Interview: Aspiring Wellness Entrepreneur and Former Amazon Product Manager

This is an interview with Marquis, who just made the decision to leave his job as a Senior Product Manager at Amazon to found a wellness startup.

What’s your story?

My background is that I know a little bit about a lot of things. I went from computer engineering to financial engineering to investment management to systems thinking to healthcare to Amazon where I’ve been a product manager, which is kind of a generalist role.

Right now, I feel this tension between staying a generalist – maybe assembling the right team to tackle the next project – and going deeper into a discipline to get some real expertise.

You left your job at Amazon a few weeks ago. What pushed you to make that change?

The impetus was this realization that my personal values weren’t aligned with what I was doing all day. A few years ago, working on EC2, I got that feeling and decided to make a change, so I switched to a new team in the company – to Kindle Education. Ultimately that wasn’t enough.

Almost every year when I was working there, I’d consider leaving or making a change to better align my work with my values.

Just like in any big company, I also had to deal with red tape. Putting up with old software and processes was hard and it always took a long time to get something done.

I’d always wanted to try to launch something myself.

Do you expect to be happier having started your own project?

Absolutely. It’s easy to romanticize startups but I know it’s not easy and the odds are against us. There are going to be setbacks, there are going to be ups and downs, but I feel ready for it.

So what is this next project?

I haven’t completely figured that out.

I think it’s in some combination of education, healthcare and wellness. We need more life education that helps us with our decision making, relationships, behaviors and habits. Lots of people struggle with those things. I certainly have.

You haven’t quite settled on one particular idea. Are there other projects you look to as a model?

I feel like I’m just beginning to discover the space. There’s Rosalind Picard and the Affective Computing group at the MIT Media Lab. What they’re doing is very cool. They’re developing devices that can at least get at the question of “How can we quantitatively tell the emotial state of people?” 10 years ago, people would have said that was an impossible problem to solve.

There are some companies, too. One startup is essentially trying to bring big data together to patient health management outside of hospitals. They’re consolidating the data from the hospital and biofeedback devices and using to inform everyday decision making.

I also look at Susan David’s book, Emotional Agility. The book describes how the determinants of career success and wellbeing are widely attributable to our ability to manage our emotions. Management isn’t just control, it’s also understanding the data our emotions give us and how we optimize our response based on that.

Mental health in general right now – it’s almost an epidemic. So I think that’s a really important place to innovate in. A lot of mental health care outside of traditional therapy models is missing. It’s ripe for disruption.

10 Years ago, what did you think you’d be doing now?

So 10 years ago, I just got to New York after getting a masters in Financial Engineering. That was my first pivot.

I’m not sure at that point that I was thinking 10 years ahead. If I was, I was thinking about understanding how markets work, how people make money in them, and how to make good investments. I thought maybe I’d be in finance. Maybe I’d be managing a hedge fund or have my own investment company or part of a larger organization but with autonomy over investment decisions.

I didn’t really think about how my values and my goals were connected. I was more interested in working interesting problems in ways that pay the bills. I never thought deeply around insuring my work was fulfilling and had a societal impact.

Do you want to venture a guess about what you’ll be doing in 10 years?

[Laughs] Now that this is going to be on the record…

It’s anybody’s guess. At this point, I’ve lived long enough to know that trying to forecast 10 years in the future is a futile exercise.

But if I were to guess, I would say, hopefully, best case scenario, I’d be back in the investment field but investing in and growing socially concious businesses.

The plan right now is to launch this startup and to really get this experience and in the best case scenario to be succesful at it. And to take that experience and to help others who are trying to do the same thing – build purpose driven organizations.