May 30, 2018

Lead(H)er: Teodora Stoian, Business Technology Leader at Amazon Alexa

“While Europe lagged behind as a technology adopter, the U.S. was driving the innovation market. I had many theories on why that was, ranging from education, which in Europe is more theoretical to risk appetite. A failing startup in Europe does not get you a badge of honor. I wanted to experience firsthand the key drivers behind this apparent disparity and to understand whether Europe could begin to apply the same principles. This was one of the biggest drivers in my decision to move to the U.S.” said Teodora Stoian, Business Technology Leader at Amazon Alexa in Cambridge.

Originally from Romania, Teodora grew up in a small city by the Black Sea. She went through high school and studied cybernetics at a Romanian university before moving to Memphis, Tennessee.

“Coming to the U.S. transformed me in ways I did not even imagine possible ten years ago. In the process of adapting to another culture, I reinvented myself while learning that change is hard yet rewarding. In Memphis, I truly experienced André Gide’s famous saying 'One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.'"

Looking back, Teodora told me that leaving Romania was a tough decision. ”I took many, and diverse factors, into consideration. From financial reward to growth opportunities, from location to culture, from legal matters to euro-dollar parity. Still, I decided to challenge my status quo.”

She spent 18 months in Memphis, studying towards her master's degree in computer science while researching natural language processing for the FedEx Institute of Technology at the University of Memphis. “I met the most eloquent professors in computer science and mathematics, Turing Award and Abel Prize winners. They extended my understanding of technology and fueled my desire to understand innovation. Most importantly, they taught me everything I needed to know to get my first job at the International Monetary Fund.” As an econometrician at the Fund, she worked on reducing the running time of complex econometric models estimating the government bond yields, with a focus on the Brazilian market.

“While working on optimization issues, I took a Fund course on forecasting in macroeconomics and finance. I remember being in that class, and thinking about going back to school.”

“My job was rewarding, but I wanted to have a bigger impact. I decided to build on my econ exposure and pursue a business degree. I got an MBA from University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. I knew I wanted to switch into the high-tech industry after school, so I focused on understanding the business aspects of technology management.”

Teodora accepted a position with Microsoft, as part of a rotational leadership program. She alternated on different parts of the organizations while taking roles in sales strategy, business planning or pricing newly launched Microsoft Azure services.

“I was happy with my role at Microsoft when somebody from Amazon reached out and invited me in for an interview. I said 'Why not?' I ended up getting an offer and, after much deliberation, I accepted it. At Microsoft, my customers were corporations, whereas Amazon's customers are actual people. Moving to the B2C world and building customer-obsessed products was just very exciting to me.”

Teodora first joined Amazon’s retail business. Although most companies use data to drive decisions, she was impressed by the speed and scale at which Amazon receives and incorporates customer feedback. “Launching a new feature on the retail website was easy. You could see in a few hours if the change was a good idea or not from a business perspective. You could also see if the update was good for the customer or not.”

A couple of years after starting at Amazon, Teodora was looking for her next career move and choose Amazon's Alexa division, because it was connecting the dots in her professional career up to that point: natural language processing, econometrics, business planning and product management.

“I was ready for my next challenge. I knew Amazon was the right company and Alexa was still fairly new back then. I was excited about its potential and the perfect opportunity arrived when my husband got a new career opportunity in Boston. Finding out that Alexa also had a presence in Boston, made our decision to switch coasts a lot easier.”

Teodora has been at Amazon Alexa in Cambridge for the past two years. When she first arrived, the office was fairly small but since then, they’ve grown quite dramatically. She talked about how she was purposeful about building the team and building an inclusive environment. “Diversity is very important to me. A lot of people misunderstand the term 'diversity.' And granted, if misused, it can shut off conversations, or put people on the defensive. In my team, we’re transparent about it and purposefully create a culture where people can talk openly about what we need to do. Ultimately, we want to create an inclusive environment where everybody can invent on behalf of our customers.”

“My day-to-day at work varies. I spend time on technology management, but also on process management now that we are a bigger team. From a technology perspective, we’ve moved really fast to start the team, while at the same time building features for our customers. I think what worked best for this type of fast growth was to empower each individual team member. I work with folks to find what they’re excited about and then match their interests. This does not always work, but when it does it sets the foundation for a high performing team. We were fortunate to find just the right group to make this work.”

Rapid Fire Questions 

Brianne Shelley: How do you manage stress?

Teodora Stoian: I love mindfulness meditation. But really spending time with my family is the biggest de-stressor.

BS: How many cups of coffee do you typically drink a day?

TS: I have three. I have one in front of me right now.

BS: Where is your favorite spot in the Boston area?

TS: Newburyport!

BS: If you had to choose one thing, what would you say is your greatest accomplishment other than family?

TS: Scaling the team here in Boston has been really rewarding.

BS: Ten years ago, is this where you would have seen yourself?

TS: Ten years ago, I definitely had a plan. Had I taken that route I would have been in a very different place than I am now.

BS: What one piece of advice would you give to a recent college graduate?

TS: I would say, take it one step at a time. When I graduated, I had my entire life planned out. It never goes according to plan. Have your peripheral vision open.  Alternate between intense focus and peripheral vision. Be unfocused if you need to. It can lead to opportunities that you can’t even conceive right now.

Brianne Shelley is a Contributor to VentureFizz and an Account Executive at ezCater. Follow Brianne on Twitter: @MuddleandMix.