An Interview with Mary Camarata, Global Director, Amazon Web Services (AWS)

After hearing Mary Camarata speak on stage, we just knew we had to get an interview with her. To our delight, she accepted. Here’s what she said…

What was your first professional job like?

Mary: My first professional job was right after I graduated from college. My father gave me $500 and basically told me I had one month to figure things out. So, I was desperate to find a job.

I had a degree, a double major in communications, journalism, and graphic design, and I thought I would do something in marketing or public relations. I really liked PR, and so I started looking for a job, literally pounding the pavement. I was pretty desperate at the time and was applying for all the major companies and brands you can think of, like Coca-Cola and Reebok. I mailed resumes and cover letters to the HR departments because, back then, there was no email or websites, so you could not apply for a job online. I just went to the Kinkos and I made lots of copies of my resume and cover letters and I mailed them out. I never heard anything from any of those.

One weekend, I was with my roommate at a wedding, and every time they asked, “What do you do?”, I was like, “I’m looking for a job in marketing.”

A guy I met there said, “Actually, my sister is VP of marketing at a company here called Unify.” I told him I’d never heard of it, and he said it was a technical company that made relational database management systems.  

I did not know what that was. He told me to mail him my resume and I was so desperate, I said, “Actually, I can just hand it to you now.”

I opened up my little purse, and in there was my crumpled resume. I handed it to him and told him I would be really grateful if he could give it to his sister, as I really needed a job.

Three days later, I got a call from one of the marketing managers in his sister’s group, inviting me for an interview. I got the job on the spot. I was so excited, I took my offer letter from that first job right to the Toyota dealership and got a car, because I didn’t have a car. I was in Sacramento, taking the bus, so I went with my letter and said, “I have a job, but I have no money down” and they gave me a car. I got a car with a seven year loan and no deposit, all based on my offer letter. That’s how I started.

How has your experience been working with men?

It’s been an interesting road, but it became a lot easier once I figured it out. I would say this, though:

Do your homework; whenever you go to a meeting, whatever the topic is, always do your homework. Come in after having done thorough research and know what your position is going to be. Then sit down at the table and listen first. When you listen first, you’ll hear which men are going to be the hardest to convince, then, you’ll be able to find your angle and and get the rest of the table around to your opinion.

And it could be men or women that will disagree with you. The point is to be prepared and to come in knowing what you want, what your opinion is, and then you need to defend it. In my current position in Amazon, one of the things that our management does often is you’ll have a meeting with them, then you’ll propose a plan or something you want to do, and they’ll start pushing at potential issues or problems just to see how convicted you are to your own idea. If you’re going to cave right away, then it’s not worth pursuing and you’ve just wasted their time. You don’t want to be in that position, they want to see that you’re convicted, that you absolutely are bought into your own idea and that you’re going to be there, to support it, and to see it through. That gives them the confidence to support you, which is really important.

If you’re an entrepreneur and you’re presenting your new business idea to a VC who’s going to invest in your company, you’ll get a lot of people trying to poke holes in your idea. And if you cave in, no one is going to invest in your company. So, do your research; show that you’ve thought of every angle, every hole, every risk, every opportunity, and that you know what you’re doing.

Have you ever mentored women?

I’ve mentored a lot of people. Once, I met a girl at my first startup. She came in for an interview and I loved her, instantly. She ended up getting another job somewhere else, but we kept in touch. I got a role as global director of PR for an enterprise group in HP, and we needed additional hires, so I asked her to come work for me. She did not have a college education, but she had all this other traits. There are certain traits you want to hire people for, there are certain traits you can train people for, and it's important to know the difference. You can’t train somebody to be passionate about technology, to really care about what they're doing, to have energy, to have a good attitude, to be a problem solver, and collaborator. She had this spirit, this passion, this energy, she loved technology, and even though she didn't have a college education I fought to get her into HP. She joined, and it was hard for her to make the move to a big company from an agency with small teams, and in a big company like HP there’s a lot of politics involved.

She had a successful career at HP, and when she felt it was time for her move on to another company, she did. She was very brave and that was one of my favorite things about her, she was a risk taker! You can't train somebody to take risks, she was a natural risk taker and very brave. She moved to New York by herself and got a job at a startup company, but she ended up not staying at that startup company, though. I continued to mentor her while she was at that company, and every time I went to New York on business, she and I would meet up and chat. We worked together and I worked with her on her writing. She was a really good learner too, she wanted to learn.

Mentorship is a two-way street.The mentor needs to want to teach and they can't have a hidden agenda, or be competitive with you at all. So make sure that if you ask someone to be your mentor there is no competitiveness there. People who are really secure with themselves and their career are not competitive because they want you to be the best you can be, even if that means you pass them. Those people exist, but there are also people who are competitive.

What is your recommendation for women in startups to get the right mentor?

If I was a woman and I knew what I wanted, or what kind of business I want to work for, I’d find somebody who represents what I want for myself. In Linkedln, send a note and saying: I am a woman in Latin America, I'm starting my own startup, I have followed your career, and you are so inspiring to me, would you mind being a mentor to me?

It’s so easy now to get in touch with people; it was much tougher back when I was starting out, so just reach out. You might get ignored, but you might not, and there might be somebody who wants to help you. I wouldn't turn away an email like that from someone who needed help, who wanted advice or needed support. I would look at the person's profile and try to understand their personality through that profile, and depending on the personality and what you had that came through your profile, it could make the difference.

Think about what you want for your business; if you want your business to look like Airbnb in 10 years, go learn about Airbnb and how they started, where they started, what their milestones are and think about how you are going to put together something similar for your company and what those key milestones are. Then focus on that first milestone, how do you get there? So, you can learn a lot by modeling after something that's already up there.

If you know what your perfect job is, go find it on one of the job search sites, find that perfect job, the title, and everything, and then look at all the skills and the experience that you need, and make a plan for how you're going to get all of that experience.

Can you share a personal quote?

I think one of my favorite ones would be “Work hard, play hard!”, because I made sure I brought in the fun to get my team motivated. You can’t work your team hard to achieve some goals without giving them fun time. We've had times where we would close the office and go to the movies, pottery, or go bowling during company hours.

For my life right now, I would say: “Always be looking for how you can reset your best before date”.  At some point you’re going to run out of value time for the company or the company will run you out. Companies don’t have loyalty to people, people have loyalty in other people. You always want to be resetting your best before date. It doesn't matter how good you are at one point in your career, there are always opportunities for you to get stale in whatever your role is, and you don't want that to happen.

Describe yourself in a word or phrase

My nickname at HP was Chihuahua; small but powerful. Some of the guys that I really respected gave me that, because I was small but powerful in getting things done and doing my job.

 

We loved hearing Mary’s inspiring story. It’s definitely one that we can all learn from. Key learnings? Be passionate about what you do, stand up for your ideas, always be prepared, continue to learn new things, and don’t be afraid to take risks.