“Till I reached a certain stage of college life, I didn’t know how to use a spoon or fork in company. I had never eaten at a restaurant. I started from a very humble background.” Today, she leads DEI for International Markets at Amazon, and in her nearly 25-year professional career, has worked with leading organizations spanning a wide range of industries.
Meet Swati Rustagi, a leader with a voracious appetite for learning and stretching herself to take on new challenges – some of the qualities that have helped her thrive in her career, even with a nearly 2-year maternity break after the birth of her twin boys.
Swati started out at Amazon as HR Director for India Operations, and took on the role of Director – Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, for International Markets at the tail end of 2021. We recently chatted with her about her journey, why she joined Amazon, effects of a maternity break on her career, the qualities she thinks are essential for success at Amazon, and more…
Swati, we would love to know about your journey.
I think of it in three distinct parts – person, profession, and work.
I have evolved so much as a person over time. Until college my exposure was very limited. I didn’t know many of the skills that most of us take for granted. My moment of luck, and now with hindsight, moment of gratitude, was when the Tata Trust decided to invest in me as a young student, not just financially with a scholarship, but also with exposure to the world around me. I travelled around India, meeting different NGOs and groups, understanding how life was for many. I used to think I grew up with few privileges, but when I met people who had even lesser than me, it broadened my thinking. I also met with writers, thinkers, senior people in corporates through sessions at the Bombay House. That part of my life has stayed with me and I deeply believe in paying it forward to communities and people who lack the privileges I have today.
As a professional, I qualified in the field of human resources and that's what I started my career in, but my first employer gave me immense opportunities to understand how business works, and learn about a broad variety of functions like legal, public policy, business finance. Again, I’m so very grateful for that exposure because it helped me understand that to be a successful professional, irrespective of the function one belongs to, understanding businesses is super critical. I don't claim to be an expert in all fields, in fact I’m very far from it, but do I have fluency to understand the subject, and therefore make better decisions when I support the business. That’s my journey professionally, and I continue to be that way, never restricting myself to one subject, but really trying to understand multiple subjects.
The day I stop learning will be the day I know it's time I hang up my boots. Every year I pick one subject to grow in my understanding of. It keeps me on my toes.
In terms of work, I've worked in human resources across FMCG, healthcare, financial services and now e-commerce. Early on in my career, I decided that I would constantly keep myself in a stretch zone where I still have a learning curve. For example, when one changes a job role, or job family, it always keeps us on the edge. There are new things to understand and do, and you can’t just copy-paste what you did in your previous role. That keeps me engaged and excited.
When I joined Amazon, I knew nothing about e-commerce, but learning about it has been awesome for me. Again, I don't claim to be an expert, but can I now have a conversation about it? Yes. Can I contribute to it? Yes.
I recently picked up a new challenge that is around diversity, equity and inclusion. This is a subject that I connect to deeply as a human being, as a woman, and as someone who has gone through an experience of not having privileges, but as a subject matter expert, I’m still learning about DEI.
That's the next part of my journey – learning and understanding how I can make not just Amazon, but the community and world we live in, a slightly better place every day.
What made you want to join Amazon?
A great question, and thank you for asking me that.
Amazon was one of three offers I had. In fact, Amazon was the last one to come in, and they were all great offers. For me, three things tipped the balance in favor of Amazon.
The first - and I would be unfair if I didn't call this out - was specifically the manager I was going to report to, and I think he is an example of what Amazon leaders are all about. Steve Walter was my hiring manager. He was so considerate, and tried to understand my own journey deeply. He really helped me think through the decision, and gave me a glimpse into what the opportunity could mean for me, and how I could contribute and learn. The way he navigated those almost five or six months before I joined, just to keep in touch, to constantly be there for me, was an awesome experience personally, and I would wish that for any new hire. It set me up for success in the long term in the company. But it was not just about the person, it was about the Amazon that he stood for – the deep care in the onboarding journey, doing our level best to ensure the success of someone who comes at a relatively senior level. These are important things.
The second reason was the quality of minds I interacted with. I loved my interview process. I had missed that sharpness of thinking for a very long time after my first employer, and Amazon offered that.
The third was the scale of impact. The impact of whatever you do in Amazon is just so enormous. That was exciting to me.
You took a nearly two-year maternity break when your twin boys were born. Did that affect your career in any way? If yes, how did you navigate the challenges?
I would love to say that it was all very smooth, but it wasn’t. It was hard.
The biggest challenge was managing myself. There was a constant battle in my mind between staying home and returning to work. I loved my job and it was extremely hard to walk away. There were moments of anger and unhappiness around the decision not to return. My sons had medical issues so not being there was not an option. But eventually, my husband, who is my best friend, pushed me to return to work, and said, “If you aren’t happy, no one else at home will be either.” So, I returned.
A learning that was very humbling was that the world moves on without you. Before my break, I was doing well in my career. Recruiters and companies were lining up to hire me, but when I wanted to come back, suddenly it was as if because I had taken 2 years off, I had lost all my capabilities, or I was no longer serious about work. It was extremely difficult to realize and accept that I had to practically begin again. I want to tell all the new moms at Amazon that I hope we create a better workplace for you than that. I know how deeply committed all the leaders are to this mission, and we want to make this a better workplace not just for moms who take a break, but also for any employee who may have to take a parental leave to support their family.
The biggest breakthrough for me happened when I decided to let go of the firm decision I had made to pick up where I had left. I’m not saying that’s the right way or the only way, but that worked well for me. I took a role that sounded reasonably exciting, and negotiated for the flexibility I needed in the initial couple of years after returning, to find the right balance between home and work. I took the time to find my space and rhythm back, and once I did, it was great. Today I’m very happy where I am.
What do you think are three essential qualities that one should cultivate to be successful at Amazon?
The first - have a mindset of shooting for the moon. Setting audacious goals is crucial at Amazon and core to who we are. It’s what takes us where we go. Most of the time we might not know how the hell we’re going to get there, but that’s the joy of it! And that applies to everything we do. We have to think very, very big.
The second - constantly wanting to learn and evolve. Change keeps us vibrant, and at the edge of comfort and discomfort. It gets the best out of us.
Third – humility. It’s important for success here. At Amazon, I’ve found that tenured individuals are fundamentally very decent human beings, and that's rare. I've worked with multiple organizations, and I can tell you that success can rob one of humility. I'm confident that with the kind of success our leaders have seen, they could well be very different people, but they aren't. They are still people who work hard to disconfirm their beliefs, love solving problems, and care about their people. And that to me is a trademark of success at Amazon.
What are your favorite things to do outside of work?
Top of that list is spending time with my boys.
Then comes reading murder mysteries. I know it’s scary for some folks that I find murder mysteries relaxing, but it is what it is! 😉
And then comes community work – mentoring and working with youth.
These are my top stress busters!