Doreen Lorenzo: How did you arrive at your current position? Was it a straight shot into marketing, or was it a curvy road?
Maryam Banikarim: I took the curvy road. Growing up, I thought I wanted to be an investigative reporter or a photojournalist.
When I was in college, I wrote a column—an insider’s guide—for the college paper because I was fascinated by the idea of being a local. This was during the time Gap had a campaign called the “Individuals of Style,” and they localized the campaign. I had this idea of doing a column about different cities intermingled with the Gap ads, basically a Gap Insider’s Guide.
Fast forward to when I was in graduate school: I ended up sending the mock-up to Mickey Drexler, who was president of the Gap at the time. To my surprise—at first I thought it was a joke!—he called, and we ended up meeting. In short, that’s what steered me into a career in advertising and marketing.
DL: What is the hardest lesson you’ve learned in your career?
MB: I’ve always been one of those people who is naturally curious and makes up her own rules.
While still a junior staffer at Young & Rubicam in the early 1990s, Michael Schrage, one of the world’s most provocative thought leaders, wrote a cover story for Wired titled “Is Advertising Dead?” which prompted me and a colleague to coordinate an agency-wide conference to discuss the topic.
One of my mentors pulled me aside and said, “What you’re doing is really political. You’re trying to take a stake in something, and you should really let this go.” I remember being perplexed, and saying to her, “You know, I’m just doing this because I’m interested. I have no other agenda. And if this organization doesn’t respond well to that, I better find out now before I put in 20 years here.”
Through that experience and others, I learned that if my approach didn’t fit a company’s style, I would be willing to move on. I had the power of my convictions and a high tolerance for risk.
Another lesson I learned came about through a business I launched. I used to have to carry a laptop around to do demos, and I had to put it in this ugly bag because those early laptop bags were so unattractive. I thought, “Seriously, there has to be a better way to carry around your laptop.”
So I signed up for a bag-making class at FIT. In the process, I met a woman who’d been in the bag business, and we actually started working together. I left my job, and the two of us made functional bags fashionable. We made diaper bags, laptop bags, and pet carriers. We had a guy in the garment district manufacturing the bags for us.
The most popular bags were, by far, the diaper bags, because they didn’t look like diaper bags, and people would buy them from me–like, on the subway, they’d stop me! Even New York City Ballet dancers would buy them and use the bottle pockets for their ballet shoes. I didn’t think I was a genius designer, like I was John Galliano. I just took something and made it slightly better. I was not afraid of taking the chance and saying, “Okay, we’re going to try bags now.”
DL: Design seems to be something you just followed instinctively.
MB: I’ve always loved photography, and I love book covers. I could imagine in another life having gone to study graphic design. Even though I never studied it, I always knew design mattered. I knew that objects make you feel things if they are well designed.
DL: How do you think design has changed over time?
MB: I think about this a lot. In the ’90s Target brought design to the masses. You could get an Isaac Mizrahi suit for $40 that people thought was Chanel. That was definitely a moment in time, because up until that point design was only for the elite. And then design began to become affordable.
Once technology became a bigger part of people’s lives, design had to become more intuitive. And the need for intuitive design has made design that much more meaningful and that much more important today. It’s not a coincidence the two guys who started Airbnb went to RISD. But you didn’t always see that. Nobody was like, “Oh, you’re a designer? Let me fund your company.” And I think those are seminal things that have changed in the business.
DL: How is design playing a role in what you’re doing in the hotel world?
MB: Design is key in our business. Hospitality is a physical experience and always has design at its core. I think the industry traditionally thinks about design in terms of architecture. When I visit our different properties, I’m always astounded by the physical space. I remember going to the Park Hyatt in Shanghai and immediately asking, “Who is the architect?” Because you walk into that space, and it’s definitely an experiential thing.
A few years ago, Hyatt made a big effort to apply design thinking and even went so far as to hire a Chief Innovation Officer. One fun thing that we have been piloting recently is called “Text Me.” This allows guests to text in their requests. Through research and empathy interviews we found that women in particular didn’t want to call down to the front desk when they wanted a towel or something brought to the room. So using design thinking we developed a system where guests can actually text the hotel to make that request. It’s also led to us partnering with the likes of Uber and onefinestay to address evolving guest behaviors and expectations.
Hyatt has a very longstanding relationship with design. It’s not a coincidence that Jay Pritzker and his wife founded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1979. The Pritzker family, who started Hyatt Hotels, has always cared about architecture and its influence on people’s lives. So design is definitely core to the company and its culture. In hospitality, design ranges from the amenities that are in your room, to the hotel, to the service—they’re all part of the design of the experience.
DL: Do you think being a woman makes your job harder, easier, or it doesn’t impact it at all?
MB: You know, I used to think it didn’t impact me at all. I was lucky in that I grew up in a family where I believed I could be anything I wanted to be, so I didn’t see myself being restricted. And I was very good at being resilient and just plodding along. If people said no, I just kept going.
Because this is a global position, early on I did a very fast paced round-the-world tour. And remember, I’m originally from Iran; I grew up in a revolution, and I’ve lived in a lot of parts of the world. But now I’m in a different role. So I travel to Shanghai and Hong Kong and then to Mumbai and Dubai. And in Dubai, I was shown up to my room by two women who were so excited to meet me. And I’m thinking, “Okay, you know, I have a nice job. But I’m really not that big of a deal,” because their excitement for me was disproportionate.
Then, I had this realization that in many parts of the world, it is actually much rarer to see a female leader than it is in the U.S. You’re conscious that you’re a woman when you’re in the Middle East in a way that you’re not in the U.S. I came away with a real sense of responsibility, a sense that we need to be conscious of the role we play and the road that we can pave for others as a result.