Michelle Loo understands the value of taking learning into your own hands.
“You have to be brave enough to aid your own learning,” Loo says. “If you don’t understand something, ask questions. Early in my career, I did not have the courage to do that, and I think that’s common for people starting out.”
But Loo also recognizes the ways in which identity can factor into workplace development. “As a female and as a minority, it’s an added challenge to put myself out there and ask,” she notes. “Personally, that has taken me years to find the confidence to do.”
Today, Loo strives to empower others to discover their own confidence. Her years of experience across the human resources (HR) field, particularly in the benefits space, have brought her to GitHub, a software development platform that is home to more than 83 million developers across the globe. As the company’s director of global benefits, Loo is doing what she does best: putting cutting-edge programs into practice while keeping an eye on the industry’s emerging HR and employee trends.
Loo’s journey into benefits began while she was still in college, when she realized the relevance of her planning and organization skills to HR. Building on her natural inclination, she started to ground herself in the basics of the field. She entered the technology sector as a recruiting coordinator at Google, but soon felt ready for a broader challenge.
Loo made the jump to vacation rental start-up Airbnb in 2011. Over the next seven years, she grew with the company, from HR coordinator to benefits manager for the Americas. “As I progressed at Airbnb, I started gravitating toward the benefits space,” she says. “Since Airbnb did not have any parental leave policies or a leave administrator in place, for example, I got a chance to build things from the ground up and see how all of the pieces come together to create the foundation of a company benefits program.”
Loo’s growth during those seven years also involved following her own advice and taking the initiative to learn. “I pursued my master’s in HR while working at Airbnb when it was a start-up,” she says. “That meant class every Saturday for an entire year, on top of my full-time role—and full-time roles at start-ups are more than forty hours a week.”
Between her education and her Airbnb responsibilities, Loo acquired an indisputable expertise in benefits. She came to appreciate the upsides of working on a small, communicative HR team at a disruptive company, and she learned to align her benefits programs with not only an organization’s evolving financial position but also the unique expectations of its employees.
“A start-up is a blank slate,” Loo explains. “There’s an opportunity to create programs from scratch that reflect the company’s stage, culture, and goals. But with that, one of the challenges is prioritization because you can’t go from zero to one hundred with your programs. You need to prioritize what’s most important to the company at that point in time, build out a benefits strategy that reflects those priorities, and then figure out how and if the programs can scale.”
Loo has sought out similar opportunities and challenges ever since, first at cryptocurrency company Coinbase and now at GitHub, where she has adjusted her approach to fit the company’s highly dispersed workforce. Critical to executing that approach is her team, and she makes a concerted effort to get to know her team members as people, not just employees.
“What’s most important to me is that my team feels acknowledged and trusted,” she says. “Letting them know that they are appreciated is so important because within HR, there’s a lot of work happening behind the scenes that is often not seen externally.”
Loo encourages her team to ask questions and leverage their resources—advice she would offer to anyone aspiring to lead in the benefits space. She herself networks with fellow HR professionals and engages with industry organizations as part of her efforts to stay abreast of where the field is headed, especially in the wake of COVID-19 and the Great Resignation.
“People have realized that there are more ways of working than being physically present in an office space,” says Loo. “Companies have to decide where they stand on the working environment and then figure out how their programs and benefits can support that.”
For instance, Loo has witnessed a shift away from on-site employee perks toward more flexible benefit models designed with equity in mind. She sees such flexibility, along with an attentiveness to diversity and belonging, as an advantage for employers looking to attract and retain talent.
“People are expecting their leaders to take a stance, and with that comes the company’s actions. How diverse are our benefit programs? How do they support people who might want to relocate to a state that allows them freedom over their reproductive health?” she asks. “There’s a big focus on this conversation when people are looking to a new employer.”
Another key element of the conversation is mental health. “Companies are enhancing mental health benefits and focusing on partnering with managers and leaders to promote them,” Loo says. “At GitHub last year, we implemented Modern Health, a global mental well-being platform that provides coaching, therapy, live community sessions, and digital programs to employees in all sixteen countries we operate in.”
Jack Larkin appreciates the unique approach and expertise Loo brings to her role. “As part of Michelle’s team at Airbnb and Github, we’ve seen her show immense care for the well-being of her employees,” says Larkin, president and CEO of the Larkin Company, the leave and benefits management provider for GitHub. “We’ve been proud to help bring that to life for her team.”
As the HR landscape continues to change, Loo will evolve right alongside it—with the full weight of her self-confidence behind her.