When Hurricane Matthew hit the Lowcountry, Rose Hill resident Amy Harper kept in touch with her neighbors — both those who had stayed behind to weather the storm and those who were scattered across the country — by using an app on her iPhone called Nextdoor.
“At first, we communicated about which stores were open,” said Harper, who has lived in the Lowcountry for almost 30 years, 10 of them in Rose Hill. “Then the conversations turned to lost pets, water pressure issues, who had power and who did not. We’re now talking about roofing contractors and the best place to get hurricane shutters.”
A few days later, Harper posted a message on Gillian Bergeron’s Facebook page, where she thanked the team at Nextdoor for helping her neighborhood keep in touch.
Bergeron, who was sitting in her office at Nextdoor’s headquarters in San Francisco, had been following the storm, too. That’s because, even though she hasn’t lived here for over 10 years, Hilton Head Island is still her hometown. Bergeron grew up in Sea Pines and her mother, Terry, as well as some of her closest childhood friends, still live on the island.
“It was hard to watch Hurricane Matthew heading toward the island from here on the West Coast,” said Bergeron, who now lives in the Mission District of San Francisco with her fiancé, Greg Dyer, and a pug named Wayne. She currently works as director of field operations for Nextdoor, which she describes as a free and private social network for neighborhoods, allowing members to connect about whatever is most important to their community — from finding a good plumber to communicating during a natural disaster.
“We should be able to rely on one another in times of need, and often that starts with the people we live closest to — our neighbors,” said Bergeron, noting that neighbors across the Southeast turned to Nextdoor during the storm, discussing evacuation routes, asking for help checking on elderly neighbors, and looking for updates on the damage in their neighborhoods remotely. Over 100 neighborhoods were active in Beaufort County alone.
If someone had told Bergeron when she was growing up on Hilton Head Island that she would someday be working for a West Coast technology startup, she wouldn’t have believed it. The path that led her to San Francisco took a few twists and turns.
Her early passion was musical theater. Her parents, who once owned Hilton Head Monthly, were active supporters of the Hilton Head Community Playhouse and often took Bergeron to see the shows.
“Some of my earliest memories are sitting on the stairs at Dunnagan’s Alley Theatre watching shows while my mom ran lights or ushered,” she said. “We saw every show — some of them several times.”
In first grade, Bergeron started auditioning and got several parts, including the starring role of Annie when the Playhouse produced the musical "Annie Warbucks" in 1994. But by the time she was in high school, she was more interested in photography and considered art school after graduating from Hilton Head Island High School in 2002.
Instead, Bergeron enrolled at University of South Carolina Beaufort while deciding on a career. She spent a semester in Spain and a year at the Columbia campus, but found her way back to Beaufort County just as the local campus was starting a bachelor’s program in liberal studies.
“My parents never put any pressure on me about what to study,” Bergeron said. “They just told me to develop my communications skills.”
Her favorite course was political science, where preparing for class involved keeping up with political news. It was around that time that a little-known Illinois senator came to her attention and she began to follow his work — and eventually joined a movement to earn him the 2008 Democratic nomination for president.
“Shortly after I graduated in 2006, Barack Obama launched a presidential exploratory committee and I decided that I wanted to spend the next two years of my life getting him elected,” she said. “My mom told me that was fine with her — as long as I got a job.”
So she did. Her volunteer work for Draft Obama had come to the attention of the campaign’s leadership in South Carolina, and she was hired as the volunteer coordinator for the Lowcountry.
“When I told my friends I was working for Barack Obama, many would say, ‘Who?,’ and the others who knew who he was would say, ‘That’s great, but what are you going to do when he drops out?’”
Like many in her field, Bergeron never set out to be an organizer.
“She loved talking to people and quickly forged relationships with volunteers,” said Kevin Puleo, her first boss on the campaign. “Just as importantly, she was eager to work incredibly hard and put in long hours.”
Throughout the 14-month campaign, with stops in Alabama, Texas, Pennsylvania and New Mexico, Bergeron filled various roles in each new field office leading up to the general election.
“Most importantly, she became a strong leader and manager who understood what was involved in overcoming adversity,” Puleo said. “So when I was offered the job of state field director in Colorado for Obama's 2008 general election, I hired Gillian to be my deputy.”
So what some people thought would be a six-month assignment turned into a six-year career that took her to Washington, D.C., after the election, and eventually to Chicago for the 2012 re-election, where she ran the campaign’s field operation for 11 Western states.
“I’d spent a lot of time in California on the campaign and knew that was where I wanted to be after the re-election. I just wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do there,” she said. “But I never aspired to work in politics or live in D.C. I just wanted to get Barack Obama elected.”
Gillian and her fiancé, Greg Dyer, a Harvard-trained statistician who had worked on the campaign’s analytics team, decided to make the move to San Francisco. Dyer’s credentials were in demand in the region’s technology-driven economy — and they loved the city. But Bergeron had to find a way to make her experience relevant in a new industry.
“During the campaign, I worked closely with the tech team as they built online tools for volunteers who wanted to help President Obama win from anywhere in the country. I saw firsthand, when you give people who care about something the right tools, they can make an incredible impact,” Bergeron said. “That’s why I chose to go into tech, but I wanted to work for the right company.”
Enter Sarah Leary, co-founder and vice president of marketing and operations at Nextdoor, who immediately recognized how Bergeron’s experience and skills could be useful.
“On the campaign trail, Gillian honed her grassroots skills in support of a candidate or a ballot issue,” Leary said. “At Nextdoor, she is able to use those organizing skills to successfully mobilize neighbors to help build enduring and resilient communities.”
And much like the early days of the Obama campaign, Bergeron found herself on the ground floor of a growth opportunity.
“When I started at Nextdoor, they had been around a little over a year,” said Bergeron, “and just like my early days on the Obama campaign, folks would say, ‘Who?’ when I told them where I worked.”
But today she’s finding that more and more people recognize — and are members of — Nextdoor. The company just celebrated its fifth anniversary, and the platform is now used by more than 114,000 neighborhoods across the United States, recently expanding internationally.
“A number of friends in Beaufort County have reached out to let me know how important Nextdoor was for them during a critical time,” Bergeron said, adding that many neighborhoods — like Amy Harper’s — now feel an even deeper sense of community after Hurricane Matthew.
“It’s one of the most crucial components of community organizing,” she said. “Empowering people and connecting them about the things that matter most.”
Editor’s Note: In this series, we catch up with young Hilton Head Island and Bluffton natives who are now making their mark elsewhere. The article highlights their blossoming lives and how their hometown helped shape who they are today. To nominate a person, email email@example.com.