Cole Brown leads people experience and technology for several organizations at Amazon, including Devices and Services, Corporate and Business Development, and Advertising and Entertainment. She also has a full plate of responsibilities: recruiting; organizational design and effectiveness; training and development; and diversity, equity and inclusion. She joined the company in 2018, after previous roles with Conifer Health and Walmart, where she served as Chief Diversity Officer, among other roles. We connected with Cole to learn more about her background and career, what brought her to Amazon, and how her life experiences have shaped her approach to inclusive recruiting, hiring, and retention for Amazon’s Devices and Services organization.
Q: Tell us more about your path to Amazon. Specifically, how have the different roles over the course of your career shaped your approach today?
When I think about my career, I think about having a plan, but not being overly prescriptive. A plan can be helpful and instructive, but you have to remain curious enough and challenge yourself not to let it inadvertently put blinders on that prevent you from trying new things. I started my career as a corporate employment lawyer, which led me to practice law in-house as an attorney. I loved practicing law and had planned to continue, but it was in this role that my passion for exploring and solving other hard problems, beyond the legal context, started to manifest. So, when I got the opportunity to switch from Walmart’s legal department to human resources, a brand new career that would allow me to do this intentionally every day, I took it.
Ultimately, I was with Walmart for 12 years, during which time I had the opportunity to be the Chief Diversity Officer. The experience and perspective I gained through that role is really foundational to my approach at Amazon today, because it taught me the importance of playing the long game. You have to be bold in advancing long-term aspirational goals but also maintain clarity on the steps that will help you get there. It’s all about building a solid foundation, taking deliberate steps to rethinking the way we attract, retain, and grow the best talent, with intentionality around inclusivity—I believe that’s key to staying relevant as a company. That is a big part of what I love about my role at Amazon: building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace that is built for the long term.
Q: You’ve been with Amazon for just over two years. What about the company compelled you to take the role?
This one is easy for me: It was Amazon’s focus on customer obsession. When I was evaluating this opportunity, I started to read about Amazon’s culture and found myself drawn to the notion of customer obsession, one of the 14 Leadership Principles that Amazon employees aspire to every day. While it may sound easy, it’s my experience that staying focused on the customer (as opposed to competitors) is a hard standard to put into practice. But, Amazon seemed to have it figured out. That was encouraging, as I’ve always enjoyed working for companies that put customers first and serve the underserved. What’s more, the role in the Devices and Services organization would be close to customers, and I was excited about a job that enabled me to help drive a sense of connection between our work and the communities around us.
Q: In the United States, we celebrate Women’s History Month in March. How do you think about building an inclusive workplace in the Devices and Services organization, not just for employees that identify as women, but for employees of all backgrounds?
Jeff Bezos emphasizes that “good intentions never work, you need good mechanisms to make anything happen.” We certainly believe that holds true for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), which is why we’re building tools to make progress in key areas like retention of diverse talent. I believe we have a responsibility to work relentlessly toward identifying opportunity gaps for our current employees, including women of all backgrounds, and other historically marginalized groups. If prospective employees see themselves represented—and flourishing—at the highest levels here at Amazon, we hope they will want to grow their careers with us, too. We know it’s still Day 1 with this work, and we are committed to using data and anecdotes to drive toward our goal of an inclusive and equitable workplace.
Since I joined in 2018, the Devices and Services organization has grown tremendously. With that growth comes the need to nurture and promote a positive and equitable culture–one that embraces thousands of employees and enables them to invent on behalf of diverse customers. You can’t look for ingenuity in just one place–quite frankly, what inspires and excites me professionally and personally is working with and learning from employees from diverse experiences, backgrounds, cultures, generations, and perspectives. My dad was in the Army, and I moved a lot growing up. That experience had a big influence on who I am today, how I lead, and why I’m such an advocate at heart. I often had to consider things from a different perspective and challenge myself to be open to new experiences, even when it was sometimes difficult being new in the situation (i.e., the neighborhood, church, or school). I’m still learning and growing every day. So, this isn’t easy and it’s not a project with a finish line. In fact, I believe if you do it right, building and maintaining an inclusive culture will never have an end date.
I’m proud of the work that is underway and the progress I’m seeing every day—for example, since 2019, three additional women executives (including Christine Beauchamp, Head of Consumer Categories, NA; Colleen Aubrey, VP Performance Marketing; and Alicia Boler Davis, VP, Global Customer Fulfillment) were added to Amazon’s senior leadership team. And, a review of the compensation awarded in 2020 at Amazon shows that women earned 100 cents for every dollar that men earned performing the same jobs. Yet, I am keenly aware that much more work and progress is needed, and that we need more women—and women of color—in tech at all levels everywhere, including Amazon.
Q: What advice would you give to young women starting out in their careers?
Never lose sight of the choices you have; it can be liberating when you recognize your options and make decisions based on what’s right for you. Some choices will be risky, but great careers involve risk. I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not stepped outside my legal role into HR or diversified my professional experiences. At Amazon, I started in Operations and then moved to Devices–both experiences were invaluable and nourished a growth mindset. One of the biggest competencies you need in your career is resiliency–sometimes, winners lose. And, as I always say, think about the long game!
Q: Who is the role model, or individual, that has inspired the way you lead?
I’ve had the privilege of working with a number of wonderful mentors over the course of my career. I’m particularly reminded of one leader I reported to when I first went to HR, Charlyn Jarrells. She held everyone to a high bar while always keeping an eye out for developing potential. She was reassuring, encouraging, and saw the potential for me to do more. I learned a lot about leadership from her: the importance of a team, integrity, and that every good leader must also know how to follow and serve. Most importantly, she had a tremendous gift of feedback. It was sometimes tough to hear but it always made me better. I never forget the value of this gift, and I encourage others, including my mentees, to stay open and receptive to constructive feedback. Being coachable is essential and has been key to my growth and development as a leader throughout my career.