Success Stories: Michelle Hopkins

Michelle Hopkins worked in finance across three countries and opened a women’s clothing store before taking a break to take care of her son. After over two years out and a family move to Seattle, she was ready to start a new chapter in her career. Michelle completed a returnship at Amazon, after which she was hired full-time as a Financial Analyst, and has since become a Senior Program Manager. She talks about her returnship experience, how she made the transition back to work easier on herself and her family, and all the ways her auditing and entrepreneurial skills have translated into her new career.

Tell me a bit about your career break. What type of work did you do before taking a break? What prompted your break, and how long were you out of the workforce?
I’m a CPA, CA (Chartered Professional Accountant) originally from Canada. I’ve worked in Canada, Bermuda, and the US in risk assurance and audit, with a primary focus on financial institutions. In 2015 I was living in Florida and working for the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers when an opportunity came up to open a women’s clothing boutique. That had always been a dream of mine, and I knew that if I passed on this opportunity, I would always regret it. So I decided to leave the corporate world to pursue entrepreneurship. It was an incredible experience, and so different from anything I had done before! But in 2017, after my son was born, I found it really difficult to balance these two competing priorities. It was almost as though I had two babies, and it felt like I wasn’t able to give 100% of my attention to either, so I knew something had to give. My husband and I had reservations about putting our son in daycare, and I didn’t have any family around to help out, so we decided that I would step away from the store and focus on caring for our family. I was a full-time stay-at-home mom for two and a half years. 

What prompted you to return to work?
I was out for a walk with my family one late afternoon and I told my son that we had to go home for dinner. He looked at me and said, “Mama, you go to the kitchen and make dinner, me and Daddy will stay outside and play.” I was so shocked  – he was only two and a half at the time, but was already intuitive enough to notice that “Mama” was always the one in the kitchen making food, and “Daddy” was the one who played with him. I never intended to raise my son in an environment with such traditional gender roles, but clearly he was picking up on how responsibilities were divided in our household. I’m very passionate about women being empowered to achieve equity in the workplace, and to me, part of pushing that narrative forward is to ensure that it is modeled for the next generation. I wanted him to see that Mama could do more than be in the kitchen, so I knew things had to change. I had always planned to go back to work, but this caused me to push up the timeline for starting my search. I am so very grateful for the dedicated time spent raising my son, but I started to get really excited about the prospect of starting a new chapter in my career.

How long were you actively looking for work prior to applying for a returnship?
It wasn’t very long, about two months. I knew that I didn’t love my prior audit career enough to go back to it, and wanted to pivot into something different. Having just moved to Seattle, I wanted to look for a role that would help me hone skills to make me more relevant in the Seattle job market, which has a significant focus on tech and is home to some major retail corporations. I had applied to a few startups and some larger companies, but quickly realized that I’d face challenges getting interviews due to the gap in my resume. I found out about Path Forward’s returnship program at Amazon and things happened pretty quickly after that. I applied and received an offer to start in December 2019. 

You mentioned having about a month between your offer and the start of your returnship to prepare for your return to work. What did you do to make the transition easier?
My son had been going to daycare two days a week to get him acclimatized, and when I got my offer, I bumped that up to three days a week, and finally to five days a week right before I started. That helped both of us to get accustomed to being apart and to practice settling into a new routine for our family. It was also important for me to prepare my husband for what was going to be the new normal. Up until that point we had very distinct roles in our household, and I knew we’d have to adjust. Prior to starting the returnship, we spent some time discussing how to  rebalance our responsibilities. We were still working out the kinks but were getting into a pretty good rhythm, that is, until the pandemic hit! We’ve had to adjust again, but being able to adapt quickly to challenging situations is actually a great skill to have overall, and it speaks to the importance of partnership and compromise within a family. 

Although I was nervous about pivoting into a completely different industry, I knew that I would be able to learn and pick up the skills necessary to be successful in my role.  Having overcome many obstacles while building a business during my tenure as an entrepreneur, I felt adequately prepared to take on whatever challenges I would encounter as I returned to the workforce.

What was your returnship role at Amazon?
I was hired as a Financial Analyst on the Finance team supporting Supply Chain Optimization Technology (SCOT). SCOT owns automation and optimization of Amazon’s global consumer supply chain and fulfillment network and is responsible for a number of metrics that are viewed by senior leaders up to the CEO on a weekly basis. My returnship was project-based, so at the end of the 16-week period, I presented a white paper on a project I had worked on. My project involved identifying opportunities for optimizing seasonal inventory management for Amazon’s fashion and apparel business. I found the subject matter really interesting because I had some experience in the retail fashion business from running my clothing boutique and I was excited to learn more about inventory management at such a large scale.. It also allowed me to draw upon many of the skills I acquired from my auditing career, because I needed to have the ability to dive deep and understand processes that were completely new to me. This meant reaching out to people on business teams that were outside of my own and involved significant engagement with these individuals to learn how their teams and systems function. I had a few smaller responsibilities that gave me some exposure to other teams within SCOT Finance, but the project was my main focus. I also spent a considerable amount of time just trying to learn about and understand the complex network of systems and myriad of interactions driving Amazon’s supply chain. I definitely had enough on my plate to keep me occupied! 

What role are you in now?
I now work on the Optimal Inventory Health Finance team within SCOT Finance. During my returnship, I had the chance to work closely with this team and I found the space to be very interesting. Inventory management at Amazon, as you can imagine, is incredibly complex, and I was intrigued by how a system based on algorithms and machine learning is relied upon for significant inventory decisions. It felt like a very natural transition to begin my full time career on this team, and it also gives me opportunities to interact with individuals in the greater Amazon organization.

What was your experience returning to work at Amazon?
I was certainly intimidated being surrounded by so many highly educated, talented, and driven individuals, especially since I was just coming back from a career break! I found myself in a completely different industry, in a totally different environment, in a complex space that was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. At times I felt totally out of my element. However, I felt very comfortable being candid with my manager whenever I felt overwhelmed, and was constantly reassured by my peers that it’s normal to experience a steep ramp-up at Amazon.  Being able to maintain communication with my team whenever I felt stressed really helped me to manage moments of self-doubt. I was also very fortunate that my team was so supportive and encouraging, and I truly felt that they wanted to see me succeed. 

Could you talk about ways that you stayed active within the Amazon community during your returnship, like joining Amazon’s Women in Finance Group?
While I tried not to consider the end result — whether or not I’d get a full-time job — I decided to act as though I was meant to stay permanently. I began joining affinity groups and applied to join the Women in Finance Initiative Committee during my returnship. I specifically joined subcommittees for Marketing & External Branding and Recruiting. I shared my first-hand experience as a returnee with the Committee, and they are very interested in the potential of expanding the Return-to-Work Program. I hope to help facilitate that by providing insight and feedback. I feel very passionate about helping women return to meaningful and gainful employment after a career break and I felt that this would be a great way to get involved in bringing more women to the Finance team.

Are there any skills from your pre-break career that you use in your new role? What about skills you gained during your career break?
Definitely –  one of the key skills of an auditor is to be able to step into an organization and understand its processes well enough to perform an audit.  This includes being able to ask the right questions, deep-dive into situations, and piece everything together in order to raise exceptions and make recommendations for improvement. Amazon has a very unique culture in that there is a significant  focus on writing skills. Instead of PowerPoint, it’s customary to write documents in full narrative format to present at meetings. Since I had honed my written communication skills during my audit career, documenting processes and writing Audit Reports viewed at senior and executive levels, I felt comfortable in my ability to effectively write the white paper for my project, on which I received very positive feedback at my final presentation. 

Finally, as an auditor, I was accustomed to working with all levels of individuals in an organization. This translated well during my returnship, as oftentimes I needed to reach out to people outside of my own team who didn’t know who I was or why I was asking them certain questions. Having experience with this in the past, I felt I was able to be persistent and assertive enough to get the answers I needed, which I credit to my background as an auditor.

My experience with entrepreneurship also helped me learn that when there’s no set playbook, I have to figure things out on my own. Being curious and resourceful enough to know how to find the information I need gave me the confidence to work in an environment of ambiguity. Even the creative skills I picked up from running the marketing and social media for my boutique are relevant. While you may not think of financial analysis as being a creative role, having an element of creativity allows you to think differently, which I believe to be a strength.

What did you find most helpful about being part of a Path Forward program at Amazon?
I felt that the returnship program provided a dedicated channel for someone with a career gap to get in front of a hiring manager. I had even more difficulty returning to work because I was trying to pivot careers, and my existing experience would not have met the basic criteria for some jobs. So I felt like the program really leveled the playing field and allowed me a chance to prove myself. I also really appreciated having a cohort of other returnees at Amazon who were in the same situation and experiencing many similar feelings of self-doubt or stress. We would schedule time to meet up, discuss our projects and overall experience, and provide support for one another.

What has been the most exciting or gratifying part of returning to work?
I’m a better person and more self-confident when I have a professional outlet and an identity beyond “Mama.” I know that not every day at work is going to be great, but just being able to have adult interactions – work-related or not – has made me feel more complete. I was never a very domestic-minded person, nor had I ever envisioned being a stay-at-home mom, and I did feel as though I had lost a part of my identity when I left the workforce. I’d had a lucrative career in audit, then fulfilled my dream of entrepreneurship, but suddenly it seemed like my life came to a screeching halt for a while. Just being able to get back out in the professional world, and meet and network with new people, has been exciting for me. 

Do you have any advice for future returnees?
I’d say you should take time to develop relationships and make connections during your returnship, even with people outside your immediate team, because they can give you a different perspective. Join groups, strike up conversations, put yourself out there, no matter how challenging or intimidating it may be. You have nothing to lose, and most people are amenable to sharing advice and helping out, especially when you explain to them that you are returning to work after a career break! In addition, it’s important to set your boundaries even early on. From the beginning of my returnship, I set out to create the work-life harmony that I wanted to achieve for myself and my family, and part of that meant leaving at a certain time every day to go pick up my son and get home in time to make dinner for my family. I tried to demonstrate that I could be flexible, but also made my constraints known. I’m very fortunate that my team has been very supportive and understanding of my needs. 

What are you most proud of accomplishing during your return to work experience?
My returnship gave me a different perspective on what I wanted out of my career. I didn’t know what to expect when I started at Amazon, specifically in a function that I hadn’t had experience in previously, so I’m proud of the fact that I was able to demonstrate my abilities enough to be hired full-time. 

In addition, I hope to serve as an example for other people looking to re-enter the workforce that it is possible to restart a career after a break! Returnships target a largely untapped pool of talent. I was part of a cohort of returnees and most of us are now at Amazon full time. Without this program, these women may not be in the workforce right now.  It’s really empowering to know that returnees can be given an opportunity to make an impact and continue successfully in a career in spite of taking time away from work.

Thanks for sharing your story, Michelle! We are so happy you’ve found success and balance in your career. You can learn more about Michelle on her LinkedIn page.

Want to return to work at Amazon like Michelle? View all of their current returnship opportunities and apply now!

– The Path Forward Team