On Purpose, Pandemic, and Being Connected: Nextdoor CMO Maryam Banikarim ’93

"We are now more connected by place than we used to be, and we recognize the importance of those that are close to us in that ecosystem," remarked Nextdoor CMO Maryam Banikarim '93 in her fireside chat with Prof. Liz Friedman as part of Columbia Business School's Leadership Speaker Series. Their conversation touched on the impacts of the pandemic, the power of purpose, and Banikarim's career journey and career advice.

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Prof. Liz Friedman (Columbia Business School) and Maryam Banikarim '93 (CMO, Nextdoor)

“We are now more connected by place than we used to be, and we recognize the importance of those that are close to us in that ecosystem,” remarked Nextdoor CMO Maryam Banikarim ’93 in her fireside chat with Prof. Liz Friedman as part of Columbia Business School’s Leadership Speaker Series. Their conversation touched on the impacts of the pandemic, the power of purpose, and Banikarim’s career journey and career advice.

Becoming CMO of Nextdoor as the Pandemic Hit

Having only begun her CMO role at Nextdoor a month before the pandemic shutdown occurred, Banikarim was immediately struck by how she was able to see the purpose of the company come to life. “Nextdoor was founded on the premise of connecting neighbors in real life,” she stated, with the company’s co-founders profoundly impacted by a 2008 Pew Research study which found that a minority of people in the US reported knowing more than a few of their neighbors.

She noted Sebastien Junger’s book Tribe, which talks about how societal development was generally connected to proximity--which is what neighborhoods are, of course, but in the global and digital world those proximity connections lost their strength. The Nextdoor platform was built to help bring those connections back, and, due in part to a desire for relationships amidst the isolation of the pandemic, the company “is now in one in five households and functions across 11 different countries.”

There were three early stages Banikarim and the Nextdoor team saw in the March-April period of 2020. “Our first focus was on providing accurate, real-time information about the pandemic to our users. We had partnerships with the CDC and equivalent government agencies in our other markets.” Next, the company worked to further help people connect to people in their neighborhoods. “People were offering to run to get groceries for people, or asking for help.” She noted that they used the data of these community actions to help create local maps of specific spots where people needed or were offering help to help manage situations in which direct proximity was important. Finally, within a month of shutdowns occurring, “we began to see people being worried about their small businesses. We saw both the businesses looking for information as well as helping the community drive their own efforts to help support local businesses through supporting purchases or setting up GoFundMe campaigns.”

A Career in Marketing and Purpose

“Both my parents were business people, so I thought I would never go into that.” Nevertheless, Banikarim joined a dual degree program at Columbia between the Business School and the School of International and Public Affairs. Her focus on marketing blossomed when she designed her own lifestyle-themed content idea for The Gap and, on the advice of a classmate, mailed it to Mickey Drexler, then the CEO of the company. A few weeks later her phone rang and Drexler himself was on the other end of the line. “My career journey was always about content, and purpose, and somehow making a difference.”

When she became CMO of Univision, the ethos now referred to as ‘purpose’ really came to fruition as she realized it was a very different kind of media company. “At the time, the Hispanic market wasn’t really well understood,” explained Banikarim, “As we did our own research, we understood that Univision’s purpose was about empowering [the US Spanish-language] demographic. As an example, people would call the local Univision station asking about how to find a good doctor… It was a lifeline for a community.”

“It was taking a course with Prof. W. Edward Deming that helped me understand that you needed to pull back and look at the broader lens of your business… For example, Southwest realizing that they weren’t in the airline business, they were in the freedom business.” Banikarim noted that, when done right, such purpose-led vision at a company can drive new business strategies, and “it also becomes an incredible rallying cry in terms of culture and a rallying cry to pulling the organization together towards a north star.” She acknowledged the efforts of Jim Collins (in Built to Last) and others that show such how such commitments can positively impact the financial success of the company.

“Purpose projects are really CEO projects… Where the CEO inherently believes and adopts a purpose vision, it really does unlock the business.” Prof. Friedman followed up by asking about the process and KPIs necessary for a company’s purpose to thrive. “A lot of it is about the partnership between the executive team in an organization,” stated Banikarim. For example, at Hyatt, the purpose-led effort she drove within the marketing team was done in close partnership with the operations team and the HR team. In terms of KPIs, the true measure is always the overall financial success and valuation of the company. Other key areas are evaluating the purpose impacts on employee retention, culture, and satisfaction. “Employees are waiting for you to not actually say and do the same thing,” warned Banikarim. Southwest is a good example of doing it right, she noted, highlighting their decision to drop blackout dates for frequent flyer points because it didn’t align with their ‘freedom’ purpose. Such a decision was going to hurt them financially in the near-term, but it showed that the company is willing to put their money where their mouth is.

Banikarim reflected that staying purpose-driven, with its ‘not-easy-to-immediately-quantify-benefits’ nature, is similar to the struggle around the value of brand building that has finally become more universal. “I try to convince people how important it is to have a bold brand, but it is not as linear as performance marketing where I can spend the dollar and get a return and understand what the CPA [cost per action] is.” She reflected that most companies needed a moment of crisis to care deeply about their brand.

Where Do We Go Post-Pandemic?

Friedman asked Banikarim about her thoughts for business strategy in 2021 and beyond as the pandemic, hopefully, subsides. “We are going to see some things that remain. In our user base we see an incredible passion for place, and I think that will remain given the way researchers talk about habit-forming behaviors.” Additionally, Banikarim expects work-from-home flexibility to remain, stating, “There is more we need to learn about its long-term effects and impacts, but that is a genie that will not be put back in the bottle.” In addition, overall business and societal digital transformation will continue to progress as people and companies have learned how to more effectively use all sorts of emerging digital platforms and functions.

Then, Banikarim turned the tables and asked Friedman, the consumer behavioralist about her expectations of the post-pandemic world. “We do things without thinking more than we realize,” noted Friedman, and there are habits around the pandemic that will become second nature now, like greater use of delivery services, at home exercise, and the use of all sorts of digital services for communication, shopping, and entertainment. “As people are building up new routines, it is a great time for companies to think about innovations in how you connect with your customers and their lives.”

“I think it is also important to add on the less rosy side that anxiety and mental health challenges have grown,” noted Banikarim, “They are very real, and important to talk about.” In addition, there is also a real issue around loneliness, which also has a health impact. “We just completed a research effort in the UK, US, and Australia with pre-eminent experts on loneliness and to reveal that literally just knowing six neighbors has a positive impact on your health.” In Australia and the Netherlands, the Nextdoor teams are working on specific techniques and features on the platform to enable people to better connect with each other. “I think of Adam Grant’s Give and Take book and how so many people won’t ask for help… So we know that just helping remind people to reach out and connect to six neighbors can really have an impact.”

Watch the full interview between Maryam Banikarim ’93 and Prof. Liz Friedman here.

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