How Muthoni Ngatia’s childhood in Kenya led her to a career in economics
The Amazon economist says lessons from her mother taught her a lot about how the world works, and why economics plays such a vital role.
To understand how to best serve customers around the world, it’s essential to have employees with diverse and unique perspectives. Muthoni Ngatia certainly fits that definition.
Ngatia, an Amazon economist, works on bringing Amazon’s services, such as Prime, to new countries. In that role she relies on not just her experience as an economist, which includes a stint at the World Bank, but also instincts she developed from growing up in Kenya. Growing up there taught her valuable lessons about human ingenuity and the outsized influence of scarce resources.
Ngatia and her two siblings were raised by a single mother with limited means. That scarcity meant her mother had to make choices about which things were essential — schooling was one of those things.
“Education was really important to her,” Ngatia explained. “I never would have had the educational opportunities I did if my mother hadn’t prioritized our schooling. She pushed hard to scrape together what little she had to give us a better education.”
In addition, her mother’s innovative drive and entrepreneurial spirit provided an early childhood lesson on the importance of access to capital. Ngatia remembers how impactful it was to see the difficulties her mother had when she tried to get startup capital for any of the business ideas she had.
Thinking about how human beings make decisions with scarce resources, and trying to make a simple model that would produce useful predictions is really interesting. The part about scarce resources really resonated with me given my life experiences.
“It’s the same for a lot of small business owners in Kenya,” Ngatia said. “They have the talent and the great ideas, but then they're still lacking a connection to get startup capital, or the right opportunities to take what is just a great idea and turn it into something transformational.”
Those twin lessons of grappling with scarcity and experiencing, first-hand, the mechanisms and systems that can dictate what resources are available and how they are distributed inspired Ngatia to eventually pursue a career in economics.
“The heart of economics is that we build models to try and explain human behavior, which is definitely ambitious,” Ngatia said. “As economists, we don't always succeed, but I think we get close. That exercise of taking really complex problems and thinking about human behavior, thinking about how human beings make decisions with scarce resources, and trying to make a simple model that would produce useful predictions is really interesting. The part about scarce resources really resonated with me given my life experiences.”
Ngatia eventually moved to the United States to attend Harvard University, where in 2005 she obtained her bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics and economics. She then attained her PhD in economics from Yale University in 2012, did a year of postdoctoral research work in South Africa, and in 2013 became an assistant professor of economics at Tufts University in Somerville, Mass., not far from her Harvard undergraduate campus.
In 2015, while still an assistant professor at Tufts, she joined the World Bank, where she researched the impact of social programs focused on improving the economic situation of women. Her team conducted experiments to see how various community education programs affected their target population. They would randomize the people that were offered the program and then they would survey participants before and after they participated to assess which aspects of the program had impact, and which did not.
Another project involved research in Niger, Guinea, and Chad aimed at measuring the impact of gender gaps in agriculture and education on a country’s GDP.
“One goal of these reports was to show that ‘women are half of your population, the fact that they are not being encouraged in these fields means that your GDP is much lower than it could be. If you are able to close these gender gaps in education and in agriculture, your GDP could be so much higher,’” she said. “That definitely started a slow path of reform.”
After nearly five years at The World Bank, Ngatia joined Amazon in July 2020. Today, she focuses on how Amazon Prime can best meet the needs of customers in India, including understanding how speed of delivery can contribute to the program’s success there.
“Muthoni comes in with an extremely strong background in economics,” said Charlie Manzanares, senior manager (economist) at Prime and Ngatia’s manager. “Her World Bank experience gives her perspective in two areas: one, she has a global perspective by default, thinking carefully about how peoples’ needs might be different from those in more established marketplaces. And two, the World Bank gave her a lot of experience in creating programs that had real-world impact. She also has experience in experimentation, which is especially important in new marketplaces, where we are on the steepest part of the learning curve in terms of finding out what our customers want.”
Ngatia said she was also drawn to Amazon by the chance to help people around the world whose business ideas currently represent untapped potential. “There are really concrete ways in which Amazon is improving lives for people,” Ngatia said. “There is a potential for the business to be transformative, and that potential is much higher in emerging market segments.”
Similar to her mother, there are other entrepreneurs in countries across the globe who have great ideas, but don’t have the capital or mechanisms to turn their dreams into reality.
“It’s kind of remarkable how familiar India seems,” she said. “And that familiarity from my time in Kenya has helped me work in India because the environments are really similar.”
She offered the example of physical addresses. “There are few street addresses in Kenya in the same way as they are in the US or Europe,” Ngatia explained. “Usually, it's kind of a description; you give someone vague directions, but a street address is really hard to find. And that's similar to how it is in India — and yet, we still have to make deliveries.”
It’s kind of remarkable how familiar India seems. And that familiarity from my time in Kenya has helped me work in India because the environments are really similar.
Working at Amazon gives Ngatia the opportunity to have an impact at scale she never imagined could be possible.
“At Amazon, there’s been a lot of support for my learning and ramping up to using a new toolkit and new skill sets,” she says. “I’m still doing economic experiments, but at a scale that I had never really imagined. At the World Bank I might have run an experiment for 3,000 to 5,000 people and with Amazon the scale is much bigger.”
Ngatia said she hopes to encourage more people who come from underrepresented backgrounds to explore a career at Amazon.
“Amazon is taking diversity, especially racial and gender diversity very seriously,” she says. “There have been great efforts to try and hire more diverse economists. It's also really rewarding for me because I am working with recruiting to help them see what the work of an Amazon economist looks like.”
“Amazon was really attractive to me because I can work in an important and growing field in emerging market segments,” she says. “I can also stretch myself in a way that I wasn't being stretched in my last job, and the opportunity to learn has been really great. I would love to be able to work for Amazon in Africa when the opportunity arises, and hopefully the work I’m doing now will inform those business transitions.”
Whatever the future holds, Ngatia sees a clear path to help people like her mother in developing economies around the world.
“One way that Amazon will be transformational in developing economies is creating opportunities for a lot of these small businesses,” she said. “Just offering a store for them to sell their products — that can give them the boost they need to get started.”