Former Head of Belonging and Inclusion at Airbnb Joins Batten Faculty

Melissa Thomas-Hunt is bringing a unique blend of scholarly and real-world expertise to her dual appointment at UVA’s Batten School and Darden School of Business.

Melissa Thomas-Hunt
As the global head of diversity and belonging at Airbnb, Melissa Thomas-Hunt led strategy and programming for the company’s more than 5000 employees. (Submitted photo)

Are male and female experts perceived differently? That was the question Melissa Thomas-Hunt, then a researcher at Cornell University, wanted to answer when she charged teams of undergraduates with figuring out how to survive an Australian bushfire in 2003. 

The groundbreaking study found that while the teams had no problem listening to men who scored highly on a test assessing their survival expertise, the students failed to leverage the contributions of women who scored at the same level. As a result, the performance of the teams often suffered.

Over the course of her career, Thomas-Hunt has seen those findings borne out again and again. “Being an expert means you have different knowledge,” she said, “so I’ve often watched women who are experts contribute a different perspective, a different basis of knowledge, and then seen them presumed to be wrong and their expertise not used.”

This fall, Thomas-Hunt joined the University of Virginia faculty with a dual appointment at the Batten School and the Darden School. To the position, Thomas-Hunt brings not only her own expertise, but also a unique blend of scholarly and real-world experience. 

“She is one of the world’s leading thinkers and practitioners on issues of belonging and inclusion,” said Ian Solomon, dean of the Batten School. “She’s both been a scholar creating new knowledge and a businesswoman applying that knowledge.” 

Thomas-Hunt’s research on subjects such as bias, stereotyping, and group dynamics have made her “an expert in some of the most important issues for democracy,” he added. 

As the global head of diversity and belonging at Airbnb, Thomas-Hunt led strategy and programming for the company’s more than 5000 employees. She has also served as vice provost for inclusive excellence at Vanderbilt and on faculty at a variety of schools focusing on business and leadership, including Cornell’s Johnson School of Management and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. 

For Thomas-Hunt, her study on perceptions of expertise, along with other research she has conducted over the years, illustrates what her own experience as a leader has shown her: that diversity, equity and inclusion efforts need to be integrated into organizations at every level. 

“My belief is that this work can’t be a side show,” she said. “It has to be deeply embedded in our practices.”

To move in that direction, she said, it’s crucial to make inclusion a core part of leadership education. “If we can teach students to create experiences where everyone can thrive — if we do that from the start of their education — that’s so much easier than trying to infuse it after they’ve graduated, at a later point in time, when they’re focused on what they consider to be the task at hand,” she said.

Thomas-Hunt is not new to the University. In 2016, she served as global chief diversity officer for Darden, where she led the Women in Leadership executive education program. She has also served as an affiliate professor at Batten. 

In her new role, Thomas-Hunt will be teaching in both schools. “She has an incredible record of fostering inclusive learning in the classroom,” said Jay Shimshack, Batten’s associate dean for academic affairs. “What makes her work exciting also makes her teaching exciting: She has a remarkable command of the scholarly literature on the topic of leadership in teams, especially diverse and divided teams — but when you’re talking with her, she always ties that back to its practical significance.”

During her tenure at Airbnb, Thomas-Hunt often spent Saturday and Sunday mornings editing papers she co-authored or poring over research related to inclusion and belonging. But she found herself eager to return to the classroom. “Very few people regularly read academic research,” she said, “whereas students take what they learn with them and spread it everywhere they go.”

Thomas-Hunt said she looks forward to teaching at the Batten School, which she described as “a living and learning laboratory” for policy and leadership. “I love that students are interested in the broader implications of their actions on society and that they seem to be inherently driven beyond self,” she said. “I’m excited to experience their enthusiasm and help them harness it.”

Given that strengthening leadership in diverse organizations is central to solving society’s most pressing challenges, Solomon said he sees Thomas-Hunt’s work and presence as essential to Batten’s mission and to the flourishing of UVA as a whole.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to welcome her back warmly and enthusiastically to Charlottesville and to the UVA family,” he said. “As we climb out of COVID, we are eager to gather together in person with one of the pre-eminent experts in community-building and group dynamics.”

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