Katie George, EMEA Student Programs Lead, Amazon, was born in Swaziland to a white British father and a well-known singer from Soweto. It wasn’t until Katie started university in the UK that her ‘difference’ took on a new meaning. She now puts her personal experience into practice by travelling around the EMEA region to identify the brightest and best from all backgrounds.
Tell us about your experience of feeling ‘different’ whilst studying at Warwick University.
I was born in Swaziland, a country with the world’s highest estimated prevalence of HIV-infected adults and where the King, the world’s last absolute monarch, has 17 wives. Despite growing up living on a farm with no electricity where we sold jam and bred trout, you might say that I had a privileged background in an underprivileged country. However, when my parents got divorced and we moved to the UK with my mum, I began to realise how tough financially it was for her.
It wasn’t until I studied psychology at Warwick that I started to realise what diversity meant, and that I was different in many more ways than just my birthplace. This proved to be both an obstacle and an advantage. I was referred to as the girl with the afro…because out of 20,000+ students, no other girl had one! It was at university when I started thinking about how I could create positive change for others and celebrate the international students I studied and lived with.
Why were things different on joining Amazon?
When I joined Amazon, it felt like an open place where I could voice my opinions and be a leader – a workplace where I could be myself. We foster an environment where we all learn from one another, respect diverse cultures and build connections that improve collaboration. Not to mention that I can wear the bright pink socks that were frowned upon by previous employers (not that it stopped me wearing them!). At Amazon, it really is not about what you wear, but about what you have to say.
How easy was it to rise through the ranks as a woman of colour?
I like to think (and believe) that my heritage is a great icebreaker. Due to my South African and English mix, people are often interested in my history and how I found myself to be where I am today. If anything, I see it as a huge advantage as it is still uncommon to see someone who looks like me in the corporate environment. I am remembered more easily, which helps me to build workplace relationships. Of course, this also means that I am sometimes conscious of my interactions, as I will also be remembered for my successes as well as any less positive experiences.
What are your thoughts on what diversity and inclusion mean to Amazon?
For a company like Amazon, innovation is crucial to our success and diversity helps drive innovation by giving us new ideas and a better understanding of customers’ needs.
Innovation can happen anywhere and, without a diverse workforce, opportunities could be missed. Diverse teams are better prepared to spot opportunities from a variety of sources and inputs. Just having a diverse team, however, isn’t enough. You also need an inclusive environment and the capacity to receive and act on feedback. Inclusivity is important because a diverse workforce must feel comfortable in order to contribute ideas. Additionally, it’s important to encourage everybody to contribute to the creative process in order to think and act innovatively.
Fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace culture means that those voices are not only confident in speaking up, but that they are heard, and their recommendations are properly considered.
What does a diverse workforce bring to the business?
The business case for diversity is now well established at boardroom level – in simple terms, companies with a diverse workforce have a competitive advantage.
In a global economy where competition for top talent is fierce, more diverse companies are, the better they are in attracting talent, improving brand perception, boosting employee satisfaction and broadening decision-making.
For Amazon, this all helps to create a virtuous circle of positive change, both internally and externally.
Why is cultural inclusion so vital to a successful recruitment and HR strategy?
Diverse perspectives help overcome strategic and organisational challenges in order to compete in a globalised business environment – so we need to create an environment where those voices feel confident and comfortable when speaking up.
Travelling to places like South Africa, Poland, Ireland, Germany and the US, I’m focused on attracting and retaining the best graduates regardless of their background. I’m also responsible for managing a diverse team of recruiters, co-ordinators and recruitment managers who inspire me daily with their ability to deliver results. We encourage an open team culture where we listen to our whole team, regardless of role, and use feedback to improve processes. In fact, some of our best ideas have come from the newest team members.
While ‘inclusion’ may feel like a term used so loosely it risks losing its meaning, it is an integral part of our business and a key ingredient in creating a workplace where innovation can thrive.
As the head of Student Programs, what initiatives have you put in place to ensure you attract a diverse pool of graduates?
It’s all about putting rigorous processes in place that restrict unconscious bias, both from recruiters and from candidates themselves.
For example, when recruiting at Amazon, interviews focus on our Leadership Principles. Each interviewer assesses the candidate on a couple of Leadership Principles such as the candidate’s ‘bias for action’ or whether they ‘insist on high standards’. This is written up methodically based on STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result), and submitted without the interviewers knowing what the other has submitted until they meet to discuss the results.
We do not screen out based on which university a candidate attended to ensure we also secure top talent from outside the top university rankings. We trust our assessment process will catch the best talent we want and need. The university a candidate attended is not always the best predictor of the qualities we are looking for, like grit and an entrepreneurial outlook. Limiting our pool of talent is not what we are about.
Naturally, Amazon is a very data and evidence-driven business which helps ensure recruitment focuses on what you know rather than who you know.
Equally, once they have been hired, what have you done to ensure they feel included?
Our Leadership Principles are applied throughout the business, every day – in fact we apply them to everything, from new projects and ideas to employee performance reviews and promotion opportunities. By working towards a universal standard, that culture of inclusion becomes habitual.
We also have a host of employee affinity groups which are led by employees and allow us to stay tuned to the needs and expectations of everybody at the business. Among others, these groups include the Black Employee Network, glamazon, People With Disabilities and Women at Amazon.
That culture is backed up by robust policies, such as those for flexible working, or our Transgender Guidelines which were launched last summer with the support of glamazon, our LGBT+ employee affinity group. Amazon in the Community initiatives such as our Women in Innovation Bursary, Career Choice and AWS Re:Start also help us to build cultural inclusion across the wider community.
What challenges do you see on the horizon?
In terms of diversity, I’ve seen a massive improvement during my career, however more broadly there is still a long way to go. That’s why I spend time outside of work giving talks and workshops to inspire younger generations, including training young BAME people to change their mindsets by exposing them to positive role models.
Enabling businesses to think a few years ahead is also a challenge in the campus recruitment space, as our task is to predict future growth and devise programmes that feed their future talent pipeline. Thinking that far ahead from a resourcing perspective can be challenging, but hugely beneficial in the long-term. Any team who has hosted an intern or graduate feels the positive impact of the innovation intern and graduate hires bring to the organisation.
And of course, I face every day challenges – but I love them! I love solving problems, from managing my busy diary and extensive travel, to making sure I find time to catch up with everyone on my team.
What does success look like to you in your role?
The role I am currently in now at Amazon is my personal career highlight. It’s the biggest, fastest-growing team I’ve ever been in charge of, and opportunities are rife for anybody who’s ready to run with them. So, we see success every day in terms of how the team operates and performs.
In a broader sense, I want all organisations to continue making progress in appealing to, recruiting and retaining employees from all backgrounds. With a focus on keeping and growing top talent from all backgrounds, I am sure we will see business growth and employee satisfaction trend upwards. It’s the way of the future, it would be a shame for anyone to get left behind.
Finally, can you give me your top five tips to ensure organisations hire and retain diverse graduates?
1. Set a universal standard. Our Leadership Principles guide everything we do, creating a level playing field throughout every interaction an interviewee or employee has with the company.
2. Employee affinity groups. Allowing employees to lead these groups gives them ownership of key issues and organisational goals.
3. Senior leaders set the tone. It’s vital that the management team take the lead on diversity and inclusion initiatives, being visible, passionate and well-informed about what it means to be inclusive.
4. Data-driven decision-making. This helps reduce unconscious bias – for example, we ensure that documents are unauthored and we base decisions on evidence rather than emotion.