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A Conversation with Joy Covey

Joy CoveyJoy Covey '89, a graduate of the J.D./M.B.A. program, recently wrapped up four years at Amazon.com, where she worked as the chief financial officer and strategist for the online retail giant. Since leaving Amazon.com in 2000, Covey has focused her time on family, travel, and a private foundation. In addition, she has become a private pilot. She serves on the Visiting Committees of HLS and the Harvard Business School.

Your path to Harvard was different from most. What in your background do you think contributed to your success?

I didn't finish high school--left home when I was 15. I moved away to Fresno and worked as a grocery clerk. I went to college part-time at Cal. State Fresno, and then ended up finishing in two and a half years because I wanted to get on with things. But having fallen off the track, in a way I think I acquired a sense of independence in how I make decisions. It's really helped me not worry so much whether other people approve of my choices.

What was your experience like when you eventually arrived at HLS?

I was completely intimidated by the rest of the class. I don't think I even knew anyone who went to an Ivy League school when I came to Harvard. Not having finished high school and having been fairly utilitarian in the way I went about college, I didn't have a deep liberal arts background. So we'd go to lunch and people would talk about their favorite seventeenth-century poets, and I'd be thinking, "Could I even name five poets? From any century?" So that was intimidating, and it wasn't until we got our first-semester grades back that I started to realize that everything was going to be OK.

What part of your legal training at HLS was most useful in the no-boundaries environment of Amazon.com?

It was a certain way of thinking--a structured analytical approach to breaking down questions. This is very consistent with the kind of thinking we would use at Amazon. A lot of things we did were things that hadn't been done before, or situations that had never been dealt with. Rather than asking ourselves, "How has this been done in the past? What's the answer to this question?" we said, "Where do we want to go and what are our goals?" We spent a lot of time thinking unconventionally, and thinking through things based on our core principles, which is the kind of thought process I learned in law school.

Can you think of an example of when this unconventional approach was put to use at Amazon?

Probably our relationship with Wall Street. Our view was that most companies depart from their best long-term business thinking in order to please Wall Street. And they often do things that are not in the best long-term interest of the business because they're under pressure from investors for short-term results. So we asked ourselves, "Who are the companies that are truly able to make decisions that are in the best long-term interests of shareholders? How do we structure our conversations with Wall Street from the very beginning, before we even go public?" We felt that was the way to create the best possible company in the long run.

Do you think it's easier for women to rise through the ranks of the tech world than through more traditional sectors of the economy?

Well, I can't really speak to the other parts of the economy, but what I think is very true of the tech world is that it's easy for talented people--whatever their gender, age, or race--to rise up and succeed. In fact, in my career, during the time I spent working in larger companies or, for a brief time, at an East Coast company, age would have been more of an impediment than gender. But on the West Coast, in high tech, people simply wanted to find the most talented person. And someone who was a young, really energetic person was viewed as an ideal candidate. So gender really wasn't an issue. There was such a hunger for talent.

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