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Maryam's M.O.

Maryam BanikarimMaryam Banikarim’s job history over the years has been that of a fearless risktaker. She has been, among other things, a film production assistant in Argentina, an intern in the British Parliament, and a one-time Thanksgiving-party helper for the late New York literary maven Diana Trilling. She also founded and ran her own handbag company and was an early Internet start-up pioneer. And, oh yes, she even spent some time working at a Manhattan-based dating service for Jewish singles.

Given all that (and given Banikarim’s lifelong love of adventure) it wouldn’t have been easy to predict that the Barnard alumna (Class of ’89) would end up in a high-powered executive-level job at a multibillion-dollar media conglomerate. But things have an unexpected way of turning out: The distinctly unbuttoned-down Banikarim is now chief marketing officer at New York-based Univision Communications, a Spanish-language media giant with an audience of tens of millions of Hispanic television viewers and radio-listeners and which has fast become one of the powerful media corporations in the country.

Since joining Univision in 2002, the Iranian-born Banikarim has not only managed to fit in, she’s thrived and in the process has garnered all kinds of glowing reviews. She’s a frequent name on media lists of up-and-coming business leaders. In 2006, Advertising Age named the then 37-year-old Banikarim as one of “40 Under 40” rising stars in the advertising and marketing world, while the business monthly Fast Company selected her to join the “Fast Fifty,” its grouping of the top corporate trailblazers and trendsetters.

Last year she earned a spot on the New York Post’s list of “The 50 Most Powerful Women in NYC. And Crain’s New York Business included her in its own picks of “40 under 40” high-achievers, citing among other things, the fact that in her first two years at Univision, Banikarim helped bring in major new advertisers such as Target and Nike and boosted the company’s sales revenue by well over $33 million in her first year, and $75 million in her second. By way of explaining Banikarim’s success, Ray Rodriguez, Univision’s president and chief operating officer, told Crain’s, “She has a ton of smart, focused energy. And she puts all the pieces together.”

Putting those pieces together is no easy task. As chief marketing officer, Banikarim oversees all aspects of Univision’s marketing and corporate communications efforts—a position that includes everything from big-picture strategizing on the company’s branding efforts to beefing up research on audience demographics and staging major sales and marketing events for prospective advertisers. The job regularly involves travel as well as 10- and 12-hour days, which can be a real challenge, she admits, considering that she also has two young children, a 10-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son, to care for at home. “It’s obviously not easy,” she said, in a recent interview in her office at Univision’s midtown Manhattan headquarters. “There are a lot of things to juggle.”

Then again, Banikarim has always liked a good challenge. Despite her demanding schedule, she thoroughly enjoys her job, and likes being part of a company that’s still considered somewhat of an up and comer in the major-media world—even though it has one of the fastest-growing audiences in the country, along with many of the highest-rated programs.

“It’s an incredibly important market,” says Banikarim, who notes that the total Hispanic population in the United States now numbers more than 45 million.

As a relative newcomer herself, she likes the fact that Univision is so attuned to immigrant concerns. Her parents fled Tehran at the start of the Iranian revolution after her father, who worked for a local bank set up by Chase Manhattan (now J. P. Morgan Chase), got word that he was about to be arrested. The family initially spent a year in Paris, and moved to northern California when she was 12.

The multilingual executive, who speaks Spanish, French, and Farsi, had originally thought she might pursue a career in journalism. At Barnard, she majored in political science, and even while getting her MBA in addition to a master’s in international affairs at Columbia, she wasn’t certain what she wanted to do. “I wasn’t sure the corporate thing was right for me,” she recalls.

While Banikarim has worked for several major-media companies, including Turner Broadcasting and the publishing company Macmillan, she says that at heart she’s really an entrepreneur. Besides launching her own handbag company, she also built a thriving marketing-consulting business, Maryam B. Enterprises, with a client list that included Time Warner, Deutsche Bank, and Bacardi Limited.

Though now back in the corporate world, she seems in no danger of losing her entrepreneurial instincts and drive. She still has a knack for coming up with fresh ideas—something, she’s glad to say, Univision execs have welcomed. “I think of myself as an entrepreneur in a big organization,” says Banikarim, who adds that much of her career has been about finding ways to do things smarter and better, and not being afraid to take risks. In 2007, for instance, she and her team devised a whole new approach in preparation for the annual high-stakes spring “upfront” event with major advertisers, where television networks unveil their upcoming fall lineups and bid to sign up sponsors for their programs.

Instead of going with a more conventional presentation, Banikarim staged something akin to a Broadway show, replete with a heart-stopping performance by the pop-singer Marc Anthony and poignant video testimonials from some of Univision’s most loyal viewers. The media industry analyst Jack Myer’s influential Jack Myers Media Business Report, in its Survey of Advertising Executives on Upfront Presentations, later ranked Univision’s effort the best presentation by any network at the event.

It’s not clear exactly where Banikarim gets her drive, though according to her younger sister, Susie, she’s always had a profound curiosity about the world, and a passion for getting involved. “She’s always doing something,” says Susie Banikarim ’97. “She’s in constant motion.”

That was definitely the case at Barnard, where Maryam worked for the student-run Barnard Bulletin, got elected president of her first-year class, and went on to win the prestigious Truman Scholarship. She also served as a student representative to Barnard’s board of trustees, and worked closely with then-president Ellen Futter, who became a mentor and still counts as one of her most important role models.

Coming from a relatively homogenous San Francisco suburb and high school, Banikarim remembers being thrilled by the diverse mix of students on campus, and all the interesting classes and things to do. “I was like a kid in a candy store. I absolutely loved it,” she recalls, remembering how liberating it was not to feel like the immigrant-outsider. “You could basically be yourself at Barnard. It’s really where I came into myself.”

Political-science department professor of American studies Richard Pious, one of her advisors, says her enthusiasm and consistently upbeat attitude definitely stood out. “She would always come in my office and have a big smile on her face, and talk about things going well,” says Pious. His clearest memory, though, is of the day the soon-to-be graduating Banikarim came to see him, and told him she was heading down to Argentina to learn the tango. “This was pure Maryam deciding, ‘I’m going to do something interesting,’” says Pious.

She did in fact proceed to Argentina and did get in some tango lessons. But via a few twists of fates, she also got wind that an American movie crew was in the country shooting Highlander II, an action-adventure film starring Sean Connery, and she wound up working as a production assistant on the set.

From there, Banikarim returned to New York and began working on her joint master’s degree in business administration and international affairs at Columbia. As part of a class project, she refined an idea she had for a series of insider city travel guides and pitched the project to the Gap, receiving a personal phone call from company’s then-CEO, legendary entrepreneur Millard “Mickey” Drexler. Though the company ultimately didn’t bite, Banikarim says the experience convinced her that marketing and advertising, which at heart involve communicating a compelling story, was  what she’d be best at.

So, fresh out of business school in 1993, she took a job at advertising giant Young & Rubicam, and from there joined the advertising sales and marketing team at Turner Broadcasting. Banikarim loved the television business and enjoyed her Turner colleagues. But the Internet was starting to take off, and she received an offer to be marketing director of Citysearch.com a new online guide to New York. She jumped at the chance and later became its general manager. “People thought I was crazy to leave Turner.” But to her, the prospect of being an Internet pioneer was exhilarating. “It was like the wild, wild West,” says Banikarim. “People were there for the excitement of inventing things.”

If she has never been afraid to take risks, she’s also proven to be resourceful. Indeed, she believes one of her greatest strengths is figuring out how to get around obstacles. “I’m a natural problem-solver,” says Banikarim. If she’s working on a difficult project, she’s constantly strategizing about “how we’ve got to go from A to B, and this is how we get there.”

Monica Woo, a former marketing executive at Deutsche Bank, recalls seeing those problem-solving skills in action when she hired Banikarim (who by then had started her own consulting business) to help the company launch an online personal investment service in Brazil. “She has a way of getting people to rally behind her,” says Woo. “And she always figures out how to get things done.”

As much as she liked running her own business, Banikarim didn’t want to miss a good opportunity, and in 2002, when Univision offered her a position as senior vice president of strategic marketing, she decided to take it. Promoted to chief marketing officer two years later, she hasn’t had any regrets. She appreciates the fact that Univision execs, as promised, have been so open to new initiatives and ideas, as well as the fact, that Univision, contrary to what might be expected from a company with a largely Latin-American culture, has tapped a number of women, including Alina Falcon, the network’s executive vice president and operating manager.

In her experience, being a woman in the still largely male corporate business world hasn’t been a problem. In fact, Banikarim adds, it can actually be an advantage when, for instance, the account manager for a major advertiser is also a woman. “Maybe you can’t be in the boys’ club, but there are women clients,” she notes.

Even so, she’s still sometimes struck by how few fellow females there actually are in top corporate-management slots. “When you sit in business class on the plane and look around there aren’t too many women,” she says, adding that there are even fewer in first class.

Banikarim definitely understands why that might be the case, and why up-and-coming women business executives might decide the constant travel and demanding hours are not worth it, especially once they decide to start having children. She adds that she’s been lucky, since her husband, who has his own Internet consulting business, has a flexible schedule and has been a big help with their two children. Plus, the couple has a full-time nanny. But even with that kind of support Banikarim says trying to balance the demands of work and family is an ongoing struggle and she frequently feels torn: “I get a lot of ‘Mom, can you get off the BlackBerry?’”

On the other hand, she believes she’s offering her children a positive role model. Plus, she notes, they occasionally get great perks from her job. For instance, a couple of years ago her daughter, Natasha, went with her to watch Shakira rehearse for the Latin Grammy awards and Banikarim also regularly gets CDs of hot new Latin bands.

In spite of her schedule, Banikarim managed to fit in time to work on Barnard’s reunion committee in 2004. She also volunteers on the board of a handful of nonprofits, including the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center and Prep for Prep, a group that tries to expand educational opportunities for disadvantaged kids. Banikarim thinks at some point she actually might like to do nonprofit work full time because it’s definitely something she’s passionate about.

For now, though, she’s happy plying her entrepreneurial skills at Univision—and happy to be an agent for corporate change. “I’ve still got a lot of life in the corporate world,” says Banikarim.

-Susan Hansen, photograph by Noah Sheldon