Three months after pledging its support for Black lives, Amazon has made several substantive changes to the benefit of Black employees, said the leader of the company’s Black Employee Network (BEN) affinity group.
These include more prominent roles for Black executives and support for the broader Black community, through things like a virtual startup conference this week culminating with a keynote address Friday by Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy.
Angelina Howard, president of BEN and a senior product manager on the company’s digital software and video games team, said the company’s top executives have been engaged.
“It’s really been a lot of partnership with our leaders to figure out how can we better show up in the community, but also better show up for our employees,” Howard said.
There’s more work to be done, she said, but Howard, whose group organized the virtual startup conference attended this week by some 2,300 entrepreneurs from as far away as Ireland, is heartened by the company’s response following the killing of George Floyd in May, which sparked a renewed civil rights movement.
Howard co-led BEN’s initial event in 2018 with Jasmine Farrar after seeing little representation of Black company founders in the broader Seattle Startup Week program.
This year, in addition to the goal of empowering and celebrating Black entrepreneurship and pitching Amazon Web Services’ cloud-computing resources for new companies, the conference, led by Ashia Johnson and Bryan Belliard, focuses on long-term revenue and growth opportunities, as a response to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We want to make sure that we’re sowing seeds into the community so that there is an opportunity for that long-term growth impact,” Howard said.
Jassy, viewed as a possible successor to founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, became the executive sponsor of BEN in January. In February, the company flew the Pan-African flag in a breezeway between two buildings at its Seattle headquarters.
In early June, a few days after video of Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer set off a summer of protests and calls for reform, Amazon posted “Black lives matter” atop its main shopping site. The company worked with BEN to identify 11 education and equity groups to receive $10 million in donations.
Howard said the employee group worked with Amazon’s global diversity and inclusion office and with Jassy’s office to help make “a statement internally, but also externally so that our customers know that we are committed to the Black community and our Black employees.”
She said she was proud to see the company’s support displayed so prominently.
The corporate messaging provoked some angry emails from Amazon customers, some of which Bezos posted on his Instagram account, where he explained Amazon’s support and said, “Black Lives Matter speaks to racism and the disproportionate risk that Black people face in our law enforcement and justice system.”
Amazon has highlighted Black culture inside the company, including a celebration of Juneteenth, a holiday celebrated on June 19 to mark the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S., Howard said.
“I think we’ve also acknowledged that this is just the beginning and we have a long way to go, if I’m being honest,” she said. “But it feels like there is a willingness from our leaders to make that change.”
BEN, the first employee affinity group at Amazon, organized more than 15 years ago, hosted a town hall meeting in August with Jassy and Jeff Wilke, the CEO of the worldwide consumer business, who announced he will step down early next year, to discuss “how we’re working to create a lasting change,” Howard said. She said the executives, who are white and have each been at Amazon for more than two decades, shared their personal perspectives and ways they are rethinking what they can do.
Among Amazon’s U.S. management ranks, 8.3% of employees identified as Black at the end of 2019, up from 7.2% in 2018. Last month, Alicia Boler Davis, a longtime General Motors executive recruited to Amazon in April 2019, became the first Black person to serve on Amazon’s senior leadership team, or S Team. She is the company’s vice president of global customer fulfillment.
Amazon was one of at least 200 companies to make a public pledge in support of Black lives in late May and early June. Employees, customers, journalists and other company observers have been watching to see the extent to which those statements — which were a departure from the relative quiet from the corporate sector following hundreds of past instances of police killings of Black people — are matched with actions.
Howard said she is seeing meaningful actions within Amazon in recent months.
“It’s important for me as a Black woman to be able to see representation there,” she said of Boler Davis’ promotion to the S Team. She added that other Black executives have been representing the company on panel discussions and in other public-facing roles.
For example, Cherris Armour, director of worldwide operations and technical assistant to Dave Clark, the executive replacing Wilke, and David Bozeman, vice president of transportation services, were among the executives speaking at Amazon’s virtual career day on Wednesday. Earlier this month, the company touted the hiring of Ukonwa Ojo, formerly chief marketing officer at MAC Cosmetics, for that role for Prime Video and Amazon Studios.
Howard said executives have also been listening more closely to feedback and issues raised not just by Black corporate employees, but also those in the company’s vast and growing operations network of warehouses and delivery services, where the majority of its employees work. In the U.S., 26.5% of Amazon’s employees identified as Black or African American at the end of 2019.
“I think there’s a lot of things that are going on behind the scenes, which I’m super excited about,” she said, noting that some were already happening prior to June. “There’s a lot of great momentum. My biggest thing is making sure that momentum doesn’t start to fade.”
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