How Jeff Bezos Inspired an Immigrant Teen to Become a CEO
There are many leaders I admire, but one person whose professional trajectory and leadership have truly inspired me is Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon.com. A true entrepreneur turned ecommerce trailblazer, Bezos quit his job in finance and discovered an untapped gold mine in online bookstores. After only one year and 300 friends doing beta tests, Bezos launched Amazon.com; since then, he has been able to outperform competitors and drive Amazon to the top of the ecommerce leaderboard.
I was 16 years old when Amazon became a household name. I used to sit in school daydreaming about starting my own Amazon.com. If Bezos could launch a billion-dollar company from a two-bedroom house, then why couldn’t I start my own firm? It would take time, energy and hard work, but my 16-year-old self decided it would be worth the long and difficult journey to become a leader in my own right, just like Bezos.
As it turns out, I wasn’t born a natural leader. I had to learn how to put myself out there, how to stay calm under pressure and how to inspire others. I took advantage of any opportunity to develop leadership skills, from captaining group projects to organizing school clubs. My biggest leadership role came my senior year of high school, when I was elected class president of 850 students. The only problem: English wasn’t my first language.
I was born and raised in Taipei, Taiwan. I had moved to the United States at the age of 14 to start high school, without knowing English. I spent two years as an English as a second language student and eventually became valedictorian.
But public speaking was a struggle. I spent hours practicing my pronunciation and rehearsing speeches so I could walk onstage with confidence.
People still mocked my accent and laughed when I had to refer to my note cards, but I didn’t let the derisive jokes discourage me. If anything, those remarks drove me to want to be an even stronger leader. Perseverance and the determination to push through -- these are leadership attributes that I have carried with me since those early days, and they have proven invaluable time and time again.
At 16, I had admired Bezos as a leader purely because of his company’s achievements. The risks he took in his career I came to appreciate later, after taking some risks of my own. I got a full-ride scholarship to University of California, Berkeley and graduated in three years. Then I was consulting for Clear Channel Communications, reporting directly to the CFO on digital and sales initiatives such as the launch of iHeartRadio, when I made the decision to really commit to a startup idea I had developed with my childhood best friend and eventual co-founder Andrew Waage.
Leaving a comfortable, stable job for the unknown was daunting and deepened my respect for leaders like Bezos, who recognize that the greater the risk, the greater the rewards. Taking that leap of faith was instrumental in developing myself as a leader, as I was forced to trust my instincts and really commit to my idea -- and then follow through.
Bezos told journalist Hanson Hosein in an interview last year, “I don’t think you can invent yourself on behalf of customers unless you’re willing to think long term because a lot of invention doesn’t work. If you’re going to invent, it means you’re going to experiment. And if you’re going to experiment, you’re going to fail. And if you’re going to fail, you have to think long term.”
This quote embodies the efforts of true leadership: acknowledging the necessity of failure in order to grow, being able to see past those bumps in the road to focus on the vision ahead. It resonates with me now especially, as I step into my most challenging leadership position to date. Now as CEO of my own company, Retention Science, it’s my job to think long term, to motivate and guide the members of my team (23 including me), regardless of how many obstacles we encounter.
What defines a capable leader is not only the ability to overcome those obstacles, but the ability to inspire others to do the same. It means accepting that failure is a possibility, but continually pushing toward success. It means overcoming setbacks, learning from mistakes and inspiring followers. It means working hard to build a culture and a vision that the team believes in, thereby earning the right to lead them. I set examples through my actions, not through words -- and I earn my team’s respect and trust that way.
Perhaps my 16-year-old self didn’t quite foresee what it would take to become an effective leader. Though I’ve learned a lot through the years, I still strive to better serve my company. I look to leaders like Bezos, but I am most inspired by those around me, especially the talented group of people I am privileged to work with every day. They are what really drive me toward excellence in leadership, simply because they deserve nothing less. Together, we’re working toward turning that fleeting daydream into a reality -- and enjoying the journey as we go. And that, more than anything, feels like success to me.
I’m still learning how to be the best CEO I can be, but here are some of my personal tips and guidance I live by to be an effective leader:
1. Stay humble.
A true leader’s value is found in the results executed by his or her team, and it’s important to remember that no matter how high he or she climbs. Throwing around authority only gets someone so far: People have to want to follow.
2. Think of the big picture.
As a leader, don’t get bogged down in the details. Let members of the team focus on the now so it's possible to advise them on what’s ahead.
3. Trust the team.
Demonstrating to members of a team a belief in their skills will go a long way toward building morale and trust -- and ultimately, a more effective dynamic.
4. Never settle.
The responsibility of a leader is to lead, which means guiding the organization to stay ahead of the curve. Always strive for improvement and be on lookout for the latest innovation.
Jerry Jao is the CEO and co-founder of Retention Science, a leader and innovator in retention marketing. Prior to his founding of two other marketing software companies, he worked at he worked at Morgan Stanley, KPMG Advisory and Clear Channel Communications. He is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and Yale School of Management.