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Jeff Bezos: A new man?

In 1994, entrepreneurial minds were still holding their breath and waiting to discover exactly what the online world would be. It was the time to get in early and enjoy the ride – the internet’s potential was clear to those who knew how to look at it, but no-one was sure where this evolving entity would take them. At the time, we were still dialing up via modem, spending money per minute and hogging the phone lines (remember landline phones?) to snatch a few precious moments on our favourite slowly loading sites. The road ahead was so unclear, we were sure we’d all be ‘surfing’ it, intrepidly exploring an ever-stretching web of information without a compass. Now, we’ve hung up our surfboards in favour of ‘Googling it’, we learn more from Youtube than we do from teachers, and poor Jeeves doesn’t get consulted much now we can just ask Siri.

It’s been a wild journey, and for those that got in early, and played their hand well, there was a goldmine to discover. One such savvy opportunist was Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon – aka that place you buy everything from.

23 years on, Amazon is the world’s marketplace. It is the most valuable retailer in the United States by market capitalization, and the largest Internet company by revenue in the world. It is also the fourth most valuable public company in the world, which shows how small a gap now exists between ecommerce and physical companies. Their success has been a combination of reliability and customer service (in a world of uncertain online shopping, Amazon have a reputation as the safe bet), integration with independent sellers, and different ways of shopping, continuing always to expand until they pretty much sell everything, and staying relevant with changing trends. Whilst they now hire hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide, Bezos was and continues to be the mind behind it all – and it’s a talent that’s made him the world’s richest man.

It’s an impressive claim, and it carries an intimidating reputation. For many years, Bezos has appeared an elusive figure, rarely attending public events. The impression was of a powerful yet cold man – yet it seems logical that a computer-savvy businessman might simply not enjoy the social spotlight. Even more logically, it’s fair to assume that he has been extremely busy! However, he was sometimes as elusive at work as he was in the public eye: to spend quality time with his wife MacKenzie and their four children, Bezos never schedules early morning meetings. This may seem eccentric to the American work ethic, but the picture it paints is a successful company owner who is attempting to balance home and work life – and, it seems, he’s doing well at both. Something had to give, and perhaps for the peace and quiet of his family, or for himself, it was PR.

However, recently, Bezos’ entire image has changed; now the world’s richest man, with his company valued at $US600 billion and himself owning a net worth of over $US100 billion, allusivity became diminishingly possible – especially in the social media age. Whether it was increased attention, a freer schedule or a change of heart, suddenly, Bezos is everywhere, and he’s instantly made an impression.

Recent public appearances from Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, have including the Golden Globes, a red carpet screening of The Post in Washington (following his recent purchase and revitalization of the paper), but what has really grabbed people’s attention is his charitable giving. The couple recently went public with a massive $US33 million donation to a nonprofit that supports America’s ‘Dreamers’ – immigrants brought illegally into the US as children, who have grown up as Americans and made their lives there. (‘Dreamers’ are facing unsettling times at present, after President Trump ordered a scrapping and re-wording of the DREAM Act, leaving many futures in the balance).

The billionaire also made a $US2.5 million donation to Washington state campaign to legalize same-sex marriage. Whilst same-sex marriage was legalised nation-wide in 2015, Washington was able to block the law coming into effect in its state – a move this campaign wishes to overturn. Bezos’ donations are significant for their public political statements as much as the financial amounts: it would be possible for the businessman to give such gifts anonymously, as he may have done in the past, but allowing his name to appear on both contributes to the ongoing debates surrounding both issues. In terms of business, it’s a bold move, as a political stance can gain you loyalty from some customers, and lose you others. In fact, for the better part of Amazon’s first two decades, Bezos was vocal on his wish to keep the company and politics separate. The sudden change new approach has made him a target of Presidential tweets, and has earned him praise and celebration from many.

‘Big Tech’ companies are not only vast corporations, but ones that are affecting the way we think, earn money, spend money, socialise and, well, live. As such, it’s no surprise that they face much scrutiny and backlash. Perhaps it’s for this reason, as the magnifying glass gets every-closer, that Bezos decided to show his cards and let us see his human side. Like companies such as Google, Amazon have their fingers in more pies that we realise, and these include research into areas that push the boat further out into the science-fiction waters of possibility. For Bezos, this is Blue Origin, a space startup that aims to protect the planet from pollution by moving heavy industries off-world. With the company motto “step by step, ferociously”, it isn’t surprising that their more than slightly ambitious goal has plenty of people upset – namely, the vast numbers of businesspeople working in heavy industry.

With irons like this in the fire, neutrality wasn’t likely to last for long. Perhaps the future for Jeff Bezos contains a closer resemblance to Bill Gates, not to mention the technological headlines of Elon Musk. He is certainly forming a name in his own right, not only in the world of business, but as a public player. Meanwhile, his company is having a more real impact on people’s lives than ever; as of last year, there are more than 300,000 small to medium sized American businesses selling through the company, not to mention the numerous businesses overseas. Like internet culture in general, it will be exciting to see what comes next for Amazon – after 23 years of adaptability, it seems they will be leading us forwards for some time to come yet – “step by step, ferociously”.