retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Content Guy's Note: The goal of "The Innovation Conversation" is to explore some facet of the fast-changing, technology-driven retail landscape and how it affects businesses and consumers. It is, we think, fertile territory ... and one that Tom Furphy - a former Amazon executive, the originator of Amazon Fresh, and currently CEO and Managing Director of Consumer Equity Partners (CEP), a venture capital and venture development firm in Seattle, WA, that works with many top retailers and manufacturers - is uniquely positioned to address.

And now, the Conversation continues...

KC: I've been spending this week at Portland State University, and so I've been thinking about so-called "higher education."  And so I want to ask you about some of the young people you encounter as you work with various technology companies.  When you talk to them, to what extent do you get the sense that their education has proven to be relevant to the work they are doing?

Tom Furphy:
I think that it varies by discipline. The more specialized the role, the more the benefit of college preparation is evident. For example, it’s clear when developers and other technical staff have benefitted from computer science or similar degrees. In less specialized roles, it seems to have less to do with specific coursework, but more to do with the overall impact of the education and college experience. If they graduated from a top school with a high GPA, it shows that they were deemed smart enough to get in, worked hard, were able to overcome obstacles and finished with a “score” to show they are achievers. This often translates to early career success, which I observed across my teams at Amazon.

Also, for others from less prominent schools or those with lower GPAs, the workers that seem to do best are those that were active in extracurricular activities. Many have valuable experience from an internship. Having taken these challenges on, having dealt with the stresses and ambiguity that accompany them, is important. These are the things that I think shine through when young people are faced with new challenges in the workplace.

KC: If you had to create a curriculum for a college business school with a focus on technology, in general what would you suggest teaching them?  (This can be things that are being taught now, or things that are not … and include things that perhaps are being taught but not well.)

I think there are two areas that I would stress more than are being stressed now. Computer science and customer centricity. In both high school and college I would encourage more computer science courses as general requirements. Past generations have had to learn biology, chemistry, algebra and geometry even if they weren’t studying to be a doctor or scientist. They studied these subjects to better understand how things in the world around them work. Given how integral technology is to our lives, I think it is important for people to understand how technology works. Understanding the basics of coding, encryption, processing and such helps us understand the how technology can be used to support our objectives. This understanding enables us to better leverage technology to our advantage in our personal and business lives.

Second, I would teach about customer centricity. No matter how business changes over time, it is always important to truly understand your customer and to develop innovative ways to serve them. Back at Wegmans, I was always impressed at how our leadership agonized over every detail of the customer experience. The customer was front and center of every discussion we had. They would innovate to better serve the customer. I saw the same thing at Amazon in how Jeff led the charge to “focus on the customer and work backward”. When you are truly focused on the customer, the things you need to do in your business to support that become obvious. Innovation becomes rational and technology can enable a lot of that innovation. I think that getting students to understand customer centricity would be incredibly valuable.

KC: In terms of where you see the job opportunities erupting in the next decade, what should kids be studying?

In addition to computer science, I would add coursework in entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs are risk takers and creators. In almost any business role today, you are judged on your ability to add value. You are rewarded for creating products and services that are better than the competition and that customers want to pay for. In the workplace, this applies to serving internal customers as well. You should always be looking for ways to improve your role to help the company work better overall. Also, entrepreneurs are constantly faces with risks and challenges. Understanding that this is normal and learning how to thrive in the face of these is incredibly valuable.

KC: What are the most important questions potential employers should be asking college students about to embark on careers?

Beyond asking questions to check the boxes, I think it’s important to find out what motivates candidates. Is it the pursuit of a passion, monetary rewards, overcoming challenges, having a big title or changing the world? I think it’s important that they stand for something and are not just going through the motions, which our trophy society has enabled for their generation. Automatic participation trophies stop during college. It’s important to understand if candidates are ready to earn their outcomes.

I would also ask questions to assess what kind of team member they will be. The new generation of workers has grown up with personal gaming, selfies, Instagram and a world that is all about them as individuals. I would probe for examples of how they succeeded as part of a team. I would ask how they contributed to making a team better and how being on a team made them better. We’ve seen high-potential young folks come through where it has been more about them succeeding as individuals and less about the greater good of the organization. Money, titles, responsibilities and equity ownership become more important than creating something great with great people. That can be very damaging to morale and will ultimately limit the potential of these folks.

KC: Finally, you have kids … as they look at you and wonder about what choices they should be making as they head towards college, what recommendations are you making?

Good timing as we were just on college tours last week. I tell my kids that they don’t have to have all the answers now. So many parents pressure their kids into certain schools or certain majors.

I think it’s most important that kids have a great undergraduate experience that allows them to flourish. College is the years where kids truly discover who they are and find themselves as adults. I ask my kids to think about careers that seem interesting to them. Then look at schools that offer course work to support the options. But most importantly, I encourage them to find a school that they are excited about. It’s about being part of a community, succeeding on their own and having options. I want them to try things that perhaps they could develop a passion for. I want to see them get into clubs and other activities that they are excited about. Once they find the true passion, grades and other outcomes become much easier.

The Innovation Conversation will continue ...

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