Maryam Banikarim is a powerful role model for not only women across the globe but for anyone coming into the U.S. corporate environment and trying to understand how to navigate as a foreigner. As an “Iranian born American woman who moved to the US in the midst of the hostage crisis”, Maryam has successfully built her expertise and personal brand as a Purpose-Driven Change Agent across multiple companies and from various roles, most recently as Global CMO of Hyatt Corporation. Read on to hear her story and tips for success.
Tell us about what you are doing now.
After leaving my Global CMO role at Hyatt in May I decided to take a pause. I wanted to spend time with my son in his last year before college and the rest of my family. I also wanted to regain my breath given that I had been working at a crazy pace since I was 16. Over the summer, I spent time with my family and friends, worked out, wrote and avoided airplanes.
I wrote a chapter in Nina Montgomery’s upcoming book Perspectives on Purpose. I also took time to pen an article for the New York Times about why I decided to take time off and how I was dealing with the emotional implications of choosing to be unemployed. A frightening move but one that I wholeheartedly recommend to people like me who haven’t taken a day off since they were 16 years old. I’m 50 now and have earned the right to take me time.
Then in the fall, I took on a few new roles: Samsung Retail Advisory Board Member; Chair, Reporters without Borders; Executive Advisor, Cove Hill Partners and Executive in Residence at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies. When my son graduates high school I’m hoping to continue to help companies uncover and operationalize their purpose.
How did you get to where you are today?
For a class project in Business School I worked on an idea that I had for an insiders city guide. I mocked up my concept and mailed it to the then CEO of the Gap, Mickey Drexler. Much to my surprise Drexler called me upon getting the package. While he didn’t end up producing my guide, he did convince me that I should pursue a career in marketing. That exchange showed me the power of an idea. It also showed me that if you are determined and go for it, anything is possible.
I didn’t have a linear career. I had a high risk tolerance and a great deal of urgency. I sought out roles where I could learn new things, have impact and work with people I respected. I had the chance to share my crazy journey at a She Runs it Event in a video I titled “Chaos and Curiosity.”
What pivotal moments did you face along the way?
I’ve had so many pivotal moments, but three really stand out as I think back to what created my professional foundation today.
First, Steve Heyer taught me many of the tools and techniques I have used throughout my career in the first ever integrated marketing group at Turner Broadcasting in 1994. Specifically, he taught me the art of consultative selling -- how to put myself in the client’s shoes by understanding their business and brand objectives as a starting point. Ultimately we were moving from “selling” clients to being true partners focused on helping them grow their business.
In 1998, I left the corporate world to start a bag business which didn’t go far, although my first sale was to Barneys (but that’s another story). This move accidentally led me to my own consulting business, which I had for five years. Monica Woo was my client twice in that period, once at Bacardi and then at Deutsche Bank. Monica rewarded me for my sense of urgency, my single-minded commitment to making her vision a reality and for my creativity despite the odds. She also paid me what I was worth which became another defining moment in my career.
The third was when I rejoined the corporate world for a job at Univision. Jerry Perenchio the then Chairman of the company took me to meet Roy Spence at GSD&M as we were looking for an ad agency. Roy told us he didn’t want to do ads for us, instead, he wanted to help us discover Univision’s purpose. That was how I got introduced to Jim Collin’s work.
What challenges have you faced?
I came from a family who always told me I could do anything I set my mind to, and I believed them.
I was not only a woman, but I was also an Iranian born American woman who moved to the US in the midst of the hostage crisis. I was fortunate in that I was able to compartmentalize my fears and anxieties. I simply chose not to see the obstacles. I came from a family who always told me I could do anything I set my mind to, and I believed them. I just kept going and never gave up.
What do you see as the major opportunities and challenges for women today?
Today, there are more opportunities for women as well as diverse candidates. Companies and boards are being encouraged to hire the best talent and reflect the population. The good news is the tide is slowly beginning to turn. That being said, there have always been different rules/expectations for women at work. In my years in the workplace, I have been told to “smile more,” to “start with the positive” before giving constructive feedback and to do less (doing too much was making others worried that they would look bad in comparison). These were all helpful tips that were doled out as I was being pushed to deliver herculean results.
As women we have to figure out how to walk the tightrope between doing a good job, surviving in the current work culture that is often biased and being true to ourselves. The best opportunities come from roles that leverage your talents and have the kind of leadership in place that will support you to do what you were brought in to do.
What solutions or advice can you share for other women marketers?
Here are a series of life lessons I’ve learned at work throughout the years:
- Never stop growing.
- Always do your homework.
- Volunteer for the hard stuff.
- Invite someone over who isn’t your best friend.
- Hang out with people smarter than you.
- It’s okay to say I don’t know.
- It’s better to be respected than loved.
- Don’t hog the ball.
- Believe in yourself.
- Be yourself.
I have an 11th that I’d add for women specifically. And that is to set up an informal group that will support you and help you accomplish your goals. Jessica Bennett does a good job of outlining this concept in her book Feminist Fight Club.
What advice have you given to your daughter?
I was asked this very question a few years back and I would give this advice to both my kids. Natasha, my sophomore in college and Nicky, my senior in high school. You can read more about the five things I want them both to remember in my letter to Natasha on Leaders & Daughters, but essentially they were Compassion, Courage, Trust Yourself, Go for it and Be Positive.
What I find incredibly rewarding now is that my daughter is teaching me. Just recently, she shared a book with me that underscored what it means to be a feminist today. I love that she is now teaching me new things. And I highly recommend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book “We Should all be Feminists." It’s a short impactful read or you can watch her TedTalk.