AWS’s Jameka Pankey shares how diversity marketing can drive change

August 4, 2022 | By Rebecca Fontana, Senior Editorial Manager

Here at Amazon, we make Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) a top priority, and at the Cannes Lions festival, we helped share this message. Before the event, Amazon Ads spoke to Jameka Pankey, the Head of Global Change Management, Operations and Strategic Events at Amazon Web Services (AWS). She explained why diversity and inclusivity in marketing and advertising should be of utmost importance to brands, and gave advice on how companies can support diversity across their business culture, ad creative, and brand messaging.

Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do at AWS.

I’ve been with Amazon for more than four years. Amazon and I connected well. I am very results-driven, and I lead with a big heart. I’m inspired by driving and leading diverse teams. I’m also inspired by creating cultural change. We need to show our customers that we are the benchmark standard when we think about creating an inclusive culture. So that includes individuals who are Black, Latino/Latina, Native American, with different disabilities, accessibilities, gender: Let’s give them an opportunity to grace the stage. And that's a cultural change, right? I'm a cultural curator aiming to drive a change movement, and I'm also a person who wants to deliver the top-tier results. And at AWS we actually were able to do it, and are continuing to do it.

I want to get more into the work you've done, but first, let’s define what we're talking about: Generally, we hear companies use the phrase DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), but AWS uses ID&E (inclusion, diversity, and equity). Could you tell us more about that?

This is my favorite, favorite, favorite topic. At AWS, we are very intentional. And when you think about the ID&E concept, it's very simple. The reason why we lead with the I is because we believe in creating a culture of inclusion and belonging, a state where employees are able to be themselves and all identities are valued. Inclusion is acknowledging a lived experience, leveraging unique skills and perspectives, so that everyone has experience ownership and empowerment.

And then, when you think about diversity, it's about representing a full range of visibility for all identities, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, class, physical ability, religion, language, military status, and more. That's diversity. Then, equity is about access and opportunity. It's about removing the barriers to success on an individual basis and interrupting bias. It's about ensuring that policies and practices and systems provide all employees access to the opportunities, resources, and recognition of being successful.

However, you can have diversity and you can have equity, but if you don't have inclusion, it's not sustainable. For example, if you come to a party, you can walk in a room and have diversity. You have guests from different backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, and ages, but you can still walk in and not feel included … and inclusion matters. You build sustainability and have cultural change with inclusion and making others feel like they belong. We don't want to just invite you to the party; we want to ask you to dance. We want to see if you want something to eat. We want to make you feel engaged. We’re going to say to you, “Hey, what should the DJ be playing?” We believe that is where the true power happens. ID&E is not just a checkbox.

Is there a specific ID&E project at AWS that you’re proud of? And how are you continuing to make progress?

In 2020, I was challenged with a project to diversify the technical trainer team in AWS. Technical trainer roles are very niche roles, and it's not easy to find the right talent, because you need years of experience to be a strong subject-matter expert. So we started a program called AWS Tech U, a global program to hire students from historically Black colleges. It also helps reskill individuals who may not be at the technical bar but have some experience or understanding, and we help them get to the next level.

It was the most rewarding experience to see that we made history at AWS. For the first time at AWS, we hired over 20 technical trainers who are either attending a historically Black college or university, or are part of underrepresented minorities in tech. It was a huge opportunity and a huge win for us. Also, it was a collaboration of multiple teams. And what we learned is that if we are intentional around the entire process from start to finish, it works.

Then, we were able to scale it by creating assets for training. And that's now being used for all of our early-career talent. I'm proud of this project because it’s an example of a sustainable change we have created in our recruiting and hiring process. More important, we're already adopting it. At AWS, we believe that the future of tech is diverse, inclusive, and accessible across every color, gender, and belief. And we're committed to doing that, and I'm excited by it.

Why is inclusivity important for brands in their hiring process?

When we say we want to build an inclusive environment, we start with the hiring process. The first thing we want to do is make sure that we have the right mechanisms in place. We want our interviews to represent the ideal Amazon we're working to have. Good intentions don't effect change—mechanisms do.

The next thing after hiring this talent is: How do we retain them? We develop specific programs to support these groups. Let's be more intentional and make sure that the onboarding plan is inclusive as well. And we're doing inclusive training for leaders and managers. That's how you create that pipeline and mechanisms that can help us drive sustainability at work.

So it starts with hiring—but how can inclusion be helpful not only for the company but for reaching external audiences? Why is inclusive messaging important for brands to reach and engage with customers?

From a branding perspective, it’s thinking: If we want to be the benchmark standard, we have to make sure that we get it right. It's one thing to have the operational practicalities in the workspace. But the digital, the marketing, the technology—that part is what helps visualize what you’re trying to do, which is very, very important. I always encourage my marketers to ask themselves: Does this reflect the diversity of cultures within the world?

And if it doesn't, take a step back and ask yourself, What could you do differently to make this more inclusive? Whom did you exclude from this? Whom can you include in this?

How does that then manifest in the content itself? From photos, to language, to videos, to talent, why is creative inclusion important?

It's all about the marketing presence. As a kid, the first thing we saw was what's on TV, and we wanted to mimic that. But, for example, we never saw a cartoon where somebody was overweight. Or when African American women were portrayed in a video game, [all the Black women] had the same kind of hair, but everybody's hair is not the same. The marketing and imagery really shape this narrative, and as a brand, you have the opportunity to create imagery that has a greater impact on everyone.

What tips do you have for brands that are looking to take the first steps to increase inclusivity in their hiring practices, their campaigns, and their product development? How can they start figuring out a strategy for inclusivity?

By believing that good intentions do not drive change. That's why you have to really ask yourself if you’re taking the right approach, and be vocally self-critical. You have to build out mechanisms that can drive sustainable change, addressing your issues. I would encourage anyone out there to find out what the problem is. Work backward to whom you're trying to service, and if that’s your customers, how can you make this easier, better, efficient, and inclusive for them?

Take the smallest step. If you have a team offsite, don't assume everybody drinks beer, and so maybe your first activity isn’t at a bar. If you’re serving breakfast, maybe everybody doesn't eat pork. You may be into starting a sports league, but that may not be important to everyone. Be intentional around how you can make everyone feel included, and start by making a change within you.

Finally, Cannes Lions was in person for the first time since 2019, and you highlighted your ID&E work there. What were you excited about sharing?

I am beyond excited that we got to tell our story. Just let that sink in: We got to tell our story. We got to share our perspective. We got to touch so many others in a way that can drive true cultural change.

We had two sessions at Cannes Lions, and we also had an AWS ID&E meet-and-greet with our customers, which gave us a unique opportunity to interact with them and talk about our topic: cultivating a culture of inclusion. We were looking forward to having real, intimate conversations with our customers.

And I think it's really important that we acknowledge that at AWS, we're going to make some mistakes. We accept that we have work to do, and we're committed to remaining open to new concepts and expectations as the world continues to advance the collective understanding of identity, culture, diversity, and equity. But I'm proud to work for a company that acknowledges where they are and that really believes in driving this change. This was an opportunity for us to have a very strong brand presence and say: We are here, and ID&E is with us.