Q&A: Nextdoor Co-Founder Sarah Leary, On Building Safer Neighborhoods

By Heather Somerville
San Jose Mercury News.


When was the last time you asked your neighbor for a cup of sugar?

Chances are, in the digital age where more of our friends live on Facebook than in our communities, you never have. But Sarah Leary remembers the neighborhood of her youth, where people looked out for each other — not just their baking needs, but their children, homes and property.

It was this nostalgia that inspired Leary to start Nextdoor, a private social network for neighborhoods. It’s one of the only social media sites that encourages personal over digital relationships with the aim of not only making for a better block party on the Fourth of July, but also fostering trust in communities and making neighborhoods from Palo Alto to Denver safer.

More than 57,000 neighborhoods have joined the social network. And the startup last month raised $110 million from investors, bringing its total funding to $210 million and valuing the company at more than $1 billion.

Leary sat down with this newspaper to discuss San Francisco-based Nextdoor and her experiences as a woman working in Silicon Valley. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Nextdoor is an outlier in the world of social media. It seems like you’re going for relationship building that can transfer into really personal relationships offline. How do you see Nextdoor fitting into the sector of social media?

A: Facebook is about your family and social life. Twitter is really about keeping track of topics and people of interest. And LinkedIn is about your professional life. When we first thought about the idea for Nextdoor back in 2010, we saw this landscape of all these different social media platforms that represented different aspects of peoples lives, and we felt that one was missing, and that was that link to your local life. There were all these great ways for people to communicate far and wide across the globe, and yet technology hadn’t been used to help us communicate with the people right next door.

You spend so much time in your local community; that’s usually where people put down roots, they buy homes, renovate homes, start families, their kids go to school. Yet that notion of knowing who your neighbors are and having a connection with them, it seems somewhat old-fashioned in these times because people are very busy. Most people don’t know their neighbors. For us, it’s really about using technology from social media but applying it to the concept of really bringing back that sense of community to the neighborhood.

Q: Do you have any data to show that Nextdoor has contributed to safer neighborhoods?

A: Police believe very strongly that if you can start a dialogue with residents, there is better communication with the police department, but equally important, residents are talking to each other. They know each other, so if they see something unusual, they’re going to say something. At Nextdoor we are taking that notion of community policing and looking out for your neighbor and using technology to make it more readily available so you have more eyes and ears on a community.

Sacramento has doubled the number of residents who are participating in Neighborhood Watch, thanks to Nextdoor. Nextdoor gives communities the tools to form a Neighborhood Watch. Sacramento has seen a 14.9 percent decrease in the crime rate citywide in the past year and a half since it rolled out Nextdoor. It’s the same thing in San Diego. They’ve seen a tripling of the people involved in a Neighborhood Watch as a result of Nextdoor.

Q: The challenge in addressing crime in a neighborhood this way is that it can lead to racial profiling, derogatory speech and racist commentary. Some people have found this to be an issue on Nextdoor. What can be done to address it?

A: Fortunately we have not seen this to be a problem. We see this being brought up as an issue like 0.001 percent of the time; it’s a very, very isolated situation. We give tools to the community to be able to flag such comments and have a constructive dialogue about how can we handle this in a way where we’re reporting crime incidents while making sure that we’re not calling out individuals in an inappropriate way.

Q: You’ve been a startup founder, worked in venture capital, worked in tech since the early ’90s and risen to a senior level. What disadvantages or obstacles did you face because of the fact that you are a woman working in an industry that has largely favored men?

A: Early on, when I looked at tech, I looked at it as a meritocracy. Anyone can come in, take on the challenge, and if you’re good you are going to get more opportunities. I certainly saw that at Microsoft, where I worked from the early to late ’90s, and that has continued for most of my career. That being said, it’s hard not to look at the data and just realize there is a point in people’s careers at which a lot of people drop out. And that to me is disappointing. You look at the data — fewer than 10 percent of all co-founders are women in Silicon Valley, and fewer than 5 percent of the venture capitalists are women. You just see this time and time again that the data are suggesting that women aren’t getting far enough.

I do feel like things have shifted a little bit in the last three or four years where now there is much more of a conversation of getting more women through the pipeline and giving them opportunities. Over the next five years, there is probably no better place to be a professional if you’re a woman than in tech right now. It’s the perfect time to leave your mark.

Sarah Leary
Age: 44
Hometown: Andover, Massachusetts
Current residence: San Francisco
Current job: Co-founder and vice president of marketing and operations at Nextdoor
Previous jobs: Microsoft, Greylock Partners, Benchmark Capital, and
Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics and MBA, Harvard
Family: One of four children and dozens of cousins

5 things about Sarah Leary
1. Her favorite place outside of Silicon Valley is Italy. She’s visited more than 20 times.
2. She was a champion lacrosse player in college — the team goalie.
3. She funded a school in Nepal that was started through Room to Read, a San Francisco nonprofit that works for literacy and gender equality in education.
4. She has served on the board of her former high school, Middlesex in Concord, Massachusetts, for the past 15 years.
5. She’s an avid cyclist and golfer.

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