Alumni Profile: Molly Turner (MUP ’11)

Name/year: Molly Turner (MUP ’11)

Hometown: San Francisco, CA

What was your work experience/background before coming to the GSD?

I knew I wanted to be an urban planner as soon as I graduated from college, so I went directly to work at a small planning consulting firm in San Francisco. However, my passion was in tourism development and I knew I wouldn’t learn about that by writing documents all day. So I moved to Italy and worked for an active travel company designing, managing, and leading bicycle trips all over Europe. I learned more about urbanism through those four years “in the field” than I did behind a computer or in a classroom.

What is your current position?

I was the first person to work on public policy at Airbnb, so over the past four-plus years my role has evolved significantly. I started out working with cities on regulatory issues, such as amending zoning codes to address home sharing. I then built our disaster relief initiative, which has sheltered displaced residents and relief workers after natural disasters around the world. Today I manage our work with local governments on economic development strategies that spread tourism’s benefits to “off the beaten path” regions and underserved communities.

What areas in planning interest you the most?

I’ve always been pretty focused on tourism, specifically community-based tourism as an economic development strategy.

Can you summarize the path you have taken since graduation that has led to your current position and how the GSD prepared you for it?

I went to the GSD knowing I would have to create my own concentration, as tourism is not a typical field of study for planners. Likewise, I graduated from the GSD knowing I would have to create my own job. Although I didn’t know what that job would look like, I knew it would be focused on tourism. So in each of my classes I made a point of finding some tourism angle to focus on. I never imagined that I’d end up working for a tech company, but I’ve been surprised to find so much of my studies at GSD have informed my work at Airbnb.

What experiences at Harvard do you look back on as having been most helpful in your career?

I can think of three things in particular: 1) As frustrating as studio can be, it taught me how to think bigger, more creatively, yet still pragmatically. That skill is valuable in any kind of job. 2) I fanatically customized my studies to my interests by creating my own concentration, finding specific areas of focus within each class, and pursuing an independent study. I knew exactly what I wanted to learn at GSD and made sure I was able to learn it. 3) I took great classes from great professors. It didn’t matter what they taught, I always found something applicable to my area of interest. A great professor can teach you skills that can be applied to any profession.

Current project?

I’ve recently been working a lot in Cuba. Airbnb was one of the first American companies to enter Cuba after Presidents Obama and Castro began repairing our diplomatic relations. It’s an inspiring place to work because Cuba has a long history of community-based tourism, which has the potential to counteract the increasing international development pressures and ensure that the island develops more responsibly.