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MBAs on the Move

Senior HR leader at Amazon Web Services helps grow better businesses

Swetha Arbuckle, Senior Human Resources Leader – Amazon Web Services

Alumna: Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business (MBA, 2009), Heinz College (MS, Public Policy & Management, 2009), and University of California, San Diego (BS, Biochemistry and Management Science, 2003)

Swetha Arbuckle is like a gemstone with many facets that come together to form a brilliant whole. She started professionally dancing when she was less than two years old in her mother’s traditional Indian dance company and continued until her late 20s. While she loved dancing, her passion for animals led her to believe she would become a veterinarian so she chose to major in Biochemistry. After discovering an interest in student government, leadership, and economics, Swetha switched to a double major that included Management Science. After a few years in the working world, Swetha realized that an MBA would be necessary to propel her career forward, and she intentionally chose Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business because it was “a perfect culture fit.” Swetha’s diverse background has uniquely coalesced into her “dream job” as Senior Human Resources (HR) Leader for Amazon Web Services (AWS), an Amazon company, merging her rock-solid analytical and creative strengths.


STEPS TO RISE »

Early years: Dancing, biochemistry and management science

Swetha’s early experiences in dance, biochemistry, and management science all coalesced to form the foundation of her career in HR, which enables her to apply her analytical and creative skills.

First job: Planting the seeds of business

Swetha’s first job out of college was at SCORE! Educational Centers, where she taught kids basic math and reading and learned how to run a small business. Through the experience, she realized an MBA could propel her career forward, and she chose to attend Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business.

Pivotal moments: The importance of mentors

While at SCORE! Educational Centers, Swetha was encouraged to apply for and was promoted to a position targeted to more experienced candidates. In taking the stretch role, Swetha realized the importance of having mentors who push you to get outside your “comfort zone.”

Current role: Dream job

As Senior Human Resources Leader at Amazon Web Services, Swetha does more than typical HR tasks like hiring and payroll. She also advises AWS organizational leaders on how to grow their business units and give AWS professionals the best employee experiences, which is hugely gratifying.


CURRENT ROLE: A MIX OF TECH AND HR AT AMAZON

The life of an HR strategy leader: Much more than hiring and firing

I’m a HR strategy leader for AWS. Most people think of HR as administrative, back office payroll, “hiring and firing,” or the police who get people in trouble. While those can be some elements of the job, as a strategy leader, I coach and advise business leaders on how to grow their businesses through employee experiences. That includes compensation strategy (Are the salaries we offer competitive?), geographic expansion (Are we in the right markets?), and designing roles and training for career growth.

Amazon Web Services: An Amazon company that not everyone knows about

AWS is a comprehensive cloud platform, and one of the fastest growing parts of Amazon.  You probably use the AWS cloud every day. Let’s say you want to watch a movie on Netflix. You can do that from anywhere in the world, even if all of us were trying to watch the same movie at the same time, because AWS stores that data for Netflix. Instead of building and maintaining its own data centers – which is very expensive – Netflix stores its data on the AWS infrastructure so customers can access it anytime, anywhere. Our customers also include state and local governments, universities, large enterprise companies, financial institutions, start-ups, and global intelligence communities that need to store very secure and highly sensitive data – we work with nearly every type of industry and customer.

The inside scoop: What it’s like to work at the world’s largest e-commerce retailer

What surprises me most – for as big and global as we are – is that we still operate like a startup. We are always innovating, and we are changing the market in many ways. A lot of companies have values and principles that sit on a wall or live on a website where no one remembers what they are.  Amazon’s Leadership Principles are ingrained in our everyday language – it’s how we hire, operate, and promote.  Employees at every level, from our warehouses to our corporate sites, live our Leadership Principles. If you embody them and thrive in a customer-obsessed, fast-paced, innovative environment, you will likely do well here.

HR in the tech industry: Suitable for women?

Of course! HR in the tech industry tends to be more forward-thinking. To be able to support teams full of smart, driven, innovative people in a fast-growing global company, solving new challenges every day is an HR dream come true. HR is good for anyone who loves coaching and mentoring, is patient and compassionate, and genuinely cares about the well-being of others. Being analytical and having high judgment are also important.

Creative and analytical: Bringing all her experiences together

My dad is an engineering-minded business leader and my mom is a creative genius, and I’d like to think I’m a good blend of both. At AWS, I teach and coach others and get to be creative in an analytical company, which is a perfect combination. I am comfortable speaking in front of groups and mentoring others, which comes from teaching children and performing in front of audiences throughout my dance career. All my experiences have come together well to help me be better at what I do.

A PIVOTAL CAREER MOMENT: FIRST JOB OUT OF COLLEGE

First job: Discovering a passion for business and HR

I was an assistant director at SCORE! Educational Centers, a former subsidiary of Kaplan. I spent half my time teaching kids the basics of math and reading, and the rest of my time running the business – generating leads, consultative sales, grassroots community marketing, and building relationships with local schools. I liked business and coaching others, and when I applied to business school, I wrote my essay about wanting to be a Chief Learning Officer, not realizing until later that learning and development was such a large part of HR.

Career “WOW” moment: Taking the stretch role

Not long after I started at SCORE!, my regional manager encouraged me to apply for a role that had opened up that was two levels senior to mine in which I’d run my own center at the age of 23. My first thought was, “Why would I do that? I have to be promoted first,” as I tend to be risk-averse and a rule-follower. I did apply and got the job over several other (potentially more qualified) applicants. I was stretched in so many new ways and learned so much in that role. That was the first of many wonderful stretch opportunities in my career.  A running theme has been having trusted advisors who push me to consider options I might never have considered on my own, which has been invaluable.

BUSINESS SCHOOL ADVICE: YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE IT ALL FIGURED OUT TO APPLY

Deciding to get an MBA

The MBA was critical to make a career switch and, without it, I wouldn’t be in an HR role or at my dream job at AWS.  (I probably wouldn’t have met my husband either, who also studied at Tepper!) I knew I’d need an MBA if I wanted to have a broad impact in an organization. When I was in college, my dad was doing an executive MBA, and he was the only person I knew who went to business school. I didn’t know how to get started on selecting a school or applying. 

Use all available resources

There are many resources available to help you navigate the process. Forté helps women connect and learn, and provides a safe environment for asking questions when you don’t know who else to ask – it’s a place to turn when you want advice, support, and camaraderie.

I actually found my school through a Forté Forum.  I was waiting in a very long line to talk to another school, and the line wrapped around the Tepper table. The admissions representative at Tepper was the first person to ask me what I was passionate about, rather than asking why the school should consider me. The more I learned, it was clear Tepper was a perfect culture fit. That’s the kind of experience you can’t just get from reading a website online.

My advice to women considering an MBA is that you don’t have to have it all figured out to start your application.

 

Words that define her: Genuine, Thoughtful, Grounded
How she gives back: I am the president of the DC area Tepper Alumni Chapter. Joining your alumni organization of any city you live in helps you create an instant network of like-minded business people.
Biggest business lesson: Surround yourself with people who genuinely care about your personal and career growth. These will be people who won’t just tell you what you want to hear – they’ll be candid with you and will help to push you in directions that are uncomfortable, and you’ll learn more that way.
What she wishes she had known 10 years ago: I wish I had taken more risks in business school. I never did a case competition, and I never took more than the bare minimum of finance coursework. I should have explored more things outside my comfort zone.
Words of wisdom that inspire her: “Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” – Kahlil Gibran from The Prophet
Song that makes her turn up the volume: Anything electro swing – most recently, I’ve discovered Caravan Palace

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