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Dare to Lead: Get to Know Sarah Leary of Neighborhood Networking Site Nextdoor

Dare to Lead: Get to Know Sarah Leary of Neighborhood Networking Site Nextdoor

How many of your neighbors do you know?

In 2010, Sarah Leary realized she knew only one person on her block in San Francisco. Research revealed she wasn’t alone: 29 percent of Americans only know a few of their  neighbors; 28 percent know none by name (Source: Pew Research Center, June 2010).

Sarah, an entrepreneur who previously worked at Microsoft, Benchmark Capital, and  Epinions/, is helping change that. In 2010, she co-founded Nextdoor, the private  social network for neighborhoods, to harness the power of technology to connect neighbors and make communities stronger and safer. Now, more than 40 percent of neighborhoods in the U.S. –  that's more than 64,000 neighborhoods across all 50 states – have adopted Nextdoor as the new way to neighbor.

Neighbors are using the service to connect about the things that matter closest to home, including finding like-minded neighbors, staying in the know about community events, sharing neighborhood recommendations, and informing others about safety issues. We asked Sarah to share her inspiration and advice for succeeding as a technology entrepreneur.

Q: What inspired you to start Nextdoor? 
A: Technology has made it possible to stay connected halfway around the globe, but has done little to help us better communicate with the folks right next door. Neighborhoods are a constant part of our daily lives and there are so many ways neighbors can help one another if we just had an easier way to connect.

I grew up in a small New England town in a neighborhood where people knew one another and looked out for each other. As kids, my parents let us ride our bikes down the street and play with the neighbors' kids in a rotating number of backyards. My parents never had to worry about where we were because they knew each neighbor was keeping an eye out for us.

This powerful sense of community was the inspiration for Nextdoor. Neighborliness is not new, but it has been harder to maintain in our busy lives. We want to use technology to introduce a new, more convenient way to bring neighborhoods together. Our mission has clearly struck a chord with many in this country: already more than 40 percent of U.S. neighborhoods have come to rely on Nextdoor, and more than 100 new neighborhoods are adopting Nextdoor each day.

Q: Can you give us some examples of how people are using it?
A: We constantly hear how neighbors are using Nextdoor for everyday needs, like finding an awesome babysitter or handyman, to more urgent matters like stopping a rash of car break-ins in the neighborhood. But my favorite stories highlight how neighbors use Nextdoor to rally around a neighbor-in-need or a local issue to improve their community.

Q: What makes you want to come to work each day?
A: I'm inspired to come to work to see how neighbors are using Nextdoor to make their own corner of the world better.

I've always been excited to build technology that helps real people in the real world far beyond Silicon Valley. For example, I’m exceptionally proud to have my 72-year-old mother using  Nextdoor in my hometown outside of Boston, my nephew using Nextdoor to find his first summer job tending to a neighbor’s yard, and a former schoolmate in rural upstate New York using Nextdoor to sell beehives and bales of hay. These are real people who are using Nextdoor to solve their needs and problems.

Q: You've worked in the tech industry for more than two decades. Was it hard to be a woman in tech in the 90s and has that changed? 
A: When I started at Microsoft in the 90s, there were lots of women who started with me. However, many of them left the workforce over the years. As a result, there are far fewer senior women in the upper ranks across the industry than there should be. I was fortunate to have some great female leaders early in my career. In fact, Melinda French, now Melinda Gates, hired me at Microsoft when she ran the consumer business unit. I have also worked with many great men who have encouraged and supported my career.

There’s a lot of conversation about getting more women into tech, especially in more technical and senior positions. As more women continue to flock to technical disciplines, I think we will see an even greater shift. I like to think that our industry is a meritocracy; that if you're good at what you do, and you work hard, opportunities will open up. We just need to offer a little more support along the way. I certainly hope to do my part and show other women a roadmap for being a successful founder and entrepreneur through my work at Nextdoor.

Q: You were a champion lacrosse player in college. Has that impacted your leadership style?
A: Well, I was a lacrosse goalie, which means that I learned how to not flinch when someone threw something at my head. That’s actually pretty good preparation for being an entrepreneur. You never really know what will be thrown at you!

All kidding aside, I strongly believe that my competitive experiences helped prepare me for life as an entrepreneur. I love being a part of a team and working together to achieve a goal that would be impossible solo. I think building a company is the ultimate team sport and I certainly like winning!

As an athlete, I also learned the value of having a great coach. Someone who knows the game, knows how to adapt to changing situations, and understands how to motivate and inspire others. That experience really informs my leadership style. I try to create a culture of mutual trust and honest feedback. I know how beneficial it is to have someone actively coaching me, so I don’t shy away from pushing people to be their best and helping them get there.

Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur?
A: I've always believed “the harder I work, the luckier I'll be." I think one of the key parts of being a great entrepreneur is being relentless. There are going to be ups and down, but the team that sticks with it will have a much better chance of success. One of the keys to that resiliency and longevity is working on something you truly love and working with people you enjoy. If you can surround yourself with fun people who make the work enjoyable, you will be able to stay the course even when there are bumps in the road.

Lastly, I would encourage all aspiring entrepreneurs (especially women) to get into tech. It’s where the best and brightest are and it’s a great time to leave your mark!

NEXT: Women in Leadership »

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