Debra Chrapaty joined the Amazon team as the vice president and chief operating officer of Amazon Alexa last August. This month, alongside VP of Grocery Stephenie Landry, she was named to Fast Company’s Queer50 list, a list of LGBTQ women and nonbinary innovators shaping our world. In honor of Pride Month, we sat down with Debra to talk about her experience as a gay female executive in the tech industry, her experience starting as COO of Alexa during the pandemic, and the best advice she ever received.
You started at Amazon as the COO of Alexa in the middle of a global pandemic. What was that like?
This pandemic has been devastating for so many people across the world, in so many different ways. Although it was certainly a different experience to start my new job from my living room rather than in an office, I was stepping into a leadership role at Amazon at a time when customers were not only relying on the devices and services in their homes more than ever, but using them in new ways. I knew I needed to hit the ground running. When I started, my mostly remote team had already been working virtually for nearly five months. I knew that I needed to plug into the culture quickly, but also make sure we were communicating effectively and delivering on all the new ways that customers were relying on devices in their homes.
For many of our customers, work lives and home lives were melding, and one of the ways customers were relying on devices during this transition was to help provide structure or periodic reminders throughout the day. For example, customers began adjusting to new schedules with Alexa “Stay at Home” and “Work from Home” Routines, which provide reminders of when to take meal breaks, start work, get up and stretch, and end the work day. Customers also began asking Alexa “What time is it?” far less than usual, while requests for “What day is it?” increased. We also heard stories of powerful new ways customers were interacting with Alexa. For example, front-line workers used Alexa to communicate remotely with patients in the hospital. More recently, I saw a wonderful video of a senior who used an Echo Show to connect with her family whom she hadn’t seen in nine months.
As a result, my first months were an excellent primer of just how important our devices and services can be for customers' lives. The pandemic had a profound personal impact on me and my family in terms of how we thought about staying connected while apart, and the power of Alexa became clear both at home and at work. I’ve always thought of Alexa as a breakthrough product, but I believe the circumstances of the past year have revealed the true power of voice AI. I am so excited about the future of Alexa, and I believe our products have the possibility to open new potential for people of all ages, abilities, and incomes. From a leadership standpoint, that means we have to be even more purposeful about listening to, and encouraging, diverse perspectives across our teams. By bringing diverse perspectives to how we think about our entire devices and services line, we can better serve everyone.
You’ve worked in the technology industry for years. How are you applying your experience to your new role at Amazon?
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned throughout my career is that by embracing the traits that make us different, you deliver on promises to both yourself and the customers you serve. No one wins when we all look, think, and act the same. Some of the leadership qualities I focused on right away at Amazon included honesty, empathy, transparency, humility, keeping an open mind and open door, and simplifying complexity and translating it to customer value. Amazon is a culture of builders, dreamers, and inventors—and I’m proud to help nourish that culture as the COO of Alexa.
From a leadership perspective, onboarding remotely forced me to be much more intentional. I’ve always considered myself an intentional leader, but I had to build trust and new relationships during a very unusual and isolated time. I doubled down on communication and immediately started sending a letter to our team every week. This weekly letter to thousands of people opened the door to sharing feelings, stories, successes, and failures across borders and reinforced to the team that although we’re physically apart, we are one team centered around a vision to be customer obsessed.
What advice do you have for members of the LGBTQIA+ community looking to grow their careers?
When I think about when I was first starting out in my career, I’m reminded of a poster that was given to me when I was the CTO of the NBA, from what was then Lucent Technologies, in 1997. It read: “Girls will be girls. Good thing. Congratulations to our partner Debra Chrapaty, fellow groundbreaker in technology.” For decades now, I’ve taken my role as an out gay leader very seriously. Although times have changed since I first received that award in 1997, my intentions have remained similar: to be completely myself at work and, in doing so, create a safe environment for other people to do the same.
I have always believed that authenticity builds trust and that it’s essential in creating an environment where diverse thinking can thrive, and where everyone can think big. So my advice is to be yourself and apply your whole self. Your company hired you for a reason and if you share less, then you are denying your colleagues, staff, and customers the full value of what you bring to the table.
How does your approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion inform your daily work?
I’ve been encouraged by how Amazon embraces diversity, equity, and inclusion, and I think the Leadership Principles can play a very empowering role in creating spaces where people feel comfortable being completely themselves. It’s important for people to understand that Amazon is a place that embraces all different kinds of leadership styles, and that the Amazon Leadership Principles are nuanced enough to encourage people of all different backgrounds to grow and thrive. We also use a data-driven approach to identify opportunity gaps for employees at all levels, including women of all backgrounds and other historically marginalized groups. Through data, mechanisms, and a nuanced approach to the Leadership Principles, this Amazonian approach positively contributes to our efforts to build a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable culture across the company.
I think of the Leadership Principles as a guiding light for how people can see themselves at the company—everyone can see themselves in a principle. For example, one of my favorite principles is Think Big. Think about it: As a young lesbian woman starting work at a company that intentionally encourages you to set bold goals and think differently, you should feel empowered to pick up that gauntlet and bring your whole, true self to work. Another leadership principle I like is Leaders Are Right, A Lot—so again, imagine the empowerment when a company tells you should trust your judgment, and also work to disconfirm your beliefs by listening to people with different opinions, backgrounds, and experiences than you. I think these principles offer a broader platform for inclusion that can be empowering for everyone at the company.
“My goal is not only for people to bring their whole selves to work, but that we build a workplace environment that empowers people to bring the best version of their whole selves. ”
There’s a lot of talk about inclusiveness in the workplace, but I also think we need to think about inclusiveness as it applies to how we build and deploy our products. We want Alexa to be accessible to everyone, and to do that we must consider inclusiveness in all aspects of how we design and deploy our products. Our ultimate goal is to enable people of all ages, abilities, and socioeconomic levels to take advantage of the powerful opportunities of voice AI.
What is the best advice you ever received?
The best personal advice I have ever received was in my 20s from my mother who said, “I blinked and I was 60, enjoy your life.” Those words have resonated as I've grown older, and to me they mean stay true to your dreams, enjoy the journey, strive for excellence, but don’t get bogged down in noise and negativity, and celebrate often.