Changing Course

Alumnus Paul Ryder helps Amazon land at Purdue

It’s fortunate for Purdue students that Paul Ryder’s early career plans took off in an unexpected direction and included a layover in Krannert’s Executive MBA program.

Ryder, vice president of media and student programs for Amazon, returned to campus for the first time in September to discuss Purdue’s affordability initiatives with President Mitch Daniels and to speak in the Krannert Executive Forum. In February, he and Daniels cut the ribbon at the grand opening of Amazon@Purdue, the company’s first-ever staffed customer order pickup and drop-off location.

Housed in the Krach Leadership Center on the West Lafayette campus, Amazon@Purdue offers students a convenient, cost-saving new option for receiving textbooks and other college essentials from Amazon, as well as a hassle-free way to return textbook rentals and other orders.

From a personal standpoint, Ryder offers Purdue students something just as valuable — the perspective of an engineer whose career path transitioned into business.

After earning his pilot’s license in high school, Ryder aspired to become a commercial airline pilot. He quickly realized that it wasn’t as simple as “going to college for four years and then automatically taking the left seat in a Delta airplane,” he recalls. So, as a New England native, he set a trajectory toward Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering with an aeronautical engineering focus.

After graduating, Ryder worked as a project engineer for aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, where he faced “the fork in the road that every engineer comes to” — did he want to be a specialist on a very technical track or did he want to migrate to a generalist role using his technical background in a broader sense? He chose the latter.

That led Ryder to GE, where he worked on projects as diverse as nuclear systems and household appliances. With new responsibilities came the realization that to move ahead, he needed to expand his expertise beyond engineering.

“When I was looking at my options for an MBA, I became aware of the executive program in Purdue’s Krannert School. It fit well with my job, which required me to be in Asia for multiple weeks at a time,” Ryder says. “It also unlocked an opportunity to learn from a more diverse group of international students who came to the program for the same reasons.”

The group collaboration projects broke Ryder out of his “technical shell,” he says. And the MBA completed the transition to the business side of aviation at his new employer, Honeywell.

In a post-9/11 aviation industry, Ryder, who had been promoted to vice president of business and general aviation, found himself just settling in to a move to Seattle when Honeywell underwent a reorganization that relocated his job to Phoenix. He commuted for about a year before amicably parting ways with the company.

His job search focused on Seattle-based companies like Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks — and Amazon.  “I had been an Amazon customer forever, although at the time I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” Ryder says. He interviewed with Amazon and was asked to run their consumer electronics division.

“If you’re an engineer by training and a guy, then you love gadgets,” Ryder says. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”

Ryder, who recounted his flight path to Amazon as a speaker in the Krannert Executive Forum, offers students a timeless piece of advice: “Be open to new opportunities and new ways of thinking,” he says. “Be flexible and nimble. Had I focused on being a professional pilot and not been open to changing course, I may have missed out in learning all of these great new skills and diverse experiences.”