My new book, Beyond Barriers, includes profiles of incredible people who have turned their toughest challenges into their greatest strengths. One of these incredible people is Amy Buckner Chowdhry, CEO of AnswerLab. This is her story.
Amy grew up in a rural suburb of Knoxville, Tennessee, before becoming an entrepreneur based in the Bay Area.
Early in her life, Amy’s parents went through a traumatic divorce. The marriage fell apart when she was eight years old, but the bitter custody battle raged on for three more years. For Amy, the biggest trauma occurred when the court gave her the burden of selecting the custodial parent. She has never forgotten the moment when she sat in the judge’s chambers, everyone listening as she made her decision, the court stenographer typing away.
Ultimately, she chose to live with her mom. That hurt her father deeply, of course, and Amy felt crushed about having to make the choice. She felt like she had rejected her father, and she grieved over the pain she had caused him. The experience of seeing her parents suffer over such a long period of time caused Amy to develop an extraordinary amount of empathy for other people. In fact, at times she has described it as a debilitating amount of empathy.
Driven by a Desire for Accomplishment and Understanding
When Amy turned thirteen, she began channeling her grief into self-improvement and extracurricular activities. She joined a cheerleading team, shed much of the weight she’d gained during the divorce, and threw all of her energy into academics and speech contests. Her success and public recognition in these areas were a welcome diversion from the lingering conflict between her parents and from feelings of guilt that came from disappointing them while trying to manage visitation schedules.
Amy continued her drive for accomplishment, exploring new things throughout high school and into college. She became valedictorian, enrolled at Vanderbilt, became the editor in chief of two publications, and developed a keen interest in exploring Japanese culture and language through an East Asian studies program. She learned to speak Japanese, studied abroad in Japan, and ultimately moved to Hokkaido for three years after college to fully immerse herself in the culture.
Through these experiences, Amy developed even more empathy for cultural and human differences. She discovered a passion for understanding how people think, particularly those from backgrounds vastly different from her own, and continued to seek new experiences and friendships that would help her see different viewpoints.
Turning Debilitating Empathy into an Asset
When Amy returned to the United States, she landed a job with an online education startup and had the opportunity to watch executives make decisions about the website based primarily on what would be best for their business functions: engineering, marketing, publishing, and business development. However, no one focused on putting the customers’ needs first.
In this role, Amy discovered an opportunity to connect the dots from her past experiences, to be the voice of the customer at the table, to bring empathy for the user to business practices. She decided to conduct research directly with customers, socialized it with the company, and found her calling.
After the startup, Amy joined an early-stage UX (user design experience) software company, bringing user insights and empathy to Fortune 500 companies that were just starting to understand how to build digital products.
Soon after, she launched her own UX research firm called AnswerLab, which is now the go-to partner for innovative brands like Google, Amazon, and Facebook.
As Amy became a successful entrepreneur, her focus on promoting empathy in product design was the culmination of everything in her life—from the traumatic divorce of her parents, to the debilitating empathy she developed for her father and other people, to leveraging an intense drive for accomplishment, to her experience understanding other cultures. Amy created a way to transform millions of lives for the better through technology designed with empathy and inclusion in mind.
For more advice and stories on how to turn your challenges into successes, check out my new book, Beyond Barriers.