DIRECTOR OF HOME INNOVATION TEAM, AMAZON
I feel like I work for something a little bigger than me, and I love that. That’s what keeps me here and excited.
Kristiana Helmick T'98 has had three very different jobs in the last decade. She conceived of and launched digital magazines, helped feed and care for America’s pets, and now envisions futuristic ways to furnish your home. And all of it at a single company: Amazon.
Helmick, who is now director of Amazon’s Home Innovation Team, spent her early career in media, as a cub reporter for the Christian Science Monitor before Tuck, and after in consumer marketing at Time Inc., where she helped launch Real Simple and later worked with its biggest title, People.
She left Time Inc. in 2008 at a moment of great technology-driven disruption in the publishing world, wanting to be at a company driving that change. She was also hungry to create, as she puts it, a vertical learning curve for herself. All signs, she says, pointed to Amazon.
What were you hired to do at Amazon?
My first job at Amazon was focused on the physical magazine business. After about a year, I started getting a lot of questions from former colleagues throughout the magazine industry saying, “The Kindle is really taking off at Amazon. We’d like to be part of it. Do you know who I could talk to?”
At the time Kindle was growing exponentially, but it was book-focused. I raised my hand and said, “I don’t know much about the Kindle, but would you like me to work on the magazine and newspaper content?” What I’ve learned at Amazon is, if you raise your hand, three seconds later, that’s your new job. There’s so much opportunity, especially if you volunteer. I then spent the next five years with Kindle building the digital reading and shopping experiences for the e-reader and the first tablets.
How did you transition from media into pet supplies?
Early in my time at Amazon, one of my bosses said to me, “I haven’t heard you have an opinion about business outside of magazines.” I was surprised by the comment. Magazines were my job, after all. But when I thought about it, he was asking me to grow. He was validating that I was a smart person and could have an opinion about businesses beyond my scope.
When we recruit at Amazon, we offer as a selling point that you can have a variety of careers without leaving. I decided to take the company up on that. I spent six months exploring what might be interesting. I chose to work in the retail division because I felt like that was what made Amazon what it is today—it’s the beating heart of the company. I didn’t know what job I was going to be offered within retail, and it came out to be a very happy surprise when I was asked to be the general manager of the pet supplies team. I’ve always loved animals.
How did you negotiate diving into a leadership position in a new sector?
You have to start really humble and be confident in your humility. When I interviewed for the job, I was asked to rate myself on my readiness for the new job on a scale of 1 to 10. I gave myself a good grade on “working with external parties” because I’d done a good job on that at Kindle. But on supply chain, I gave myself a grade of 1. My interviewer nodded and said, “Well, how would you learn?” I responded that I would ask my team to walk me through all the information they use for their job. And that’s what I did. You have to learn from your team and not pretend you know when you don’t.
What prompted the jump to Amazon’s home innovation team?
I could have spent a lot more time on the Pets team, building and learning about the business, but I was driven by curiosity to explore new verticals and opportunities. That vertical learning curve was speaking to me again, saying, “Boy, how much could you learn there!”
What is “home innovation”?
When a customer is looking to buy a piece of furniture they may have for decades, spending hundreds or thousands of dollars, it’s a big decision. There’s a lot of opportunity to invent a great shopping experience for them.
Think about what it would take for you to feel great to remodel your home or re-fresh your living room style, shopping only at Amazon—that’s what we aspire to. Our home businesses are successful today, but we are just getting started. Now, a lot of those decisions are done in physical brick and mortar stores, but the millennials who grew up as digital natives expect also to be able to research and get great information online.
What’s the culture at Amazon like?
It’s certainly intense, but anyone who’s graduated from Tuck knows what that’s like. My sense is that people who go to Tuck are seeking a challenge and want to learn and have fun and be collaborative at the same time. That has been my experience at Amazon.
When I graduated from Tuck, a close friend asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We both agreed we wanted to change the world. At Amazon, we all want to make the world a little bit better for customers. I feel like I work for something a little bigger than me, and I love that. That’s what keeps me here and excited.
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