Power Suit: The Superpower Behind Diversity

Amazon’s Mamar Gelaye says the diversity she brings to the playing field is what propelled her forward

By Carlett Spike

Mamar Gelaye’s love of technology started at an early age. So when Amazon approached her to fill the role of vice president of robotics strategy, she knew the position was a perfect fit.

When she joined the company in October 2021, she brought with her decades of deep leadership experience, having set strategy and driven innovation across consumer and business product, services, and distribution sectors. In this latest role, she leads the team that designs, deploys, and supports technology infrastructure and devices for Amazon’s end-to-end global supply chain.

Gelaye previously worked as chief information officer and vice president for the aerospace and defense company Raytheon Technologies, and in various executive roles with GE Power Services and Finance and GE Healthcare for nearly two decades. Her background as a mechanical engineer laid the foundation for her career as a digital transformation executive.

Diversity Woman: How did your upbringing influence your career and leadership style?

Mamar Gelaye: I’m a first-generation immigrant from Ethiopia. My upbringing was grounded in that story of being an immigrant. English was not my first language, and so I really had to adapt in terms of understanding language and culture. We left Ethiopia because there were significant challenges, and coming to the US was an important inflection point for my family. It was an opportunity to restart our lives. My family of origin instilled in me the importance of resiliency, hard work, and a hunger for learning, doing good, and being great in this world. I was raised by lifelong learners, and that’s a big part of my leadership as well—to both learn and teach. Those lessons shaped my early years and who I am today.

DW: What were some of your leadership roles when young? How did they shape you and affect your thought leadership today?

MG: It’s so funny because I was always fairly quiet and introspective. I think some of my earliest leadership came out in my writing. I had a teacher who recognized that early in me and encouraged me to use my voice externally. I gave the eighth-grade class graduation speech. That was the first time that I was in a position of leading my peers. It was actually quite surprising, and so I would just amplify the importance of people seeing capability and drawing others forward. In those ways, it’s been a big factor in my life and something I hope to do for others as well.

DW:  What advice do you have for others who identify as introverts and feel they may not have what it takes to be a leader?

MG: I am still quiet, very introspective, and a ferocious reader. I do think there should be a celebration of those of us who are introspective, data driven, and science driven. I use that as a superpower, so when I do speak, I absolutely have something to say that’s meaningful, well reasoned, and well supported. For those who identify with that, I would encourage them to be who they are. When they have those moments when they want to lead, they should trust themselves with that.

DW:  What are some of the obstacles you’ve overcome throughout your career?

MG: I’ve experienced all the obstacles you’d predict as an immigrant, as a woman, and as an African American. But I’ve used those obstacles to propel me. I received lots of positive affirmations from people, but I also received negative affirmations from some, questioning why I’m in this space. I try to meet that by first reminding myself of my journey and how I arrived here. None of this was accidental—it was earned.

DW: Why did you think the role at Amazon would be a good fit?

MG: What compelled me were three things: one, asking myself whether I was using my capabilities to the full reach and scale; two, the opportunity to contribute to work that will be industry transformational; and three, the desire to constantly learn and grow. Amazon is such a vast company, of so many incredible innovations and transformations, that the possibilities are endless.

DW: How did you get into robotics?

MG: I love taking things apart, putting them back together differently, and understanding how they work, so I was very drawn to engineering. I studied engineering in undergrad, and midway through my mechanical engineering career, I started doing computer programming around control systems and found I really enjoyed the process. That began my journey into technology, automation, and digitization. When you ask what brought me here, I’ve never not been here. This has always been part of me. I think it’s important that we say those things so other women and diverse talents know it’s possible. I had the benefit of math teachers who saw I was into math, shop teachers who saw I was industrious, and writing teachers who saw that I could write. So I look for those kinds of kids everywhere I go and try to encourage them.

DW: How does Amazon support and advance women, and women of color, into leadership positions?

MG: There are numerous employee resource groups. There’s Women in Tech, which is focused on encouraging women who are in these technology spaces to advance their careers and capabilities, and create communities. The Women at Amazon group is a critical resource to help the company think big about the way we impact the lives of women inside the business and in the community. A few other groups include Women in Finance and Engineering, the Families at Amazon network that includes Momazonians, and there are many women who proudly participate in our Black Employee Network, Amazon Warriors, and affinity groups. There are numerous others. A lot of them are employee led and orchestrated, which is wonderful, but they also get strong leadership support, and I’m very proud of that.

DW: What other initiatives at Amazon help foster women’s leadership?

MG: I personally have a number of initiatives that I’m working on in partnership with historically black colleges and universities. Amazon invests in various programs, including our global mentorship program, which creates more than 6,000 mentorship opportunities every year to actively recruit and help more women advance into senior and technology-focused roles.

We launched our annual Shine Summit [in 2022], dedicated to the development of Amazon’s Black women leaders, with plans to expand the program for all our BIPOC women leaders. Planning for Shine Latina is underway for 2023. We are also nurturing the next generation of tech leaders through programs like Amazon Future Engineer and our partnership with Girl Scouts USA to develop customized programming to introduce girls to STEM, and through accelerator programs like Catalytic Capital, Amazon’s Black Business Accelerator, and AWS Impact Accelerator.

Lastly, we encourage individuals at Amazon who have ideas to write a paper called a PR/FAQ to present those ideas to leadership for support. I’ve done it a number of times and received positive support.

DW: What advice do you have for women, and women of color, who want to advance?

MG: So often we’re trying to identify with someone else that we see on their journey and rigidly follow the steps they’ve taken. I just think that’s obsolete. We’re writing new algorithms. I would encourage women and women of color to think about what capabilities they have, what they’re passionate about, what questions they would like to solve, what missions they want to take, and what support and reinforcement they need. Go curate all those things. I can’t wait to see what your algorithm produces.

DW: How do you define an excellent leader?

GM: We are in an intersectional time when the best leaders will be reflective of a diverse spectrum of talent. While the type of leader needed depends on the moment, an excellent leader needs to be context aware, a creator, someone who brings others along, creates collaborations and orchestrations. DW

Carlett Spike is a New Jersey–based writer and editor whose work has appeared in AARP.com, Prevention, and Columbia Journalism Review, among other outlets.

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