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Maria Thomas '92: Following 'four truths' leads to personal and professional satisfaction

By Rachel Farrell

At age 29, Maria Thomas '92 learned the hard way that there are no guarantees in life.

Thomas was living and working in Washington, D.C., when her boyfriend — a two-time heart transplant recipient — suffered a heart attack and passed away. Thomas was devastated.

"It was a turning point for me," she says. "I realized that, hey, nothing is forever. It helped me understand why I shouldn't waste time having regrets."

From that moment forward, Thomas has stayed true to that philosophy, particularly when it comes to her career. She's made a point to work only for "organizations that resonate with me," she says, even if that's meant packing up and moving, which she has done a dozen times since she left home for college.

In part because of this mindset, Thomas has had an exceptionally diverse and successful career. She has held roles such as principal investment officer and special assistant to the executive vice president at the International Finance Corporation (the private-sector arm of the World Bank); director of product development for camera and photo at Amazon.com; and senior vice president and general manager of NPR Digital. Last year, she was appointed CEO of Etsy.com, a fast-growing online marketplace for buyers and sellers of handmade goods.

"I was very drawn to Etsy in terms of what the business is and the people that it is serving," Thomas says. "Etsy pioneered the idea of connecting makers and buyers. From the very beginning, Etsy brought playfulness, storytelling and personal connections into the marketplace to create a more meaningful shopping experience. And I want to stay true to that." 

Thomas is so passionate about Etsy's mission that she's willing to work about 80 hours per week and commute from her home in Washington, D.C. to Etsy's Brooklyn office. On weekdays, she lives in Brooklyn; on the weekends, she takes a three-hour train ride home to D.C., where her fiancé, cancer researcher Mark Dudley, lives.

"We are really committed to our work and have made a commitment to each other," Thomas explains. "In the end, it can have positive benefits — you appreciate one another a little more, and it forces you to have a certain discipline in the relationship." Living between two cities has also benefited Thomas' work at Etsy. "When you leave your day-to-day environment, it gives you perspective," she says. "It jolts you out of your [routine] and shakes you up. I get to do that every week."

Thomas' lifestyle, which she calls "balanced imbalance," is one of the "four truths" that she's embraced in her personal life and career. Her other truths — work hard, show up and be ready to receive, and know yourself — were inspired by her father (a hard-working, small-town lawyer who came from modest roots), her mother (a homemaker with a passion for entertaining and cooking) and her Greek heritage (which encourages kefi, a Greek word meaning the spirit of joy, passion and enthusiasm).

Thomas is also practical by nature, which is one of the reasons why she went to Kellogg. "Kellogg had a four-quarter MBA program. It was efficient," she says, laughing.

Thomas says she doesn't know what's next in her career, but hopes to make a meaningful, long-term impact at Etsy. "[This job] teaches me so much and allows me to share what I've learned to try to make this early-stage company a lasting business," she says. "Thinking of it as commerce is too narrow. Yes, we are providing a venue to sell unique products. But Etsy is also about understanding that people have stories, products have stories and crafts have stories — and we can connect them.  Buying handmade helps us reconnect."

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