A Lifetime of Seeing the Good and the Bad Between Neighbors

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Sarah Friar grew up during the Troubles. Raised in a small town in Northern Ireland, she saw neighbors turn against one another in violence, and also come together in solidarity.

Now, as chief executive of Nextdoor, Ms. Friar is enmeshed in a different sort of unruly community. Nextdoor, a neighborhood-focused social networking platform based in San Francisco, is where people go to ask for advice, offer assistance and complain about each other. It is a place where neighbors are sometimes at each other’s throats — the site has had issues with racial profiling — and are sometimes reaching out to lend a hand.

Ms. Friar worked at Square, Salesforce and Goldman Sachs before becoming chief executive of Nextdoor in 2018. Today, she also serves on the boards of Walmart and Slack.

As the coronavirus has forced people around the globe to stay home, Nextdoor has seen a huge surge in users and usage. And while small businesses have suffered, sapping the site of ad dollars, Ms. Friar said the site’s growing clout had attracted new, bigger brands as advertisers.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.


Can you tell me a bit about growing up in Northern Ireland?

I grew up during the Troubles — in a war zone. Our town was between two towns that were heavily bombed. But my village actually wasn’t segregated. It was formed by the Quakers who built a mill that made Irish linen thread, and the Quakers firmly wanted people to be integrated. My mom was the local midwife. She delivered all the babies, when people were still having a lot of home births. My dad was the personnel manager for the local mall. They’re both still there and lead a simple, but very community-driven life.

How did you wind up studying at Oxford?

In Northern Ireland most people do vocational degrees. I was really intrigued by this idea of doing an engineering degree. You have to go and interview to get in to Oxford, and going when you’re a kid from Northern Ireland is like, frankly, mind-blowing.

There were all of these kids from private school, and they’re so accomplished, and they’ve got the right suit on, and they look the part. And then there’s me. I’ve got my church clothes on. I do not look the part. I went into this interview and there’s literally three old men. And they’re like, “Ms. Friar, could you please solve Boyle’s law for us?” There was a blackboard with chalk. I go and prove out this theorem, and then I looked down and I realized I’d put chalk all over my church clothes. “Oh my God,” I thought. “They’re never going to let me into this place.” But they did.

What did you take away from working at Goldman Sachs?

Purpose. But it was because I couldn’t find my purpose at Goldman. I worked there through the financial crisis, which really was the moment where I was like, “I am good at this work. This could be the work of my life. But I’m not going to be fulfilled.”

You worked for Marc Benioff at Salesforce and Jack Dorsey at Square. What did you learn from each of them?

Marc is a talent magnet. He will just hire people, and people will be like, “Well, what are they going to do?” He’s like, “I don’t know, they’ll figure it out.” Half the people never quite figure it out, and there would be organ rejection. And I like to think of myself as one who kind of figured it out. Marc was just like, “Come learn with me.”

And Marc is very good at creating purpose. The product itself is not inherently purpose driven. You don’t wake up in the morning, like, “Yay! I’m going to make Salesforce automation tools today.” But he managed to make it a movement. It’s almost like “Star Wars” or whatever, where you have the evil empire, and you’re fighting for the good.

When I met Jack, we just clicked as people. We met for breakfast on Mother’s Day, and I was a little peeved that this was the one day it could be set up. But I was like, “OK, I’m going to go.” It turns out Jack hadn’t remembered it was Mother’s Day. Four hours later, we were still talking about our childhoods. Some people think of him as being a little introverted and standoffish, but he’s very much about that emotional connection. You’ll build stronger companies and have stronger people around you when you search for that emotional connection.

The other thing Jack told me over and over again is, don’t be afraid to fail in public. It’s very wise advice, particularly for women and particularly given my background. There was always this sense of having to be perfect, be the best, be the A student and the good girl in school. Failing, it’s one of the things I find hardest. But when you get things wrong and can be frank about it in front of other people, it gives you strength.

How has your experience growing up in Northern Ireland informed your work at Nextdoor?

In our little village we were not segregated along religious lines, which is what was driving our country apart. We had a mixed primary school, and you kind of grew to realize that there was no difference. Sometimes the neighbors would knock on the door and be like, “There’s a bomb at the police barracks.” So we would all crowd over into the Catholic church hall to shelter, because it was the structure with no windows. And we’d all just be in there as people with humanity, looking after each other.

But people can forget how alike we all are. In Northern Ireland, we were willing to kill each other because of a random difference. And you’re willing to go bomb people because of that. It was ridiculous.

Now, clearly it was not just that. It was this feeling of the Catholic minority at the time being oppressed. But when you lose that humanity and that ability to talk to one another, person to person, that’s when I think things go really wrong. What I love about a neighborhood is it brings people back together with a collective purpose. We all want our neighborhoods to be safe, to be places where our children can grow up so we all have a strong incentive to kind of make it work. Even when we have differing religious beliefs or political beliefs.

What are you doing to combat racial profiling on Nextdoor?

We use research to slow people down, and we put a lot of anti-racial profiling steps into our product. Today, if you were to go in and post about crime, the first thing you would be asked is, “What is the person actually doing?” Walking in a neighborhood is not a crime. Standing on a corner is not a crime. Frankly, peering into someone’s window is not actually a crime. Then we show them a little bit of text that just explains what racial profiling is, because many people don’t even know that’s what they’re engaging in. When it gets to the description, you can’t use race as a descriptor. You have to be much more specific. What does this person look like? What age? What are they wearing? When we did that, 75 percent of the posts didn’t get made. Now, can we stop it all? No. I’m not so naïve as to imagine a world of rainbows and unicorns, as my daughter would say. But I do think that we can help make it better.

Walmart starts workers at $11 an hour and pays average full-time wages of about $15 an hour. As a Walmart director, do you believe that is sufficient to support a family in America these days?

When I joined Walmart, there were kind of two issues that I cared a lot about. One was the employees, and in particular women, and not just wages, but also things like maternity leave and paternity leave. Our wages have continued to grow, and Walmart has been one of the companies adding employees as others are laying people off or furloughing them.

The other thing I see is the stores becoming community hubs. Walmart really does step up to the plate on being that community builder. It comes from Sam Walton and I think it’s a very strong part of the culture. And that’s what attracted me to the company.

I can’t help but also think about the degree to which Walmart has negatively impacted small businesses over the course of decades and decades. Big box stores in general have made it harder for small businesses to thrive.

It can feel like there’s this dichotomy. But Sam’s Club is where the majority of small businesses go to get all their supplies. The way they’re keeping the local Thai restaurant in business is by giving them rice and napkins and so on at the cheapest prices. That’s what Sam Walton always stood for — that you’re always guaranteed the lowest prices, and you’re always there and open for your customers. So I actually think there can be a very positive loop between local communities.

Walmart has to embrace that too. If there are community businesses that are getting impacted, it’s like a market externality that goes beyond just a for-profit company. It needs to meet its earnings, versus investing for the long term to be a beloved member of a community. I think the long-term greedy approach — that’s a good Goldman term — is always the right way, even when it’s a little bit more painful in the short run.

What is long-term greedy?

It’s a very banker phrase. Long term greedy is the idea is that over the long term, you want to build a really big, successful business. So it’s recognizing that often you should do things in the short run that actually aren’t profit maximizing, because you’re trying to grow customer loyalty.

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