What can WC students learn from Jeff Bezos?

By Emma Campbell

Opinion Editor

Jeff Bezos announced Feb. 2, 2021 that he would be stepping down as Amazon chief executive in order to fill the role of executive chair. CEO of Amazon Web Services Andy Jassy will take over as Amazon CEO, NBC said.

“…[Jeff Bezos] is not leaving,” Brian Olsavsky, chief financial officer of Amazon, told investors on Tuesday. “He’s going to be executive chairman, super important role, super active in the Amazon success story.”

At its genesis, Amazon was a small tech start-up based out of a garage in Bellevue, Wash. Now it’s one of the world’s most successful big tech monsters; its founder Bezos, the 57-year-old billionaire who, according to Buzzfeed’s Min Li Chan, “we love to hate.”

Bezos’s business plan was a stroke of opportunistic genius. In the early 1990s, he observed the upward trend of global internet usage and aimed to profit off this mobility. Along the way, he callously slashed the sales of independent booksellers and small business owners — facing criticism in 2013 when Amazon cut back its deals on small-press books, according to The New York Times.

While Bezos’s net worth grew at a tremendous rate, his workers suffered, with “the people physically laboring in warehouses to ensure that Prime purchases get sent at the right schedule…expected to work increased hours with poor compensation under Dickensian conditions,” Fast Company’s Cale Guthrie Weissman said.

The bottom line: Bezos has benefited hugely from his online retailer, while those beneath him have suffered to help him achieve all that he has.

Some Washington College students with creative business aspirations may covet Bezos’s career trajectory. Bezos may be unethical, but no one’s arguing that he’s not a savvy businessman — after all, he didn’t stumble upon a $182 billion net worth by sheer chance. But what can these WC students learn from Bezos’s shortcomings that will set them apart from other endeavoring entrepreneurs?

Since the beginning, Bezos has pledged to make Amazon “customer focused” rather than “competitor focused.”

“Competitor focused…[is] a completely different mentality,” he said at the George W. Bush Presidential Center’s Forum on Leadership in 2018.

Bezos credited Amazon’s consumer-centric culture for energizing workers — though it’s possible that this customer-first mindset may have been what energized them into striking. 

In April of 2020, hundreds of Amazon employees from warehouses and corporate offices called in sick to protest dangerous work conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Business Insider.

The lesson here is obvious, and one that hopeful CEOs at WC would be remiss to ignore. Prioritizing customer service over competitor obsession is important, but prioritizing the welfare of employees is equally vital. 

A similar message was recently communicated by WC s faculty in October of 2020, when they petitioned a request to unionize to college administration and the Board of Visitors and Governors. This came “less than a week” after the College announced that its mitigation of a “‘period of financial stress’ would include furloughs and layoffs,” reported Kent County News.

WC students may do well to keep Bezos’s worst-case-scenario management tactics in mind as they encounter leaders in their own College community, for it might instruct them in the importance of holding these leaders accountable.

For those in the WC student body who dream of changing the world through lofty business enterprises, look to Bezos’s penny-pinching philanthropy for guidance on what not to do. Bezos’s $690,000 donation to the Australian wildfires from a net worth of $200 billion is insulting. In order to change the world, you actually have to care about it first.

Bezos’s title change probably won’t make too big of a difference in the way Amazon operates — as Olsavsky said, the company’s founder will still have a “super active” role in the online marketplace. But the mark he’s made on the global tech industry is lasting and educational to those who wish to forge a similar path. WC students who wish to follow their own business ventures can learn from Bezos’s mistakes, and hopefully forge a more equitable world in the process.

Featured Photo caption: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos recently stepped down as CEO of his company, citing a desire to spend more time on charitable ventures as the reason for this transition. Photo Courtesy of Flickr.

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