Why am I here? Is it because it is comfortable or are there new challenges from which I can learn and through which I can grow? So far, it has definitely been the latter!”