Gillian Tans is the CEO of Booking.com. WeAreTheCity sat down with Gillian to discuss gender bias in the Tech industry, her biggest achievement and plans for the future.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I’ve had what you might call quite an unusual career path, because I’ve always been led by my curiosity and instinct, rather than following a traditional route. Before joining Booking.com, I worked in the hotel industry, in marketing and sales at the Golden Tulip Hotel Group and the Intercontinental Hotel Group. These were pivotal roles for me as they helped me appreciate how important customers are and the critical need to meet their expectations in our industry. When I joined Booking.com in 2002, the company was just a small tech start-up, with a handful of staff and a small footprint in Amsterdam. I left a successful job to join Booking.com but I decided to take the risk because I firmly believed that the internet was going to disrupt the hotel industry.
As Booking.com’s Chief Executive Officer, I am responsible for the global strategy and operations of the organisation, including the management of all business units with the company.
No two days are ever the same for me. I need to be agile and ready for anything so I try not to plan my days to the minute. Booking.com moves very fast so I need to be ready to make decisions quickly at a moment’s notice.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
I definitely didn’t start out with a plan to become a CEO. As I was saying, I have always been guided by curiosity and this has led to quite a non-traditional career path. I took every opportunity I could to study abroad, moving to the U.S. from the Netherlands when I graduated to take a job at Hershey Entertainment. It was there that I was able to prove myself as someone hard-working, creative and not afraid to take risks, and I brought this all back to the Netherlands working in the hospitality industry. When the internet began to take off, I could see very early on that it had immense potential to change the hotel industry and global tourism at large and this is why when the opportunity to join Booking.com came along, I grabbed it – and I’ve never looked back!
Have you faced any challenges along the way? How did you deal with them?
Being in the travel industry and also working in a company of the scale and size of Booking.com means there will always be challenges. For example, we operate on traditional customer service values which means keeping the customer at the centre of everything we do. This isn’t always easy as it means ignoring pre-conceived notions and ideas of what we may think customers want and being able to adapt to their needs. The work we are doing with artificial intelligence and customer service is leading us to innovation that helps provide an even more seamless process than what we already offer. It’s challenging, but very exciting.
If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?
We still see gender bias in the workplace, especially in the tech industry, although it is getting better. While we are on the right track, there is still so much further to go. We need the tech industry to be even more diverse, and it’s the responsibility of tech companies and leaders to push for positive change, both within and outside the walls of their companies.
At Booking.com we are committed to diversity of all kinds and a huge part of this is bolstering female tech talent and eliminating the challenges they face in this industry which we hope to do through our Women in Tech initiative. As part of this, we recently launched the first ever Technology Playmaker Awards, which aim to celebrate and recognise women who have disrupted, and continue to transform businesses, industries, and communities through the use of technology.
We hope that by recognising, celebrating and rewarding their achievements, these women can become a source of inspiration for future generations of women who are looking to embrace the opportunities the world of technology can offer.
We are also working in partnership with the University of Oxford in the UK, and the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands and have introduced 15 Women in Technology Scholarships, designed to support women seeking careers in technology.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you ever had a mentor or do you mentor anyone?
Mentoring is something that is extremely important to me. My parents have been real mentors to me, inspiring me to work hard and create opportunities for others through my successes. My mother is creative and could build anything out of nothing and I learned a lot about creativity and entrepreneurship from her. My father passed on a strong work ethic to me, this is something he instilled into our family early on.
Diversity of all kinds is key to the core culture of Booking.com and a big part of making a change in diversity is through positive mentoring. Recent research shows that 90% of women working in non-tech roles in the tech industry indicated that seeing more women in leadership roles will inspire them to advance their career in tech.
As part of our Women in Tech initiative, we recently ran the first “Women in Tech Mentor Programme” at Web Summit 2017, which gave female tech talent attending the event the opportunity to have one-to-one sessions with myself and other high-profile mentors. Part of the reason we launched the Technology Playmaker Awards, is because now more than ever we need positive female role models and an industry culture that celebrates female tech talent.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
I’m very proud of what we have achieved as a company and having led our business throughout the transition from a small start-up to one of the largest ecommerce players in the world.
Another thing that I consider a big achievement is that we have preserved our entrepreneurial and diverse culture throughout this period of transformation and business growth. Booking.com has been so successful because we’ve been thinking and building on an international level from day one and putting our customers at the centre of everything we do.
Despite all this, sometimes it’s the smaller moments, like hearing a small business owner talk about how their business has been positively impacted by Booking.com, that inspire me the most. The little stories and successes are what drive me and our team of 15,000+ people every day.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
At Booking.com we are on a mission is to empower people to travel and experience the world. . We have worked to develop technology that can take our customers anywhere: wherever they want to go, whatever they want to do, they can make it happen through Booking.com. In the future, we would like to be able to offer the technology that is needed to break through barriers, whether that is time, money, choice or languages. We will continue to innovate and invest in technology to help make our product the most innovative and offer the best customer experience.