Amazon had no shortage of impressive stats to present to its shareholders at its annual meeting in Seattle this morning. Annual revenue rose 27 percent to $136 billion in 2016, operating profit reached $4.2 billion, up 87 percent, and the company surpassed 340,000 global employees as of the end of the year.
Not to mention the continued growth of Amazon Web Services, the rapid expansion of Prime Now delivery, a boom in Prime-eligible products, and the 11 Emmys, six Golden Globes and three Oscars won by the company’s growing array of original movies and TV shows.
Amazon has even given out more than 1.7 million free bananas at its “Community Banana Stand” in Seattle — up more than 460 percent since last year, as the company’s chief financial officer, Brian Olsavsky, pointed out during his comprehensive presentation to shareholders.
The protesters outside were not impressed.
— GeekWire (@geekwire) May 23, 2017
In fact, despite all those numbers, the annual meeting was most notable for its heavy focus on political and social issues, as protesters and shareholders alike challenged the company on a variety of important topics.
First on the list was the Rev. Jesse Jackson. The civil rights leader made a return visit to the meeting, asking the first question during the Q&A with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Jackson urged Amazon to create a special commission on gender equality and racial justice, called for more diversity on the company’s board of directors, and asked its executives to take another look at Amazon’s delivery practices in minority urban neighborhoods.
“We need your leadership,” Rev. Jackson said. “We’re in a dangerous season of racial and gender polarization in our country. We’re somewhere between anxious, scared and embarrassed. … We’ve globalized capital and technology — we’ve not globalized human rights.”
Bezos deftly fielded a variety of societal and political questions at the meeting, but when it came to Jackson’s multifaceted query, the Amazon CEO gave the floor to someone even more experienced in such issues: Jay Carney, the former White House press secretary, who is now Amazon’s senior vice president of corporate affairs.
“Since you visited us two years ago, we’ve taken significant steps toward enhancing diversity at Amazon through various programs,” Carney told Jackson, also pointing to the company’s efforts to improve technical education for underserved communities. “We are going to continue to work on this. It’s very important to my boss and to all of us in leadership at Amazon.”
Beth Galetti, Amazon’s senior vice president of human resources, said the company takes seriously the diversity problem in the tech industry, working with national and local organizations to strengthen and diversify the talent pipeline. She said it’s especially important to have “diversity of thought,” recruiting and retaining diverse talent inside the company to benefit its customers.
In addition, Galetti said, “We are investigating mechanisms that will interrupt unconscious bias in any of our processes. We don’t think that anybody has reliably figured out the answer to this and how to do it, but it’s an area that we’re working on and we’re experimenting with.”
During other parts of the meeting, the company showcased its community initiatives and philanthropies such as its plan to create a permanent home for the Mary’s Place homeless shelter at its headquarters campus.
At the same time, Amazon’s sometimes stringent corporate personality was on full display as a staffer jostled over a handheld mic with Bruce Herbert of Investor Voice, who was speaking on behalf of a proposal to reform how Amazon tabulates shareholder votes. Herbert wanted to hold the mic, and the staffer refused, with both of them grappling for control of the mic for the entire time he spoke.
“I guess shareholders need to be controlled,” Herbert said as the crowd laughed nervously.
As in years past, Amazon told reporters that they weren’t allowed to record the meeting or take pictures.
Some shareholders seemed surprised at the extent of Amazon’s initiatives, chuckling at the forthcoming Echo Look‘s promise to help people upgrade their daily style, for example. “What?!” exclaimed one person toward the back of the audience.
On issues more related to Amazon’s business, one shareholder asked Bezos whether the company would consider splitting its stock again — currently trading above $970/share — to make the shares more affordable to younger and middle class people. Bezos said the company doesn’t have any current plans to do so but said it is something Amazon considers from time to time.
Another shareholder pointed out that Amazon sometimes appears to have “nothing but a clear runway” to success, and asked Bezos to detail his biggest concerns and the potential hurdles he foresees over the next five to 10 years.
“Over the last 20 years, there has never been a time when we looked into the future and thought it was clear sailing,” Bezos responded. “We look into the future, and we see always an intensely competitive environment, a world that is awash with high rates of change and new technologies, all kinds of disruptive influences. It never looks like smooth seas to us from the inside, no matter what it might appear from the outside.”
He said the company has gotten through rough waters in the past with an obsessive focus on the customer, an eagerness to invent and pioneer, and a willingness to take a long-term approach — the company’s oft-repeated principles for success.
In the end, he didn’t really answer the shareholder’s question with any specifics on the challenges he foresees, but he did get his message across. Later in the meeting, another shareholder brought it back to the theme of the day — joking that Bezos should form “a new Amazon party that will be obsessively focused on the voters.”