My Life in Tech: From Startup Founder to Airbnb Accessibility PM
By Srin Madipalli
If I had to offer advice to anyone thinking about a new career, I would say consider tech. But also, if you can, go traveling.
In 2011 I took six months off from my London law job to travel, and it was a life-changing experience. I was able to go adaptive SCUBA diving in Bali, wheelchair trekking in California, and even on safari in South Africa. While I knew I was incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to travel like this, I quickly discovered how difficult and time-consuming it could be to plan a trip as a wheelchair user.
The transformative power of tech
When I returned to the UK, I quit my job as a lawyer and applied to the MBA programme at Oxford. I loved my studies there, but the real revelation during the course was tech and the vibrant startup community. I immediately saw how transformative tech could be for people with disabilities.
I have a disability called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) type 2, which means my muscles are very weak and I have limited hand function. But with coding, all I needed was my laptop and an internet connection and I could build something.
It was cheap to start. I paid $49 for an online course to teach myself to code, and there were tonnes of free resources. I could work from home when I needed to. The skills were highly valued by companies. And if you’re a geek like me, it was hugely addictive. I spent all of my spare time learning and testing out my skills.
After my MBA, I stayed in Oxford working freelance on coding projects but knew I wanted to build something of my own. I kept thinking back to my travel experiences, and the difficulty in finding accessible accommodation.
From startup founder to Airbnb
In 2015 I built the prototype web-app for Accomable, and launched the company with my childhood friend, Martyn Sibley. Over the course of two years, our team scaled the accessible travel startup to list adapted properties in over 60 countries worldwide, and grew a loyal community of followers. Then something incredible happened. In November 2017, Accomable was acquired by Airbnb, and our team joined their offices, with the shared goal to enable everyone to travel, regardless of disability.
As part of Airbnb, I now work with dedicated teams to make the platform as accessible as possible. In March, we introduced 21 new accessibility filters to help people find homes which fit their specific needs, and continue to work with our community to build upon and improve these. We’re also working to encourage entrepreneurs with disabilities to share their homes or host adapted experiences to make some extra money. This is just the first step, and there’s lots more we plan to do.
As part of these changes, we also want to make Airbnb a great place for people with disabilities to work. We’re already looking at our hiring policies and ways we can improve not just in San Francisco but in our offices around the world.
Something that drew me to Airbnb from the start was the company’s inclusive culture. Airbnb’s mission is to enable anyone to belong anywhere, and we recognise that this starts within our offices and as part of our company culture.
For other companies looking to improve their hiring policies, I think there’s certainly a moral obligation to create great work environments for everyone, regardless of disability — but it also makes practical sense. According to the UN, 15% of the global population has some kind of disability; that’s a huge potential talent pool, and also a huge market.
In order to cater to this market you need diverse voices which reflect the population. I think more companies are heading in this direction but there’s lots more we can do. I’m excited about what the future holds.
Srin Madipalli is Accessibility Product and Program Manager at Airbnb and lives in San Francisco.
Srin is a former London-based lawyer and entrepreneur, who has a disability called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) and is a power wheelchair user. In 2011, Madipalli took six months off to go traveling but grew frustrated with the difficulties of finding accessible accommodation. He quit his City law job, put himself through an MBA at Oxford Said Business School and taught himself to code in order to build the prototype for Accomable, which was launched in 2015. In November 2017 Accomable was acquired by Airbnb.
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