CU Boulder alum—now Amazon account specialist— finds strength in the flexibility provided by a liberal arts education
Even by the time he was a senior at Chatfield High School in Littleton, Colo., Cory Ketai (PolSci’16) had put together a business resume that many a recent college graduate might envy.
For that, he gives credit to his mother, Paula, and father, Brad Ketai (PolSci’80), now retired, who encouraged their son to get a job while in high school at Airhead, an outdoor-sports equipment company where Brad was a national sales manager.
“They wanted me to learn the value of work,” says Cory Ketai, 26, now a vendor specialist (essentially, an accounts manager) for Amazon in Seattle.
At Airhead—whose founder, Aaron Kramer (EnvCon‘78), is also a CU graduate—Ketai got to work in nearly every facet of the business. He started in the warehouse, transitioned to customer service, managed a parts department and represented the company at trade shows.
Noticing that the company had virtually no social-media presence, Ketai eventually approached management and proposed to get them up to speed.
“I went in, said, if you pay me the equivalent of last summer, I’ll originate all these platforms for you guys, build original content, and start publishing,” he says. “They gave me the green light.”
Yet for all that early experience, Ketai says it was studying political science at CU’s College of Arts & Sciences that propelled him toward his successful career. In particular, learning how to write well and being exposed to a diverse spectrum of people, cultures and viewpoints have made a major difference.
“Irrespective of what line of business you are in, your intelligence is limited if you are not able to communicate effectively. I learned early, sometimes the hard way, how to be concise and relatively articulate,” he says. “That’s the thing that has most helped me in the business world.”
Not that Ketai has always had his nose in a book or a figurative pen in hand. A ski racer growing up, he took a gap year after high school in hopes of improving his ski record enough to make the team at CU or another NCAA Division I team. His father, too, had come to CU to ski for the Buffs.
“I lived out of a suitcase for a year, chasing races in the western and northern U.S.,” Cory Ketai says.
He arrived in Boulder hoping to snare the single walk-on slot on the alpine racing roster, but ultimately didn’t make the team.
“I came knowing it was very unlikely I’d get a spot on the team,” he says. “It was a long shot, but I didn’t want to look back and say, ‘What if?’”
He pondered transferring to another school where he might make the team, all the while keeping himself in shape with regular sessions at the recreation center. That’s where he began to make friends with members of CU’s rugby team. They talked him into practicing with the team for a week, and he was hooked.
“It kept me in shape, I was having a good time, and making friends,” Ketai recalls.
Academically, it took him a few tries to settle in. He started in economics, but found he was “not good” at calculus, and thought he might try international affairs. When he realized that a language requirement for that major would require another year of school before he could graduate, he looked elsewhere.
“Political science really fit the mold for me. It checked the box on a lot of economics-based things and international development,” he says. “It ended up being an awesome decision and a great fit.”
In the summer, Ketai took internships with an uncle’s commercial real-estate firm in Detroit, USA Rugby and Toyota North America. Then he found a role on Career Buffs where he interviewed for, and got a job with, PepsiCo Inc. in Seattle.
“Coming out of college, I wanted to find a good opportunity that would be a springboard for my career and diversify my experience at a heavy-hitting firm that would carry weight on my resume,” he says. “It didn’t hurt to be surrounded by (Seattle-based companies such as) Starbucks, Boeing, Amazon and Microsoft.”
At Pepsi, Ketai was a merchandising manager who led a team of 50 people. He served as de facto project manager for the company’s response to Seattle’s imposition of a sugar-sweetened beverage tax, consulting with customers and others to determine how to alter pricing and resolve other critical issues.
“It was stressful, exciting and pioneering, albeit not the most positive thing for the business. But it was an important matter for the business,” he says.
After a year and a half, a former Pepsi manager who had taken a job with Amazon approached Ketai about an opportunity to pursue a job with the global retailing giant. He interviewed and accepted a job as a vendor specialist, and now handles day-to-day account management, marketing and supply-chain for three movie-studios that sell DVDs and other physical items on Amazon.
“(Amazon is) wildly innovative and growing, and I’m seeing things from a macro-perspective state of business,” Ketai says.
Ultimately, he’d like to be CEO of a “big firm,” though he knows he’s got to get a lot more experience under his belt, first.
“I want to be a jack-of-all-trades, supply chain, sales, marketing, you name it, and my position now is giving me more experience in all those things. My dream job may still be three jobs away, but every job will be a springboard to the next,” he says.
As he moves up in his career, Ketai says the diversity he experienced at CU has become a surprising tool in business.
“You find grounds to relate with a lot of different people, taking astronomy sequence classes or sub-Saharan African history classes. They sound like they’d be one-off experiences, but then you amazingly meet someone (in business) from a random country that you actually know something about,” he says, citing the example of a French citizen with whom he could discuss European Union politics.
“It’s a ‘soft skill,’ but the frequency with which those circumstances have come up is shocking, and all that social diversity is a product of having an arts and sciences degree.”