Sarah Friar

It doesn’t seem to matter how far or how high you travel, if you’re from Northern Ireland it’s hard not to take a little piece of home with you.

Sarah Friar, originally from Sion Mills in County Tyrone, is currently the California-based CEO of the fast-expanding neighbourhood app Nextdoor, now operating in 11 countries around the world. Nextdoor is the place where you can plug into the neighbourhoods that matter to you.

But, despite her high-powered career in the US, she returns home as often as she can, and is passionate about helping young entrepreneurs here. She also believes that growing up in Northern Ireland has helped her current role, leading a company that is based around the idea of kindness and connections.

“I would say three important gifts came from my growing up here,” she says. “Firstly, the value of hard work. In summer I’d spend weekends working on my aunt’s farm and remember my uncle Louis waking us at dawn to get started. I also learned the value of community. Sion Mills was founded by the Herdman family around their linen mill in the 19th century. They believed in the power of the community as more than just as a workforce. They saw the value of integrating the community into your business, which reflects my work with Nextdoor today.”

“Finally, the history of entrepreneurship and innovation in Northern Ireland, I see that spirit coming through today.”

Sarah also placed great value on the integrated primary school she attended at Sion Mills and believes the integrated system is the way ahead to bring communities together in Northern Ireland.

The sheer diversity of her career path has been another plus. After taking a degree in Engineering at Oxford University, she worked at the Ashanti goldfields in Ghana, studying how to extract gold from sulphate ores for her Masters thesis. 

There followed a number of very different but high-powered roles, at companies like Goldman Sachs, McKinsey and Square, giving her an important insight into the worlds of tech and finance and the chance to work with leading entrepreneurs.

In 2018, she became CEO of Nextdoor, founded a decade earlier. The genesis of the app was when the founders discovered that nearly a third of Americans did not know a single neighbour.

“That was jaw dropping for them. They saw that even in a world increasingly connected, we as a society feel this huge sense of isolation. That we live hidden behind glass, don’t interact on a day-to-day basis. Whole groups of people are being dehumanised. People who have so much in common are kept apart.”

Nextdoor essentially acts to bring the neighbourhood together. On one level the app might be used to find a local plumber or babysitter. On another, it might connect like-minded people or those involved in common activities, from a cyclist to a home-schooling mother.

“Building whole communities from that first act of getting to know each other is really the premise of Nextdoor. We believe we have a huge role to play in knitting communities and neighbourhoods back together again.”

But that is only half the story. In the largely anonymous world of social media, bullying and abuse can ruin people’s enjoyment of the net. Nextdoor puts accountability, trust and kindness at the forefront of its offering.

“One way we have always differentiated from other platforms,” Sarah says, “is that you can’t be anonymous on Nextdoor. Nextdoor is made up of real people, enabling you to build real-world connections with those nearby.”

There is also the kindness reminder, one of several measures that have emerged from collaboration with global experts in social science in order to make the platform as welcoming as possible.

The kindness reminder pops up when someone is writing something that might lead to uncivil language. “It invites the person writing to reflect for a moment,” Sarah says. ‘It also reminds people that what they are writing will be reviewed later, and may not reflect well on them. We find that about a third of posts are edited following the kindness reminder.”

Another area of research has been into loneliness.

“Loneliness is a global epidemic and something we wanted to address. Our recent global study found that knowing as few as six neighbours has a significant impact on ending feelings of isolation, and has a material impact on people’s health. Also, that even small, random, acts of kindness are good for your health as well as the community.”

These ideas, Sarah notes, would be second nature here in Northern Ireland, where Nextdoor has recently been rolled out. Already nearly one in five households in Belfast have signed up to the app.

Sarah, who misses the craic with family and friends, returns for visits when she can find time from her packed schedule. Whether giving talks, running workshops or meeting young entrepreneurs, she always finds time for the Ormeau Baths tech hub too, which she has passionately supported from its inception in 2016.

“It’s wonderful for me to support from a distance, to put money back in the community but also to support it when I’m in Northern Ireland. Ormeau Baths is like a small-scale Silicon Valley, a hub of entrepreneurs. There’s a focus on diversity too, you can really see the emergence of female entrepreneurs in Belfast now, which I am truly delighted about.”