Maryam Banikarim

Maryam Banikarim ’93

Forget avoiding risk — Hyatt Hotels Global Chief Marketing Officer Maryam Banikarim ’93 has actively sought it out, finding her biggest business successes in seemingly unlikely places. In 2011, she joined Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the United States, as senior vice president and chief marketing officer. Banikarim helped redefine Gannett’s relevancy, navigating the company’s definitive split into two separate entities — one a publishing company, the other a broadcast and digital company. Her efforts paid off — the company’s stock, which traded at $13 per share when she was brought on board, hovered around $30 when she left in January 2015. 

But given Gannett’s position as a leader in an industry — print journalism — on the decline, few saw her move from senior vice president of integrated sales at NBCUniversal to Gannett as a positive one, at least in the beginning. “When I arrived at Gannett, people were whispering to me, ‘Why did you come here? You weren’t fired,’” Banikarim recalls. “But I knew if I could be part of the team that was able to turn that ship around, it would be a defining moment in my career.” 

It’s a far cry from the career path Banikarim first envisioned. Having grown up in Iran and moving to the United States after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, she was interested in the foreign service while an undergraduate at Barnard. As a Harry S. Truman Scholarship winner, she enrolled in the dual degree program between the Business School and Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. But it was after sharing a new advertising idea with Mickey Drexler, former president of clothing retailer The Gap, following his lecture to her MBA class, that she became interested in pursuing a career as a business change maker. “If you're looking to do the same thing again and slightly better, I'm probably not your person,” Banikarim says. “Companies come to me when they’re looking to transform. I’m definitely a change agent.”

On Creating Change:

“You have to be laser-focused on your consumer and not so much your own likes and dislikes. You have to have instincts, but you have to understand the data. At NBCUniversal, Kim Kardashian may not have been for me, but if you're programming E! and that's what people are responding to, then that's what you're going to show. It's not about your personal taste as much as really putting the consumer at the core and understanding how their behaviors and attitudes are constantly changing.”

On Her New Job:

“Hyatt has already discovered their purpose, which is to care for people so they can be their best. I have a lot of experience around purpose, so part of my job is to operationalize that. The other part is figuring out how we differentiate our brand and out-perform the marketplace. That’s an easy sentence to say. It’s a lot of work to get there.”

On Being Dumb and Imperfect:

“When you play with a really good tennis player, your game gets better. Nobody is going to know everything. You have to be confident enough to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. And don't be afraid to take on things that you don't think you're going to be perfect at out of the gate. Volunteer for the hard stuff.”

On What’s Next:

“We are more connected than ever, but we are time-stressed and stretched thin. I think brands and companies that are there for consumers and help make their lives easier — for example, providing ways to be healthy when you're on the road — are going to be able to win. What will that look like? Is that going to be an app on my Apple Watch? Is that going to be menu options in a hotel? I don't know exactly. The key is being relentlessly curious — look at consumer behavior and predict what’s next.”

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