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Real Humans of Amazon: Maria Peña-Gomez, Cornell Johnson MBA ’21, Product Manager

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The MBA is a vehicle for change, as in the case of Maria Peña-Gomez, Cornell Johnson MBA ’21, who loved being a lawyer and needed a strong management foundation to make the transition to product management at Amazon. In this Real Humans Alumni, Peña-Gomez shares how Cornell Johnson provided the foundational skills in business, real-world experience, and support for her journey.

Maria Peña-Gomez, Cornell Johnson MBA ’21, Product Manager at Amazon 

Age: 31
Hometown: Bogotá, Colombia
Undergraduate Institution and Major: Universidad de Los Andes, law
Graduate Business School, Graduation Year: Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, Class of 2021
Pre-MBA Work Experience: 4 years, law
Post-MBA Work Experience: 2.5 years, product manager 

Why did you choose to attend business school? 
I wanted to become a well-rounded decision-maker. I loved being a lawyer and advising others on their legal questions and issues, but I wanted to be on the other side, making the decisions. To make that career shift with confidence, I knew I needed a strong management foundation in core subjects like accounting, finance and operations, as well as in skills like leadership and navigating organizational dynamics. Business school was my vehicle to enhance my toolkit, as well as to have access to a whole new array of professional opportunities where I could put what I learned into practice. 

Why Johnson? What factors figured most prominently into your decision of where to attend?
Every single person who has attended the Johnson School will mention that the close-knit community is what makes it stand out, and it could not be more accurate. Moving to a new country and changing careers is an exciting adventure, but I knew it would be challenging coming from a nontraditional professional background. I was looking for a school where I would feel supported, both during the MBA and after graduation. When I visited the campus, it was very easy to see myself living in Ithaca and becoming a part of that environment. That, paired with a very strong alumni network, which I have also enjoyed becoming an active part of after graduation, sums up what Cornell’s strength is: its people.  

What about your Cornell Johnson MBA experience prepared you for your current career at Amazon?
So many to choose from! The leadership experiences and classes focused on soft skills have been some of the most helpful in day-to-day situations. I frequently go back to what I learned in classes like Power and Politics in Organizations and Critical and Strategic Thinking to understand the underlying reasons why people act in certain ways and the different dimensions that can create misalignments at work. Also, having chaired the organization of the Emerging Markets Institute Conference during my first year was great practice to collaborate with people from all over the world to bring a best-in-class conference to life. Overall, Johnson offers a mix of academic, professional and social opportunities to explore new skills so that facing some of those in real life is a smoother experience. 

What was your internship during business school? How did that inform your post-MBA career choice of Amazon? 
I interned with Amazon virtually in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, in the same role that I am currently in. The internship was a great test drive to get an idea of what working full-time for Amazon would be and to confirm that tech and product management was the path that I wanted to pursue post-MBA. 

Why did you choose your current company? What factors figured most prominently into your decision of where to work?
I chose Amazon because the company’s culture and deep commitment to continuous learning and curiosity deeply resonated with me. That is reflected in the way we approach every problem from the customer’s perspective and never accept “This is the way it’s always been done” for an answer. We know that no solution is perfect and that there is always an opportunity to make things better for whoever is on the receiving end. In addition to that mindset, I also loved the openness to different backgrounds, both professional and personal. Amazon hires people for their demonstrated skill set more than specific job experience, and you can find people from all sorts of cultures who enrich the products we put out there by bringing a true global vision.   

Advice to current MBA students:
–One thing you would absolutely do again as part of the job search?
Ask people what keeps them at their jobs and what they would change if they had the power to. It’s a self-reflection question that helps you get a balanced view of the role (and interesting for an interviewer to respond). 

–One thing you would change or do differently?
Focus less on the company and more on the team. If you have the chance to recruit a specific team, focus on learning about their culture. Company values you can usually get from the internet, but if you go work for a big company post-MBA, chances are you will have a predominant team culture that might differ from what you see online. 

–Were there any surprises regarding your current employer’s recruiting process? 
How fast and transparent it was — four interviews in one day, and that was it. And again, the focus of the interviews was on what I could do, not what I had done.  

–What piece of advice do you wish you had been given during your MBA? 
Connect more with people who are not in the MBA. I got to know that Cornell was very well-known in computer science while working at Amazon, and I wish I had sought out more opportunities to collaborate with more technical people in an academic environment.  

Christina Griffith
Christina Griffith is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. She specializes in covering education, science, and history, and has experience in research and interviews, magazine content, and web content writing.