Digging Into the Other Side of Startup Leadership With Maria Thomas,…
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Digging Into the Other Side of Startup Leadership With Maria Thomas, Former CEO of Etsy

Photograph of Maria Thomas with text "Amazon, NPR, Etsy, AMEX, Smart Things; The next business experience..."

On Tuesday evening, Maria Thomas will be coming to the Harvard i-lab to kick off our new speaker series, The Other Side, which will focus on the lesser discussed moments, passions, and yearnings that have driven successful careers in innovation and technology.

Thomas has had quite a run in the past decade, highlighted by her two year stint as the chief executive of Etsy during a period in which the company was undergoing massive international growth and gaining recognition as a leading Internet commerce brand.

Growing up in West Virginia, Thomas came to Boston University, drawn by the appeal of city life. Later, instead of leveraging the accounting degree she earned at BU, Thomas went to Wall Street after graduation, eventually ending up at the World Bank's International Finance Corporation. While working to try to raise the poverty level in emerging markets by investing in small businesses, Thomas started to pay more attention to the Internet, and, more specifically, the companies that were developing unique business models to leverage the growing number of customers becoming more and more comfortable completing business transactions online.

So naturally, she ended up at Amazon. The influence of Jeff Bezos's leadership would inform much of how she approached leadership from that experience on — first guiding teams transitioning from radio to digital at NPR, and later at the helm of Etsy. "There is a lot that has really stuck with me," Thomas told me of her time at Amazon. "One thing in particular that I learned from Bezos is that it is okay to be misunderstood in the short term to create value in the long term."

That thinking can be best applied to her time at Etsy. “The startup world shifts quickly,” she said. And after two years of highs and lows — including some leadership power struggles — Thomas moved on from the e-commerce company. Since, she has led a special project for American Express, helped guide SmartThings towards an acquisition by Samsung, and started to invest in promising early stage companies like Harvard i-lab alums HourlyNerd.

Throughout her career, Thomas has sought opportunities to both lead and learn, and a common thread that runs through her journey — from knowledge-seeking employee to executive — has been her quest to gain a mastery of business intelligence and leadership wisdom.

“I’ve always been a businessperson in some way. All my grandparents from Greece were merchants," Thomas told me recently. "I can even remember my grandmother talking about stocks. I was always into business and trade.”

“If there is any geek in me, it’s not an engineering geek. I am sort of geeky about finance and business,” she added.

"If you take everything about who I am, I really enjoy business," Thomas said. "For me, it is about trying to figure it all out. Trying to figure out the business model or the technology and more."

On Tuesday, Thomas will pass on what she has learned, first-hand and self-taught, about ventures, leadership, and life at the i-lab's first Other Side Series talk.

More tickets have just been released due to popular demand for this event. You can get reserve yours here.