8 min read
Jan. 31, 2023
How the Black Employee Network empowers Black employees to thrive at Amazon and AWS
In this Q&A with three AWS leaders from Amazon's Black Employee Network (BEN) affinity group, learn how mechanisms in place across the company support current and future generations of Black talent.
Written by the Life at AWS team
When Jawann Graves first represented AWS and Amazon's Black Employee Network (BEN) at AfroTech, a premier technical conference for the Black community, he felt a mixture of pride, disbelief, and joy as he witnessed Black excellence and success on such a large scale. He knew it was a feeling he wanted to experience time and time again.
BEN is an Amazon and AWS employee-led affinity group that supports Black employees and advocates for inclusion, diversity, and equity efforts company-wide. There are now 28 corporate chapters and more than 13,500 members globally.
Life at AWS met with three of BEN’s global leaders to learn more about its mission and purpose, and how BEN members across Amazon and AWS work together to support Black colleagues and grow global Black talent pipelines.
Jawann Graves, systems development manager for AWS Marketplace and an Amazon Dedicated Cloud leader, is co-president of the BEN’s global board; ZsaVette Ellis Eze, an AWS Professional Services practice manager for cloud infrastructure architecture, is BEN’s global recruiting and retention leader; and Natu Abraham, an AWS associate account manager, is BEN’s director of marketing, communications, and branding.
Life at AWS: What is the primary purpose and mission of BEN?
What kinds of events, get-togethers, and activities, does BEN host throughout the year to serve its mission, and what are some of BEN’s most noteworthy causes or events?
1. Philanthropy, which includes reading to elementary school students, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) talks, food and book-bag donations, and literacy programs.
2. Employee development, where we discuss how to get promoted, share internal resources at our disposal, and expose our members to the amazing employee growth opportunities available at Amazon.
"BEN members meet with students and show them there are people who look like them working at companies like Amazon. This glimpse into what technology actually looks like shows them that others of their race and economic status have overcome similar challenges."
AWS Marketplace systems development manager
Amazon Dedicated Cloud leader
BEN global board co-president
Uplifting Black voices
Natu Abraham: Breaking into tech as a Black person or person of color can be intimidating as the tech industry is known to be highly skilled and fast-paced. BEN Chapters host workshops on professional development, finance, career growth, and we provide communication platforms for Black Amazonians to share opportunities, thoughts, information, and support for one another.
ZEE: Black employees make up just 7.4% of the tech workforce according to AnitaB.org. Historically, businesses have launched Black leadership programs in an attempt to “fix” the talent problem. But Black talent doesn’t need fixing. We are proud to be a part of BEN where we are supported, empowered, and funded to execute programming to help close these gaps. Long-term investments in mentorship, training, and access to senior-level networks also enable BEN members and Black talent to Hire and Develop the Best here at Amazon.
What are some of the other positive ways BEN is supporting current and future Black professionals?
ZEE: BEN connects members with mentors and provides career and personal development workshops. BEN also engages with the local and regional chapters of the National Society of Black Engineers, National Black MBA Association, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), customers, partners, and other organizations. We are a conduit for Amazon into the Black community and work to facilitate relationships between Amazon and key strategic partners focused on racial diversity across tech.
JG: BEN has worked with AWS's Community Engagement Team to bring STEM education to students in Accra, Ghana. AWS and BASICS International collaborated on this project. Throughout a three-week session, BEN assisted students in learning about our AWS Educate program, AWS DeepRacer, arts and crafts, coding, and reading. It demonstrates that BEN, as a global organization, is not limited to the United States' borders.
What motivates you to be involved with BEN?
JG: The BEN community is what keeps me here. Having friends and members of the Black community to commiserate with is priceless. It gives me more value to be that for others, and I enjoy seeing our accomplishments.
NA: I joined BEN because I want to continue developing my leadership skills. I believe I'll bring my multi-cultural perspectives from being raised in multiple countries and studying abroad, my leadership skills gained from college, and my passion for driving the voice and excellence of our Black culture.
ZEE: Starting as a member of BEN Atlanta and then on to a global leadership role in BEN ensures that I curate and maintain spaces where Black Amazonians feel valued, welcomed, appreciated, and understand why they’re important to this company’s success. Lastly, I get to partner with our talent acquisition teams to recruit underrepresented individuals to further diversify our talent pipelines. I enjoy sharing what life’s like as an Amazonian and Black woman in technology in the hopes of inspiring the next generation of Amazonians.
"You are not alone. We’ve seen what we can be when unburdened by what has been. Here at AWS, we can literally build our careers and explore new paths. Nothing is stopping you from building the next innovative service or working to optimize a customer’s transformation in the cloud. I am lucky to work for a company that truly makes data-driven decisions, but understands that having good intentions isn’t enough. Amazon has put mechanisms in place to get things done. BEN, as an extension to many of these mechanisms, ensures our voices are heard."
ZsaVette Ellis Eze
AWS Professional Services practice manager for cloud infrastructure architecture
BEN global recruiting and retention leader
Inclusive work culture
ZEE: I had an amazing onboarding buddy who assured me that I should feel safe to bring my authentic self to AWS, and that AWS was indeed a workplace where I should feel comfortable with how I show up to work. In more than two years at AWS, that’s been beneficial for my career trajectory and my ability to interface with senior leadership.
How do BEN, Amazon, and AWS help employees feel supported and included? What are some examples of inclusion in the workplace that BEN helps support?
ZEE: BEN represents the voices and concerns of Black Amazonians. We also provide talent development, recruitment strategy, and customer insights. We share best practices across our communication channels to lift the Black community, and use our voices in regards to corporate social responsibility—specifically Amazon’s response to social injustices that impact our communities.
JG: The most obvious way is that Amazon provides affinity groups with resources and empowers them to act in the best interests of their membership. Our Global AWS Inclusion, Diversity & Equity team has offered programs such as Inclusion Ambassadors and are sponsors of the Inclusion Everyday Challenge. These programs teach employees about microaggressions, holidays that are important to different groups, and how to think about race relations and biases as part of a typical workday.
ZEE: We couldn’t do the great work at BEN without the support of AWS and Amazon. AWS has been a strong supporter of BEN—in fact, the current executive sponsor is Adam Selipsky, CEO of AWS. The majority of our advisors sit within AWS including Ian Wilson, vice president of human resources at AWS, and LaDavia Drane, head of global inclusion, diversity, & equity at AWS.
"One of the biggest surprises when I joined AWS was seeing so many Black leaders across levels, from manager to director to vice president. It’s great to know that decisions made by leadership are influenced with diverse voices and perspectives."
AWS associate account manager
BEN director of marketing, communications, and branding
ZEE: You are not alone. We’ve seen what we can be when unburdened by what has been. Here at AWS, we can literally build our careers and explore new paths. Nothing is stopping you from building the next innovative service or working to optimize a customer’s transformation in the cloud. I am lucky to work for a company that truly makes data-driven decisions, but understands that having good intentions isn’t enough. Amazon has put mechanisms in place to get things done. BEN, as an extension to many of these mechanisms, ensures our voices are heard.
Anything else we should know about BEN?
ZEE: Black is remarkable. The Black Employee Network is remarkable. We are so much more than the struggle—we are indeed Black excellence, creatives, technologists, innovators, and strategists. We will continue to amplify the good work and allyship already happening at Amazon and AWS. We will also look to build new pathways for Black Amazonians to enhance their careers and impact their communities.
JG: There were over 100 Amazonians at my first AfroTech, and seeing that much Black excellence is beyond words. It reminds me of how people felt after watching "Black Panther." It's a mixture of pride and happiness, disbelief and joy. Come join Amazon and BEN to experience that sensation!
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