She is described as the ‘big sister’ who helps start-ups in her native Northern Ireland even as her $5.6bn company debuts on Wall Street. Regina Lavelle charts her rise and why she made the ‘career zigzag’ that took her to the top
On her LinkedIn profile, Sarah Friar describes herself as “Chief Neighbour”. It’s a doubly appropriate title. The Tyrone woman is chief executive of Nextdoor, a social network for local communities — a business valued at $5.6bn. She is also, friends and colleagues say, unstinting with her time when it comes to helping others.
At first glance, her career might look like a standard-issue Silicon Valley executive’s. She is an Oxford graduate with a Stanford MBA. The 48-year-old was a research analyst at Goldman Sachs, before leaving to join Salesforce, then Jack Dorsey’s payments company Square as chief financial officer. Her net worth is estimated at $265m.
More recently, you may have seen her name outside the business pages. Earlier this month her company, Nextdoor, floated on the New York Stock Exchange. Its shares soared 40pc in the first hour of trading. The company also stood out thanks to its ticker of ‘KIND’ on Wall Street’s flashing electronic boards of stocks and shares, a nod to its motto to “be kind”.
It’s easy to be cynical about an organisation that seeks to monetise kindness, but Friar is not your flat-pack tech executive.
In Belfast tech circles, she is simply “Sarah”, who, if around, will cast an eye over funding terms for start-ups in the Ormeau Baths workspace that she co-founded.
To mentees, she is a confidante and a “big sister” who helps new chief executives navigate investor rounds and understands the loneliness of life at the top — all while leading a fast-growing tech behemoth and sitting on the boards of Slack and Walmart.
“I had the pleasure of meeting her when she worked at Square when I was in San Francisco on a family holiday,” says Katie Doran, partner and co-founder of Belfast-based Lanyon Group.
“My children were young teenagers at the time, and she gave us a tour of the offices, explained to the kids what she did at Square and told them to help themselves to the food at all the break-out spaces. She inspired them, and we talk about Sarah a lot over dinner.
“So many people have achieved a whole lot less and yet are so ungiving of their time and their true selves, whereas here is this super-successful woman who spends an hour explaining to my kids what she does, how she does it and encourages them to think big,” Doran says. “My daughter and I have titled her a ‘humble queen’. If you met her, you’d think she was the girl next door.”
Emma McIlroy, who founded Wildfang, a Portland-based multimillionaire dollar clothing company, recalls contacting Friar after being alerted to “the other Northern Irish CEO”.
“I was like, what do you mean? There are no other Northern Irish CEOs. And someone said, you know, she’s from Sion Mills. I was like, that’s not possible.
Sense of community
“So I called her out of the blue and was like, ‘Hey, I’m from Larne, I’m over here doing this thing. Do you ever want to… get a coffee?’
“Sarah’s busy, you know. She could probably get a conversation with the US president if she wanted, but she replied the same day and was like, ‘Oh, my God, we have to meet. Let’s do this’.
“I happened to be in San Francisco for fundraising. I swung by, and she took me out for lunch. Honestly, pretty much from then, we decided she was somewhere between my fairy godmother and my big sister,” McIlroy tells Review.
Resilience and humility are the words most used to describe Friar. Doran says that she speaks everyone’s language: “whatever she’s saying, Joe Bloggs would be able to understand”.
The Ormeau Baths project was already in progress when serial entrepreneurs Mark Dowds and Jon Bradford sat down with Friar.
“We ended up getting together for a glass of wine with Sarah Friar, telling her what we were doing. Straight away, she asked, ‘How can I get involved?’ ‘Can I help?” Dowds recalls. “We hadn’t gone to pitch her.”
Friar came on board as a co-founder and investor. She has since invested in several Belfast start-ups, including Cloudsmith, a developer tools platform.
She has said she learned her sense of community at her kitchen table. Her father was a manager at the local mill and her mother was a district nurse/midwife. “We’d often sit down to dinner, and there’d be a knock at the door,” she told LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman on his Masters of Scale podcast.
“The key would be, which was it — was it a medical problem? Or was it the other full gamut of social problems people have? It could have been someone short of money, someone who needed a job, someone going through domestic violence. We saw it all. It is an amazing way to be brought up with that deep sense of integrity about why community matters. And it protected our village from a lot of the trauma of the Troubles which were going on all around us.”
In Sion Mills, Co Tyrone, the Troubles were not conceptual. When Sarah was 10, the local barracks was bombed.
“We didn’t live in a particularly big house, so all the windows in the back, my bedroom, the dining room, the kitchen, all blew in,” she told the Invest Like the Best podcast.
“It had been a pretty traumatising day. I had been in primary school. We’d all had to shelter on our desks when the glass came in around us.
“What was amazing in terms of an act of kindness is the minute we walked in the front door — my mom had picked us up from work — our neighbours came in, took a look and then they went back out and figured out where they could buy plywood.
“They came in, and they boarded up all our windows. And I remember the mom bringing us hot food because our kitchen was a disaster.
“But what made that really poignant is the whole divide in Northern Ireland was religious, and we were Protestant, and our next-door neighbours are Catholic. And so technically, we were meant to hate each other — that’s why people were blowing up things.
“And they just came that night. I had such a sense of warmth even though it was a brutal day. You never forget that.”
Growing up, Friar was a “total science freak”, given to taking apart the family’s vacuum cleaner to see how it worked.
After Strabane Grammar, she studied metallurgy, economics and management at Oxford, leading her to intern on reducing the amount of arsenic used in gold mining.
After university, she joined McKinsey in the consultancy’s South Africa office before moving to Stanford to take her MBA and on to Goldman Sachs. She was there for 11 years during the financial crisis
During this period, her parents asked a typically Irish parents’ question — what is it you do?
“Well, my job is an equity research analyst,” she recalled telling them. “And I make stock calls, and I make rich people richer. But... I don’t feel particularly proud right now.”
It prompted her to “do this kind of zag in my career”, away from finance.
Friar wears her experience and her sharpness lightly. Though extremely driven — she describes being crestfallen when she didn’t make partner at Goldman — she is not the brash boss of lore but a new model of leader.
“She’s always encouraging women to step up to the big job and not always accept being the support act,” one peer said. “I think she thought it was important for her to be seen to do exactly that, to be the CEO.”
Friar’s path to the top — excelling in consultancy, petitioned by founder Marc Benioff to move to Salesforce, number two at Square — seems gilded.
But McIlroy of Wildfang says, undoubtedly, Friar “was often the only woman in the room” for much of her career.
“There’s a few qualities Northern Irish people have that I think makes them world-class. And after talent, resilience is right at the top. Sarah went to Oxford from a small town when people didn’t do that. No one else carved that path,” McIlroy adds.
“Now she’s taken a company public. You can count on one hand the number of women who’ve done that. So if you’re going to be the only one, you better be resilient as hell.
“Northern Irish people have that — and humility. And Sarah is no different.”
Back in Belfast, Mark Dowds says that humility is expected of local exports, no matter how grand their title.
“You don’t get it anywhere else,” continues Dowds, who spent two decades starting and selling companies in Canada, then San Francisco.
“We’ve come from tough times. We all grew up with nothing, or we lost it. A whole bunch of us left and we were able to apply ourselves and we believed we could do anything really, but we had that down-to-earthness, that humility.
“There’s no airs and graces because our parents drilled into us that if you’re going to do something, do it right, but certainly don’t boast about it.”
Friar is certainly careful to credit her parents as her inspiration.
“So much good came out of the things I saw them do in their community,” she said. “That makes me want to carry that torch forward in a way to respect them.”
Nextdoor has been described as the anti-metaverse. It is a hyper-local app built around neighbourhood groups.
To join, your postcode is verified with your phone provider and via your device’s GPS. Then you can hop in and read threads on everything in their area.
It launched in the US in 2011 and is now in 11 countries, but not yet in the Republic of Ireland. It has been in the UK since 2016, where it has 270,000 “neighbourhoods”. One in five Londoners is a user.
How does Nextdoor differ from other platforms?
Well, it’s genuinely about your locality. If you need a recommendation for a plumber, this is where you go. Or if you’ve lost a cat, or indeed, found a cat. If you want to know which bus stop is the best to get into town, or if you just want to complain about the builders making a racket in the next block over, this is where you go. In my first location, in north London, I was a mid-table neighbour. I didn’t have any leads on a good plumber, and I was on a floor too high for cats to reach. But I did know the block building contractor quite well so I had the lowdown on when they were next re-pointing and which apartments they hoped to tackle.
Since moving to east London, my partner is our neighbour-in-chief, since he has been a local since the last century. Our group has a few common themes:
1. “Why is this area so noisy?”
2. “Hello! I’m new here and looking to make friends.” (Students or Americans)
3. “Have you seen my cat?”
Don’t be expecting to be asked for directions to your local pub, however. You’re more likely to be pressed for the greengrocer or organic butcher.