Amazon holds second annual career enrichment event

The event sought to promote the company's opportunities for diverse candidates after facing backlash from some employees of color last year.

Amazon finished up its second annual career enrichment event, which focused on promoting ways to help diverse candidates at a time when millions of people are switching careers. 

Amazon faced significant backlash last year from some employees of color, who complained of wide-ranging racism and sexism within the company's upper ranks. But the event -- titled Represent The Future -- tried to appeal to the Black, Latinx and Native American community in an effort to help those looking for work at Amazon and elsewhere. 

CEO Andy Jassy spoke at the event alongside dozens of Amazon employees of color, who shared their own tips, conducted mock interviews and held workshops to give newcomers networking opportunities. 

Erin Dowell, global leader of Amazon diversity conferences, told ZDNet that the free event came after thousands of Black, Latino and Native American professionals joined Amazon last fall to learn about working at Amazon and building their careers. 

"We know that representation matters. This career enrichment summit is intentionally bringing together professionals from Black, Latino and Native American communities and is not only focused on finding a job but also the summit will highlight for job seekers and entrepreneurs alike the power of networking, community and building one another up," Dowell said. 

"We know that representation is central to accomplishing our goals of a truly diverse and inclusive workplace. Diverse leaders build diverse teams -- therefore, our focus is on representation at all levels within Amazon. When people can see themselves at work across many different workstreams and levels from engineering and operations to entertainment and fashion, it is easier to connect and feel a sense of belonging." 

In addition to panels and dialogues, the event featured Black and Latino entrepreneurs who work with Amazon services and platforms to power their businesses. Amazon also delved into their new efforts ranging from a "Black Business Accelerator" to a "Future of Fashion and Entertainment at Amazon" program.

Dowell added that Amazon is working on diversifying its talent base by recruiting from new talent pipelines through partnerships with academic institutions and professional organizations.

"This ranges from signing onto the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Partnership Pledge to our work with Hispanic servicing institutions and tribal colleges to hosting a career summit that intentionally works to bring together professionals from Black, Latino and Native American communities," Dowell said. 

Dowell disputed the allegations raised by Charlotte Newman -- a former adviser to US Senator Cory Booker who is suing Amazon for sexual harassment and gender discrimination -- and others, telling ZDNet that the charges "do not reflect" the company's efforts to "foster a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture."

Newman, a senior manager in the Amazon Web Services division, told Vox and other news outlets last year that she was given a role lower than the one she was initially offered and had to wait years for a promotion, all while doing more work than her peers. In addition to being sexually harassed by a supervisor, Newman said other Amazon leaders repeatedly called her intimidating, "scary", and "too direct."

Dozens of other Black employees at Amazon echoed Newman's claims, criticizing the company for a practice known internally as "down-leveling" or "de-leveling," where Black employees were routinely hired at levels lower than they expected or thought they deserved. 

"I strongly believe that Amazon should be harnessing the light of diverse leadership rather than dimming the light of Black employees and other employees of color," Newman told Vox. "For years, I had been sort of suffering in silence, [but] I'm sure there are a lot of people who now feel more empowered to add their voices to the story, and hopefully, there's some real change that occurs."

Dowell told ZDNet that Amazon does "not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind and thoroughly investigates all claims and takes appropriate action." 

"Represent the Future is a part of our broader company-wide commitment to empower and uplift historically underrepresented communities," Dowell said. 

Dowell went on to cite her own experience, noting that last year she attended the first Represent the Future as a prospective candidate and now serves as the leader of global events in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion organization at Amazon.

"To help foster our culture of inclusion, Amazon has 13 affinity groups with more than 90 000 employees across 190 chapters globally. Also, women lead some of our biggest and most important businesses, including our global customer fulfillment team, AmazonFresh, Prime Now, the Alexa experience team, Amazon Advertising and Amazon Fashion, among many others," Dowell explained.

"Last year, we set -- and met -- a number of aggressive goals, including doubling the number of Black directors and VPs at Amazon. That effort -- accomplished through a mix of hiring and promoting from within -- was so successful, we've committed to doubling the number again in 2021. We know there is work to be, and goals like these represent the next step in Amazon's diversity, equity, and inclusion journey, not the final destination."

Dowell went on to say that the purpose of the event was to help people feel encouraged by seeing people who look like them filling a variety of roles across Amazon's business, from engineering and operations to design and business development. 

"Ultimately, we want attendees to be encouraged to apply for specific roles recruiters think might be a good fit. We see Represent the Future as a great starting point for attendees and their career journeys -- whether that next opportunity includes Amazon or not," Dowell added. 

Amazon has already committed to doubling the number of Black directors and VPs in the US year-over-year from 2020 numbers, increasing the hiring of US Black employees at the specialist, manager and senior manager level by at least 30% year-over-year from 2020 hiring, increasing the number of US Black software development engineer interns by at least 40% and increasing the number of women in tech and science roles by 30% year-over-year.

"We know that representation is critical to accomplishing this goal, and those diverse leaders attract and retain diverse talent. To accomplish this, we are setting aggressive goals and are on the path to progress," Dowell said.

"We are focused on increasing representation of Black employees in the US and women in senior tech roles globally because they represent areas where we have some of the farthest to go. We expect that the new mechanisms and strategies we build to achieve these specific goals will increase opportunities for other underrepresented communities across the company."