Maryam Banikarim on a Career Built on Intentional Serendipity and Being a Good Neighbor
Mixing Board Studio Session
Mixing Board Member Maryam Banikarim recently left her role as Head of Marketing for Nextdoor to focus on revitalizing the neighborhoods of New York City through work with the Partnership for NYC.
Before Nextdoor, Maryam served in CMO or SVP roles at Hyatt, Gannett, NBC Universal and Univision. Before that, she founded a strategy firm, consulting for such clients as Deutsche Bank, Bacardi and Time-Warner. She’s also worked with Turner Broadcasting, MacMillan Publishing, Young and Rubicam and CitySearch, a pioneering early internet start-up. The Iranian immigrant’s unorthodox career path also included stints as an investment banker, handbag designer, production assistant and intern in the British Parliament.
In this Studio Session, Maryam and Sean talk about what purpose means to her, when to quit your job, career advice for Gen X and more.
SG: You worked at Citysearch a million years ago, back when I was working on the very early beginning of the internet, too. When I saw the word Citysearch, it really sent me back. I completely relied on Citysearch back then.
MB: When I resigned my job at Turner Broadcasting, people thought I was leaping off a tall building. Back then, it was a crazy concept to go to the internet. Nobody left Turner. Nobody left those jobs to go to what was basically a complete startup. But those were the really glamorous early days. It was a remarkable gift because it was like the wild west. Everybody was in it for the passion, for the product, because there was no money. There was no money in the internet then. We made shit up as we went along.
It was this incredible golden period because it was just about the possibilities. That’s what brought everybody together. Fast forward six months, the money started showing up. Everybody I went to business school had started calling, wanting to get into the internet. And I was like, “Wait, what happened?” It was just this magical moment where it was just a land of possibilities.
SG: Most recently, you were at Nextdoor, which is kind of a spiritual descendant from Citysearch. In the middle, you had a whole bunch of different roles from big, huge hotel chains to media companies, to Univision, to publishing houses and more. Let’s start at the beginning and your career philosophy. How have you evolved your career over time? Because if you look at it from a distance, there’s a thread to it. How did you create that thread and what’s the story behind it?
MB: I grew up in revolution, and I do think that played a part in the history of my life. I went from Iran, to Paris, to Lafayette, CA, and then I ended up coming to New York to go to college. I always loved stories and thought I’d be an investigative reporter. When I look back, I recognize that I was always searching for belonging because I was a nomad. The reason I loved Citysearch and Nextdoor is the idea of stepping in and understanding what’s local. Stepping in to be an active member of the community was how I found belonging. I don’t know that I knew that at the time, but all these things were threads.
When I went into media, it wasn’t that big of a leap because it was just about telling stories. Whether it was at Turner, Citysearch, or Univision, I always believed that stories had the power to change the world. And frankly, I’d seen that as a kid in revolution because of the media coverage. It’s what we’re experiencing in Ukraine right now. How that story gets told can have an impact. I wasn’t precious about needing to be in a narrow audience. I actually thought the breadth of TV, for example, really allowed you to reach lots of people. Even hospitality, it’s about an experience. I can now look back and say in all those jobs I was interested in purpose, I wanted to find a way to have an impact, and make a difference. But it’s only in retrospect that I can say that. It’s not like it was laid out in a master plan.
SG: On your path, purpose has been this commonality. I want to explore that, because storytelling hasn’t changed. Storytelling has power, and has power from the beginning of time to now. But to me, purpose has changed a lot. When we started out, purpose wasn’t a thing we talked about as being embedded into your careers or into your jobs. Now it is, for better or for worse. I’m curious, being someone who probably started off more purpose-driven than most people, what’s your take of where we are now?
MB: Purpose is one of those words that’s now very fashionable, and to your point, somewhat overused. People have different definitions of purpose. It’s like all good marketing words, they mean different things to different people. For me, purpose was the way Jim Collins defined it — what is the North Star of an organization beyond making money? Those two things can coexist. It’s not your social impact strategy, it’s what is your strategy as a company? What’s the difference you want to make in the world? As a kid who’d experienced tumult, I wanted to make a difference in some way, shape or form. I always had a plan A, B and C. Because I’d had a lot of uncertainty in life. You never know what’s going to work out. Those two things together allowed me to see things that I otherwise might not have.
I had taken this class when I was at Barnard about personality and politics. When you study a lot of leaders, usually something happened that changed the trajectory of their lives. For example, you could argue that when Nelson Mandela was jailed it really changed the person that he was. I remember thinking, “Could you manufacture that? Could you put yourself in a situation where you’re under pressure and so who you really are comes out?” I had this crazy notion when I graduated from college — and I ended up moving to Argentina where there was really terrible inflation and political turmoil. I was like, “If I put myself in that situation, it will force my real self to come out.”
So I ended up showing up in Argentina. I didn’t know a single soul and I only spoke high school level Spanish. As it happened, Highlander II, the movie, was being shot there. I snuck onto the production offices and I was a good fast talker. I got hired for seven weeks on the movie. So I expected to have this really revolutionary experience, and the next thing you know I was working on an English language movie In Argentina, getting paid in dollars, getting driven around by a driver. It was literally the opposite of what I thought was going to happen. But if I’d been rigid, I would’ve had a totally different experience.
SG: That’s a great one for early in your career… and probably even later in your career. Being able to put yourself in a place where you’re uncomfortable. You just have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
MB: I heard L.A. Reid speak once and he said, “I chose not to see the obstacles.” That’s me — it’s this ability where you see it, and then you swipe left. It’s not that I don’t have fear, we all have fear. But I have this ability to compartmentalize it to the side. To feel it and move it over. Every new job has been scary. Every time you show up, you’re like, “Can I really do this?” There is always that moment. But then you have to have the ability to say, “Okay. We’re just going to go for it.” And sometimes it doesn’t work.
SG: When it doesn’t work — you’re in a company, you’re a marketing leader, you’ve got a big team and a lot of people that look up to you. But you get that feeling in your stomach like, “Eh, maybe it’s not right.” The only thing harder for people than finding new jobs is leaving jobs. What’s your advice for people who are in a role where they’re like, “I just have that feeling that maybe it’s not the right thing for me.” A lot of people just say, “You know what? I’m just going to stick it out. I’m going to stick it out for another year because I’ve got a bonus coming up, or we’re doing a kitchen remodel, or to save some money for college.
MB: First of all, we’ve all been there. Second of all, there is no such thing as a perfect job. That is a fallacy. Just like work/life balance is a fallacy. There’s times where I’ve been at a job and I thought, “Okay, this isn’t working out.” But I was open and willing to engage in conversations and I stayed because a new opportunity showed up. Both sides of that equation happen. I was also a student that graduated with student loans. There are times where you have to pay your bills. Those are also all realities. I took a summer job in investment banking in between one of my years of business school. They paid well, and I needed the money. But I quickly realized that just was not the right environment for me.
When I graduated from business school I took the lowest paying job in advertising. I was willing to make that trade off. But I was making ends meet. I had a friend who also graduated with student loans, and she said, “Well, they can’t get it from you if you don’t have it.” And that’s a whole level of discomfort that I’m not comfortable with. I don’t need bill collectors calling. So you have to know who you are on the spectrum. And I remember admiring her for that because the thought of living like that made me anxious. So you make choices.
I did this advice column on LinkedIn for a couple months at the beginning of the year. And one of the questions I got all the time was, “When do you know it’s time to quit?” If you’re asking the question, you generally know the answer. There may be circumstances that mean you have to wait or that it’s not the right moment. All those things are true. But if you’re asking the question, you have to trust your instinct. I always felt like you only live once. And frankly, if we got any lesson from the pandemic, it’s that. You want to do something that brings you joy, that gives you financial stability, but lets you do the thing that you’re good at. The thing that gives you flow and you actually get to feel like you’re making an impact. That always mattered for me.
SG: You’ve worked through multiple economic cycles. And it seems like we’re about to go through another cycle, and yet you just decided to leave your job.
MB: I talked to somebody the other day and I heard the panic in this person’s voice saying, “Now I’m beginning to get worried because I think another recession is coming. So now I really need to go hustle for a job.” I always graduated in a recession, always. It’s like actors in New York — if you’re good, there’s going to be work. Because there’s lots of people, not enough jobs, but also it’s hard to find good people.
When I take a job, I’m all in. I don’t have a neutral drive. I’m all in and I’m just going to give it my all. And that’s rare. If you’re good, you’re going to find a job. If you hustle, you’re going to find a job. My son is taking a gap year and he is looking for a job. He goes on interviews and he comes back like, “Well, that didn’t work.” I said, “Oh no, it’s a numbers game. You got to be hustling on the street. That’s how it works.” You’re not sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring. When you need to feed yourself, you’re on the street. It’s a little bit of that hustle, right? So it may well get tough. But you can’t be waiting. You got to be working it to make it work for you.
SG: You’ve had jobs during these different cycles, but here’s a huge percentage of the workforce who has not been through these cycles before. When people are in this stressful moment, it might impact your job or how you feel about it, but do you think it also impacts your work?
MB: We’re at a different inflection point than the ones you and I have experienced in the past. The last two and a half years, for many people, have been hugely anxiety provoking. Working from home, all the other things people have had to wrestle with. What we’re hearing from people in the mental health profession — I have a friend who’s a therapist. He’s like, “I’m available to talk at 11:00 PM because that’s the only time I’m free.” There’s an unprecedented thing happening that I don’t think we fully understand yet. And now there’s this new thing coming. When we had other things that went awry in the economy, we didn’t have this backdrop on top of it. Burnout is real and people are just making different choices.
It matters to have a couple people who you trust, who you are not super close to, who can be far away enough to say, “It’s going to be okay.” Your spouse, your sister, your friend — they’re going to feel your anxiety and play it back. You need somebody to be like, “Okay, trust yourself and don’t just take that job because you’re desperate. Because maybe that’s not a good decision.” It’s good to set up your kitchen cabinet so that you’re not looking for it in the middle of the crisis.
SG: How have you built up your own personal network over your career? There’s those people who only reach out to you when they need something or when they need the job. You’re like, “Oh, it’s Sally again. She must need a new job.” Then you have people who reach out and say, “Hey, how are you doing? What’s going on with you?” What’s your assessment on how to build out a network?
MB: For some people it’s very transactional. That’s just not how I was built. I don’t have a system or an Excel spreadsheet with which to navigate how I’m keeping up with people. It’s if somebody needs something, I just do it. Sometimes my husband’s like, “Okay, what are you doing exactly?” I’m like, “Well, they called and they’re trying to do something special for their daughter’s 18th birthday, so I’m calling somebody I know.” And he’s like, “Could you just stop working for one second?” I mean, I like solving other people’s problems. It allows me to avoid my own. Just being honest. I’m sure there’s some deep psychology in that.
I was talking to a CMO right before I took the job at Nextdoor. He was saying that when he had been at this big job, everybody called him. His phone didn’t stop ringing because he had an endless budget. When he left the job, out of the hundreds of people who were calling with tickets and this and that, only two people called and said, “Hey, I’m sorry. If I can be helpful, let me know.” A few months later he got another job, those were the first two people he called and said, “Let’s do business together.” Life’s a long game. It’s not about how you can help me today, in this moment?
SG: You worked in marketing at Citysearch in the early days and most recently you were running marketing at Nextdoor, in this current phase of the internet, and all the different jobs in between. How would you describe the evolution of marketing over that time?
MB: Joining tech almost 20 years later, it’s like joining a different country. I joke that when I joined Nextdoor, I had to actually create a glossary. I would say, “We’re trying to generate brand love.” They’d look at me like I had two heads. It took me a couple months and then I was like, “Oh, mmh, DAU. Oh, daily active users. That’s what that means for you.” It is a very different world. Marketing is much more about science now than it used to be. There’s just way more tools and way more data. You really need to know numbers in a way that you didn’t 30 years ago. There’s not a person who’s not looking for a CMO who’s not looking for somebody that inherently understands digital.
So my big joke is, I’m going to start a support group for marketers in tech, because every marketer I talk to is having the same debate, “How do I show LTV? I know branding matters, but how do I actually make the numbers work?”
SG: The comms role has evolved a lot over the same period of time. I’ve never thought about it this way before, but in many ways, comms fills a vacuum for that brand side, while the CMO has to focus on the numbers. The comms role takes over the more holistic brand concept.
MB: Comms has diametrically changed. When Beth Comstock became a Vice Chair at GE, that was a seminal moment. It was a path to the C-suite. In tech, comms is a role people understand. They get earned media, it’s a concept they get. They may not get branding, but they get earned media. You see a lot of times that brand reports into comms, because comms is the role they understand. And the rest of marketing is performance. It’s this bifurcation. Now you can bifurcate in a lot of different ways, but marketing really is that entire journey.
In tech, they generally don’t think about brand until things are bad. And they’re like, “Holy shit, reputation matters.” Or somebody who says, “Oh my God, I need a crisis comms firm.” When you’re in the crisis, that is the worst time to find your crisis comms help. A lot of people were spending real money doing branded efforts, and then after a couple years, they’re like, “It’s not working.” And they revert. It’s like a seesaw that seems to go back and forth. But it’s not an either, or. You have to be worrying about both sides of that equation. You have to tell the world what you stand for before you need to.
SG: As someone who’s long been a purpose advocate — capital P, real true stuff, not just the marketing stuff, not the slogans — where has purpose gone wrong?
MB: It’s like anything. When it becomes so fashionable, I’m not sure what that means anymore. When I was at Columbia, I had the chance to take class with Edward Deming. And he basically didn’t use the word purpose, but he described a concept that is in essence how Jim Collins talks about purpose. He talked about the railroad business not seeing cars coming because they defined the business they were in too narrowly. That’s one of the things I really appreciated when I discovered purpose, if you widen your aperture, you see things differently. That’s what purpose gives you. When Southwest decided that they weren’t in the airline business, they were in the freedom business, it gave them a much wider aperture to think about what business they were in. Which was basically what Edward Deming was talking about, they just didn’t call that purpose.
When I was at Hyatt, we said, “We’re not in the hotel business, we’re in the business of care. To care for you to be your best.” That allows you to be like, “Oh, I can actually go and buy Miraval. Because I don’t have brand permission to go do health and wellness myself, but if I buy it, it gives me that permission.” So it’s not just hospitality stays, it’s not just hotel stays. It gives you an opportunity to see things in different equations that you might not otherwise. Purpose was never about marketing. Yes, I happened to do a lot of purpose work in my seat, but I always saw it as a CEO project. I was just the enabler.
Jim Collins said when things go bad, purpose allows you to stay steady instead of floating around and responding to environmental pressures. I think that’s very true. I do that with my kids, too. I say, “Here are your values.” And you hope when they become teenagers, they’re not just flailing around responding to whatever comes their way, that they stay steady. That’s what purpose is meant to do for you. But like all things, it becomes popular and then it has 100 new meanings.
SG: Tell us what you’re doing now and how you got there. And how your own personal purpose led you to this new place.
MB: Nextdoor was very aligned to my purpose because inherently, I believe in neighborhoods. I moved to Chelsea twenty-something years ago. I joined the Block Association and signed up to be the Block Association’s secretary. When COVID hit and we were pivoting to be useful to all our neighbors, one of the things that started happening in the summer of 2020, people started saying New York was dead. And I was like, what is happening? I’m in New York. Yes, you can walk down Fifth Avenue and there’s not a person or a car, but we’re not dead. We’re all still here.
I was like, “Okay, enough already.” So I emailed a group of people and said, “Who’s in to do something about this?” It was a very micro-effort, like let’s help the neighborhood that is our city. The community of all the people who stepped in to help was very diverse — we had lawyers, artists, and all kinds of things. So we asked, “How are we going to help?” And we went from idea to execution in five short weeks because we were like let’s just try something out on the stoop, because you don’t need a permit. It’s our building. We started doing pop-ups really as a way to remind people who were here that New York still had joy because it was hard.
We were also trying to leverage that on social media, to try and change the narrative about New York, because it was COVID and we were socially isolating, so you weren’t trying to draw crowds. We did 14 pop-ups. The first big one we did was with 24 Broadway performers. It was this really moving experience to stand in Times Square with Bernadette Peters and 24 performers who called Duffy Square home and hadn’t been together since March. They had shields and masks, they sang, and they were crying. It just was a cathartic experience. I remember thinking, “How did we actually make this happen?” We were just a volunteer army. Out of despair comes purpose. As difficult as COVID was, there was this incredible sense of purpose and joy that brought us together. It was a collective, it wasn’t about any single one of us.
When the city started opening up, we asked, “What else can we do?” Thanks to Tom Kitt, who was in the group, who is an amazing award winning composer, we were able to get Billy Joel to give us the rights to his song. And we created this love letter to New York City out of that song. We got Brian Stokes Mitchell, Idina Menzel, and Stephen Colbert to donate their time and be in it. This was all as a side hustle. But that piece of film got over 2.5 billion impressions. We just leveraged our network. It just shows you the power of the collective. People coming together around something they really care about, and we all could get behind our city. It was a really inspiring moment. And it didn’t matter that it was 4:00am and you had to get up and go do something, because you cared.
SG: I feel like I spent half my life giving career advice to Gen Z and to young millennials, but what about Gen Xers? We deserve career advice too at this phase in our career. What career advice do you give people like me or others who have been doing this for a long time and are like, “Hey, I want to continue to take some big swings. How can I make sure I keep on doing that?”
MB: Honestly, the answer is just go do it. We’re our own worst enemies. We say I can’t or I won’t, there’s all these reasons. The answer is, just go do it. I love Shonda Rhimes’ speech when she said she always wanted to be Toni Morrison, but then she just started doing. And in the doing, she became Shonda Rhimes. It’s such a good analogy. Just go do shit. In the doing, I met so many amazing people out of New York City Next, who I did not know. I did not make New York City Next happen, there were 600 people in it. And I met amazing people. Who doesn’t want to spend time with people who share the values, who are excited about the same things? If you just go do it, you’ll be surprised what you’ll find. By the way, it may not be the thing you think you’re going to do, but the next thing you’re going to do. It’s the serendipity of if you put yourself out on the universe, things will begin to show up.
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