Sarah Friar, NI-born head of Silicon Valley giant Nextdoor, is worried unrest over the Protocol is damaging our standing in business but that we’re in a good place to grow as a key tech hub, while the firm she heads up has just listed on the New York Stock exchange and hired 250 staff during the pandemic. She speaks to John Mulgrew
Sarah Friar feels some weight on her shoulders as something of an ambassador for Northern Ireland.
But she says that, while we’ve come a long way since her time growing up during the Troubles here, she doesn’t believe we are “fully over it” and we “need to be mindful in Northern Ireland that that reputation doesn’t come back” following recent violent flare-ups.
“I definitely feel Northern Irish,” she says. “I feel the need to fly the flag for such a small country.”
The 48-year-old has gone from the small village of Sion Mills in Co Tyrone in the 1980s, with a population now of little over 2,000, to a life in the sprawling global tech heartland of Silicon Valley with her family, as one of the only chief executives from here to head up a US giant.
As chief executive of social network Nextdoor, which connects people living in a particular neighbourhood, she’s just recently overseen the company listing on the New York Stock Exchange, now valued at more than £4bn, undergoing a 66% surge in business amid Covid, as well as hiring 250 new staff.
We meet for a chat and a coffee in the grand expanse of the Titanic Hotel in Belfast. Sarah is back in her native Northern Ireland largely to see her family before heading back to the US for Thanksgiving.
While the accent is largely gone, Northern Ireland still remains an important part of her life.
“I do feel a weight to make sure that economic development continues,” she says. “I feel the need to fly the flag for such a small country. It’s such an amazing place.
“As we sit in the Titanic Quarter, if you look at the ingenuity and engineering prowess, there are amazing universities and you have this workforce which I think is incredibility diligent – they are the people you want to work with in life. I want that to come out, wherever I am. I feel like I’m in some ways an ambassador for that.”
Sarah’s held a series of senior roles in giant corporations over the last few years, including time at Goldman Sachs, before leaving to join Salesforce, then Jack Dorsey’s payments firms Square as chief financial officer.
She’s also been plugged into Northern Ireland’s own burgeoning tech scene, visiting and assisting with hubs such as Belfast’s Ormeau Baths.
But growing up here during some of the worst periods during the Troubles, Sarah is all-too-aware of the global impact recent violence and flare-ups can have on our image here.
“Like any business person, there is enough risk in business without adding on other risks that you can avoid,” she says. “I think it’s a thing you do have to be careful of in Northern Ireland, where there is always this danger that you fall back. I don’t think we are fully over the Troubles.
“It’s trauma which tends to be generational. As a business person, you don’t want to put your roots down in a place like Northern Ireland, only to find you are back in civil unrest. I don’t think we are going there, but it would play in the back of my head.
“That’s why it’s important that we do create a face of stability and do tap that down and go back to what’s great about Northern Ireland. I do think we need to be mindful in Northern Ireland that that reputation doesn’t come back.”
Sarah says a big push to lifting us out of the Troubles in the past – and still today – is improving economic wealth across Northern Ireland.
“There is a theory called the ‘broken windows theory’. If everything is broken, then people don’t care. As soon as you get Northern Ireland above a certain level, people started to care and a lot of that sectarian divide started to dissipate.”
In November, Sarah’s firm, Nextdoor, listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
“People love what we do,” she says. We have 66 million neighbours on the platform, the engagement has done incredibly well, during Covid and post-Covid, and we felt that, as we did the 2020/21 plan, there was a lot of stuff we could have invested in, but didn’t have the funding for it.”
That then led the firm down the path of going public. “This is my second IPO [initial public offering]... we’ve seen lots of other companies go public, so I knew we could be ready. “We had work to do, but I knew we could do it.”
Since then, the Oxford and Stanford graduate says the company has seen a 30% jump in value, while it witnessed a 66% surge in the third quarter of this year alone.
“We are actually accelerating. It’s where the pressure goes, but why investors are excited about the stock.”
Nextdoor itself, as a means for neighbours to connect and help each other, saw a huge jump in demand as the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
“If I look back to February or March 2020, we saw our daily active users double in almost a week.” she says. “It was crazy — every country, wherever we were.
“We say people come to Nextdoor for three reasons: they come to get trusted information, to give and get help and to meet people online, but take it offline. We could see people wanted a way to connect. For example, ‘Who needs me to go to the pharmacy for them?’”
That saw Sarah herself linking up with some of her own neighbours and doing errands for them, such as visiting the pharmacy for those who were immunocompromised.
And while much of the tech world, including Nextdoor, pivoted to remote working, Sarah is a firm believer in the physical workplace and says human interaction remains a key strand of the success of any company.
“I just don’t think it’s realistic to work remotely forever. I still really believe, fundamentally, in the human interaction,” she says.
On Northern Ireland’s own position as a potential future global tech leader, Sarah is energetically complimentary about what we’ve achieved and the strength of our colleges and universities.
But she says: “What Northern Ireland will always struggle with is its size. It’s not a very big population, so, as a company, when you start putting down those roots, you have to know that you might have five people working for you, but then you might want to get to 50, then 500 and at some point you hit the bounds of what is available to you out of those great universities.
“The scale thing is real and has to be watched. I think Northern Ireland is in this really great position being able to straddle both [the UK and Irish Republic].”
Speaking about some of her platform’s seemingly recurrent content, such as “missing” cats, she says it’s not a phenomenon just confined to Northern Ireland. “My colleague always says, ‘Your cat is not lost, it’s just left you’,” she says.