Get to Know OpenTable’s New CEO Debby Soo

Photo: Debby Soo
Debby Soo sitting
It’s with hope and optimism for the restaurant industry that OpenTable announces new CEO Debby Soo. Soo spent the last 10 years building her toolkit at sibling brand KAYAK, and she’s now ready to lead OpenTable into the future of dining — and we’re excited for you to get to know her, too.

Tell us about the journey of your career thus far — from Google, to KAYAK, to now leadership of OpenTable.

I grew up in San Francisco, the only child of immigrant parents who owned and operated a brick-and-mortar travel agency. As a kid, I watched my parents work tirelessly, from a small desk in my bedroom when they were first starting out, to a bonafide company with offices in the Bay Area and Taipei. 

After graduating from Stanford with a liberal arts major, I started my career in investment banking and quickly realized that while banking provided me with an amazing foundation with which to evaluate companies, I wanted to be an operator at a company, not an advisor to one. I then joined Google’s Strategic Partnerships Group and negotiated and sourced various types of content (think satellite imagery, StreetView, transit data, and restaurant reviews) for Google Maps. 

As one of the founding members of Google Maps’ Ground Truth, a project to create comprehensive digital maps of every country in the world, I got a taste of what it was like to be a part of an amazing company, but I also knew that I wanted to continue to round out my skill set, having never formally studied business and management. During my first year in business school at MIT Sloan, I started working at travel brand KAYAK and have remained there for the last decade.

KAYAK became a real bootcamp for me — there, I worked in various roles across product, marketing, sales, and business development. I spent many years building up KAYAK’s international presence, from launching new sites in Brazil to being the GM of our APAC business. Most recently, I was the Chief Commercial Officer at KAYAK and OpenTable, responsible for our P&L and revenue-generating activities. And now, I could not be more excited for my new role at OpenTable to put to use all the experience and learnings from my career to date, and to help OpenTable and our restaurant partners forge through these difficult times and emerge even stronger than before.      

You grew immensely in your 10+ years building your career at KAYAK — from intern to now OpenTable CEO. We’d love for you to share a few of the most important things you learned over the course of that experience.

Early on, there were a few principles that I really held onto that helped me progress quickly. I tried to be of the mindset that every experience, good and bad, was a learning opportunity. I tried to approach each task, no matter how small or onerous, with relish. I learned that there are no “wrong” turns, especially early on in your career. I remember agonizing over decisions like which job to take, or which product to support, or which business school to go to, and as I look back now, I realize that choosing any of the options available to me at the time would have been the “right” choice, as well. 

As I’ve progressed in my career, and managed and led people and teams, the most important learning has been the realization that a people-first mindset is critical to our company’s success. For companies like KAYAK and OpenTable, people are our greatest asset. For people to be their best selves at work and to go above and beyond on behalf of the business and their teammates, they need to feel fulfilled, empowered, and valued.    

How has your time at KAYAK, as well as your other professional experiences, shaped your leadership-style as you step into your new role?

Most would describe my leadership style as direct and transparent. People generally know where they stand with me, and I really appreciate it when I know where I stand with them. To be direct and transparent, there needs to be a lot of trust — trust between people; trust between different teams. When there is a strong sense of trust in a company and people feel safe psychologically to make mistakes and take risks, magical things can happen. When people feel empowered to be agents of change, to be bold and think big, that’s when companies can make step level advancements and be industry leaders. I spend a lot of my time building that trust and those bridges across the company.  

I learned from my parents at an early age the importance of grit, of pushing through, no matter how difficult or challenging the situation — a work ethic I still believe is essential to team success. And given that they started their own business, I also learned the notion of ownership mentality, of working on something like you own that something. I always ask my teams if they are making decisions the way they would if they owned the company, if they took money from their own pockets to start the company.  

Lastly, self awareness and humility are other tenets core to my leadership style. While I try to live the principles of grit, ownership mentality, trust, and transparency, I’m certainly not perfect, and I’m very aware and transparent about my weaknesses and foibles. I think it’s really important to be aware of my shortcomings, to let people know that I’m working on improving them every day and to approach everything with humility, openness, and a recognition that everyone has blind spots. I always tell my teams that I know that I have succeeded as a manager and leader if I’m not the smartest person in the room with all the answers.  

Shifting gears to your new role, why restaurants? Why OpenTable?

One of my first childhood memories was at Five Happiness, a small Chinese restaurant on Geary Street in San Francisco. I was three years old, sitting in a sticky booster seat, surrounded by my parents, grandparents, my uncle, and aunt. We were recent immigrants from Taiwan, living together in a two-bedroom apartment by Lake Merced.

Our monthly meals at Five Happiness were not memorable because of too-chewy Peking duck or overly-spiced kung pao chicken, but because I could sense — even as a toddler — that my family felt relief in that restaurant, that they could let their guards down. Emigrating to the U.S. was a grueling transition for my family — needing to learn English, to find their path in this new country, and to take care of me. In the refuge of Five Happiness, they could speak the language to order delicacies that reminded them of their old home and put their burdens aside for a meal. It was a local family spot, like so many of the restaurants we all know and love — not anywhere near the pinnacle of hospitality or fine dining — but dining there cemented in me that restaurants, regardless of size, cuisine, star-rating, decor, and service, can serve as much-needed refuges, as bastions of local communities, as tokens of the past or other places, as promises of the future.  

At OpenTable, we work tirelessly to help people experience the world through dining, to make real all of those magical, mundane, and everything-in-between experiences that happen when people get together and share a meal, even in moments when the gathering itself is not possible. Nothing is more human or powerful — and I cannot imagine a more inspiring mandate. 

Do you have a favorite food or restaurant?

Noodles and pasta of any kind. Pho, carbonara, beef noodle soup, spaetzle.

What are you most excited about in your new capacity as CEO?

By any metric, in non-pandemic times, OpenTable is an operationally strong and efficient business. But like any business, we can be even better with tighter alignment across product, sales, and marketing, faster go-to-market strategies and product roll-outs, and more strategic deployment of our resources to protect our share in the U.S. and grow internationally. I am so excited to help lead OpenTable through this unprecedented moment, to use and apply all the learnings I’ve collected to date, and to continue to learn and refine my craft, as well as get to know, on a much deeper level, our people, our restaurants, and our diners. 

How do you see OpenTable navigating the post-COVID dining landscape?

Right now, our primary goal is to help restaurants navigate the COVID crisis. With our special pricing program, Open Door, and In It Together campaign educating and informing restaurants as they get back on their feet, we want to make it clear that we’ve got their backs at a time when it’s harder than ever to be in an already extremely challenging business. We’ve also extended our products to bars and wineries and introduced takeout, giving these businesses more ways to generate revenue and serve their guests. By helping our customers survive the current economic situation and reopen their doors safely, we can envision a future dining together.

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