Amazon Powers Ahead of the Rest

by Suzanne Howorth

This article appeared in the May 4, 2017 print edition of the Borrego Sun.

What do you do when you’re about to turn 40? It’s a milestone event and one that most people slip in to as quietly as possible. For some, you get to 39 and are still asking yourself what you want to be when you grow up. For Jenna Powers, Director of Global Associate Experience at Amazon, and one of this years competitors in AdventureCorps Badwater Salton Sea, turning 40 is just another opportunity to stride forward and succeed.

“In 2014 I set the goal to run my first marathon. It was a bucket list item for me and something I thought I would only do once. Before the first race, I wouldn’t have considered myself a runner, but the training changed my life in ways I wasn’t able to articulate until much later. As 2014 ended (and I had three marathons under my belt), I knew I needed a new goal for 2015. The same thing occurred in 2016 and the goals just got larger. With 2017 being my 40th year I thought, what could possibly be left? That’s when I came up with the idea to run 40 races. When I shared that goal with my Run the Year group, several mentioned they knew people who’d done something similar, including performing 40 acts of volunteerism. That’s what gave me the idea to alter my goal of not just running 40 races myself, but supporting 40 other runners.”

Becoming one of the youngest employees at Amazon to be promoted to the Director level as well as completing 27 marathons in the last three years, Powers is taking Amazon’s own motto and making it work for her.

“Work hard. Have fun. Make History. – Amazon”

Covering 81 miles from start to finish is enough of a challenge for most, but for Powers, she is looking at it as a small step on her overall journey. “I’ve been calling this race “Baby Badwater.” It’s like the preview to the Big Show – Badwater 135, 135 miles from Death Valley to Whitney Portal, run in July. I think I’d like to run that one day, and Salton Sea is a great opportunity to get a taste of what it’s like.”  Despite already completing five marathons and two ultras so far this year, as well as a handful of half-marathons with 4,000 feet or more of a climb, Powers has worked hard in her training and included trail racing to prepare for the 9,000 feet of elevation faced on the course. “It will be my mental preparedness that will get me across the finish line. While I wouldn’t say I’m “good” in the heat, I definitely don’t have many of the problems that others have. The heat doesn’t intimidate me. I’m more nervous about the climb after dark when temperatures are likely to drop into the 40s or lower. I got hypothermic in 40 degrees at the Black Canyon 100k in February and had to be treated by the EMTs after the race. I’m still a little leery of cold weather because of it,” despite Powers living in Seattle. “Overall, I’m approaching the race in the same way I approach any challenging goal or task. I’m focused on the things with which I have experience and control: I’ve completed three races over 50 miles, including a 100miler, and several races with equivalent or steeper climbs. I’ve raced in the heat and in the cold, but I can’t control the weather; I can only control what I wear, so I need to bring the right clothes. When I break it down like this, it’s less scary, and it gives me the confidence to try for the whole.”

Powers credits her running career as part of her professional success and uses her  training to succeed in other aspects of her life at Amazon. “We are always trying to push the envelope, but that means, as a leader, I’m often called upon to delve into areas that I don’t have experience in, at a scale that no one has experience in. But I try to pick out which pieces I do know, lean into those places where I am comfortable, and it makes the “gray areas” less intimidating. In 2014 I was promoted as one of Amazon’s youngest directors – the same year I ran my first marathon. I chose to run the Runners World Half Marathon for the first time because I’d been working at our Fulfillment Center in the neighboring town – the race felt like a “hometown” race to me. In fact, the first three years I ran that race I would combine it with a work trip. And, just last year I took on a new role in the company that required me to lead a global team literally 10x the size of my prior team. I began this role while training for my 100-miler. This is no coincidence.”

Balancing the dedication needed to keep up with training and a high-powered career requires a team effort “I’ve had to move my training earlier on certain days so I can be to the office in time for early meetings. That said, I have a rule about in-person meetings before 8 a.m. – I don’t do them. If there is a meeting before 8:00 a.m. between Seattle and people in another part of the world, I dial in from my house or during my commute. This sounds like a little thing, but it’s actually a big deal. “Work” and “life” get imbalanced often times because people find themselves sacrificing what is most important to them in favor of work. My advice is, choose one or two things  you are completely unwilling to sacrifice, and don’t sacrifice them. It could be a set dinner time with your spouse; your daughter’s Thursday basketball games, whatever. For me, it’s my morning run. If my work schedule conflicts, I will call in to the meeting or send a delegate in my place; I won’t skip my run in favor of a meeting. It’s my one thing. And it’s great that my team at Amazon – locally and globally – understand and respect that.”

In fact in less than three years, Powers has been promoted, moved across the country, and run 27 marathons and ultras in more than a dozen states and on three continents. “I’ve gotten really good at using my work to get me where I want to run. For example, I ran the Dubai Marathon earlier this year on my way to a work meeting in Delhi, and a 50k in the UK on my way to a meeting in Slovakia. But I’ve also gotten really good at using my running to get me where I want in my career. One of the reasons I have found success as a runner and as an Amazonian is my willingness to fail. So many people, especially women, are afraid to try something new or difficult because of that fear of failing.  But at Amazon we realize that failure is a natural step in finding success and other opportunities. I’ve had racing successes and racing failures. I’m not afraid of failure; I just correct, improve, and try again next time. It’s the same with work. I think I’ve been successful at Amazon because I’m not afraid to fail. When it happens (because it happens!), I do the same thing as I do on the race course – correct, improve, and try again next time.”

Part of Powers’ challenge involves empowering others to take part in races that they have always wanted to do by taking away some of the financial restrictions a lot of people face. “I want to remove that barrier for at least 40 individuals. So, I am paying the entrance fee for 40 other runners to run in races they select. I am trying to “spread the support” throughout the year while I work towards my own goal of 40 races. To date, I’ve paid for 23 runners’ entries for races in 16 states and three countries, and eight have completed their races already. In addition to monetary support, I am also profiling racers on my blog as “Featured Runners.” Each one has an amazing story of risk-taking in their personal or professional lives. The two are so related, and I’ve been inspired by each one of them.”

If after reading all their journeys, you still don’t fancy pulling on a pair of sneakers and taking to the road, you may be tempted to offer support. A challenge in itself. “Here’s the pitch to be a crew member for the race: “Please fly to California and sit in a car for 24 hours on the side of the road waiting for me to show up so you can cater to all my needs and remember everything I forget.” It takes a special friendship! My team member, Robert, and I are so fortunate to have his girlfriend, Ciera, and my friend Lisa, who were selfless enough to say “yes.”. It’s also their first time crewing, so we’re fortunate that they don’t really know what they’re getting themselves into.”

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