When Nataki Edwards graduated from Hampton University in Virginia, Bloomingdales approached her with an interesting opportunity. The New York based retailer wanted to recruit Edwards as a buyer. The high-pressure role was finance-focused and appealed to Edwards’ competitive spirit. However, she was hesitant to move to New York and take on this new challenge.
“At the time, my father pushed me to take on the challenge of moving to a big city like New York and to not let fear hold me back,” says Edwards. “He said that I was talented enough to make it in New York, and convinced me to go ahead and take the role. This has been a recurring theme in my career – when that initial nervous feeling hits me at the thought of a new opportunity, it’s actually a sign that I really want it and that I need to push through the fear to grab it.”
Edwards joined Bloomingdales, and subsequently moved on to take on a series of leadership roles at companies like Yahoo!, American Express, Estee Lauder and most recently AARP, where she served as senior vice president of digital strategy and marketing.
She joined Amazon in 2021 as the Director of Customer Engagement. Recently, she also took on additional responsibilities for the Alexa Voice Services (AVS) Product and Design team. In addition to being responsible for customer engagement, Edwards now also leads an organization of product managers and designers to further the state of the art for AVS – Amazon's premier cloud-based service that allows device makers to integrate an ever-increasing set of Alexa features and functions into their connected products.
As we kick off Black History Month in the United States, Edwards spoke about the influence her education has had on her career, her new responsibilities at Amazon, and measures that the technology industry at large can take to increase the representation of underrepresented minorities in the workforce.
I come from an immigrant family. My father hails from Trinidad, and my mother is from Saint Kitts. They grew up in a place where they saw Black people in places of power and leadership every day – politicians, teachers, business owners. In my opinion, it allowed them to see possibilities and potential for themselves and their children even after moving to the US. My parents’ perspectives about the potential and possibilities of success in the US was shaped by their first-hand experience of success of Black people in the Caribbean. These beliefs instilled a confidence in me that have helped propel me in throughout my career.
Like so many immigrants, my parents pushed their children to excel at school. I was selected at a young age to be part of programs for gifted children at school. I remember being bused to white neighborhoods.
These experiences shaped my decision when it came to selecting a college. I decided to attend Hampton University in Virginia, which is one of the premier HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) in the country. To this day, I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to be surrounded by so much Black excellence.
I remember there was a time when Spike Lee visited our university. He said that we shouldn’t take this moment for granted, and that we should be very conscious of the relationships we would forge at Hampton. That sense of community has really stuck with me. There are so many students from our class who have gone on to have successful careers in a diverse number of fields, and I know that Hampton has had a huge role to play in that.
I’ve always worked for large brands. There have been several mentors who worked at these places, and reached out to me to make me a part of their journey. I have been fortunate to know people who saw my potential, and were willing to nurture that potential and push me to assume greater levels of responsibility. It has definitely carried over to how I think about myself and my own responsibility to develop talent.
I had been at AARP for 13 years when I was contacted by Amazon. I was the SVP of Digital Marketing and Strategy at AARP at the time. I knew my role at AARP so well that I could basically do it in my sleep. I was being asked if I wanted to join Amazon, whose culture was different in every way. The company is known for the way it obsesses over customers, and boasts of a culture where product teams play a central role, and where marketing considerations are often secondary.
At the time I joined Amazon, I was responsible for customer engagement for Alexa. My role included overseeing teams responsible for different parts of the customer engagement cycle. My organization included product and engineering teams that enabled innovative ways to help customers discover new skills, services and products when they set up their Alexa-enabled device. However, the role was primarily positioned as a marketing-focused one with a consumer marketing team focused on promotion, acquisition and retention, and an engagement and analytics team responsible for analysis and reporting.
Fast forward to today, where I am also responsible for AVS product and design teams. These teams are led by extremely talented product managers and UX design experts responsible for building new products and services for AVS.
We’ve talked about how I have listened to my fears to land my most meaningful opportunities. When it came to this latest opportunity to lead product and design, I was skeptical of taking on this challenge because I feared that the role would be “too technical” or that I wouldn’t be taken seriously because I was a “marketer.” I am a woman who has extensive experience in marketing. When I look around, I see many leaders in product and engineering who are men. Would I be able to be successful in this role?
But like all good opportunities, I knew I had to lean in and could not pass up the chance to influence a larger part of the Alexa business. I might not be an engineer. I don’t know how to code. But I do know how to build great businesses based on excellent products. And like I have done at every stage of my career, I saw that taking on these new responsibilities would enable me to deliver additional impact, and help make a difference in the lives of millions of people.
As a society, we are on the verge of entering this new world of ambient computing, one where products and technologies will anticipate our needs, and make life easier by always being available without being intrusive. I am privileged and humbled to work alongside so many Amazonians, and being able to contribute to making this exciting new world possible.
Be it women, Black people, Hispanics, or differently abled people, there are definitely populations of people that are unrepresented in tech. I will say that it’s getting better. Nowadays, companies are not just saying the right things – they also have carefully thought out programs in place designed to increase the participation of underrepresented minorities in the workforce. This more than anything, makes me optimistic about the future.
Of course, there’s a lot more than we can do as an industry. Just like Amazon took a chance on me – someone who came from a non-profit background, technology companies should look at unexpected places to find great hires. Small non-profits, HBCUs, smaller universities – nothing should be off the table when it comes to increasing the diversity of the pipeline into our organizations.