Women in Leadership Profiles

From Restaurant Ownership To Amazon C-Suite: Q&A With Melissa Eamer On How She Made The Career Leap

If the thought of making a career change is overwhelming, take note: Ellen DeGeneres was a paralegal and Brad Pitt was a limo driver before they went on to fame and fortune. Some people fear that making a dramatic career change is too great a financial risk or that their carefully honed experience will be rendered useless or lost forever.

Before her current role as Amazon, Melissa Eamer owned a restaurant for 10 years. Learn how she made the shift to a new career and now wakes up excited each day.

You once owned a restaurant in Vermont. How did you initially get involved?

I started working in the restaurant when I was an undergrad at the University of Vermont. I graduated with a degree in English and no real plan. When there was an opportunity to take an ownership role, I became a partner.

Did you have culinary education or experience?

No. I loved cooking, but I really learned everything on the job.

What made you decide to leave that career and get your MBA?

The restaurant business was challenging on a number of levels, but I was missing intellectual challenges. After six years, I decided to find a role in publishing but had no experience. I sent out many resumes but didn’t receive a single response.

I changed my approach and sent letters to six local publishing companies, offering to work as an unpaid intern for six months. I ended up working as an editorial assistant during the day and at the restaurant at night and on weekends.

At the publishing company, I worked with the CFO who had an MBA. I was really impressed with the analytical framework he used to solve problems, and I was inspired to go back to school.  That meant selling my stake in the restaurant after 10 years, walking away from the life I had built, and starting over. It was incredibly scary, but also exciting to think about the possibilities.

How did you end up at Amazon?

I learned about Amazon while I was at the University of Michigan business school and decided it was the perfect combination of my love of books and desire to work at a highly innovative and customer focused company. But similar to when I applied to publishing companies, it wasn’t clear from my resume why I would be a good fit. So I wrote a white paper on a customer feature I thought Amazon should build and took it to all my interviews to show I was customer focused, innovative and driven to deliver results.

Are there any lessons you learned as a restaurant owner that you apply to your role at Amazon?

I use the skills I learned in the restaurant every day at Amazon, starting with a strong ownership mentality. At the restaurant if the dishwasher didn’t show up, I washed dishes. No job was too small. It’s similar at Amazon – leaders roll up their sleeves to get stuff done.

Also the customer focus—restaurants live and die by customer satisfaction so staying close to what customers like was critical.  And finally, grit. Ninety percent of restaurants fail within their first year, and we stayed in business for 10 years. The restaurant business taught me to persevere, which is useful at Amazon where we tackle hard problems all the time.

What advice do you have for someone who is considering a career change?

Changing careers takes courage and sometimes a willingness to take a step back in order to move forward more quickly. What helped me was to focus on what got me excited to get up every day. Be honest with yourself about how much a new career will provide you with the opportunity to work on the things you love. And when you find it, go all in.


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