The legacy of an unconventional thinker
Joy Covey ’89, former CFO of Amazon.com, died in September in a bicycling accident.
A lover of the outdoors and a passionate advocate for the environment, she made it possible for numerous Harvard Law School students and graduates to begin their environmental law careers.
Soon after leaving Amazon in 2000, Covey established the Beagle Foundation focused on environmental philanthropy. She became a trustee at the Natural Resources Defense Council and endowed the Beagle Fellowship providing one recent HLS graduate each year with a two-year placement with the NRDC. She also provided funding for HLS students to pursue summer work in public interest environmental law. Recipients of the Covey Fellowships have worked for a wide range of employers, from Greenpeace to the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment to the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Professor Jody Freeman LL.M. ’91 S.J.D. ’95, the founding director of the Harvard Law School Environmental Law and Policy Program, described Covey as “full of energy and ideas” and “very supportive” of HLS. “She was one of those alums that you could really count on, who really understood what we are trying to do. She related to our mission of teaching students to be creative problem solvers,” said Freeman.
Margaret Holden ’14 and several other summer fellowship recipients had the opportunity to meet with Covey this spring. “She kept saying how she was really happy to support all of us,” recalled Holden. During the meeting, Covey gave students her personal email address and asked that they contact her in three years with career updates.
Covey’s own career path was not straightforward. She dropped out of high school at the age of 15. After getting her high school equivalency degree, she graduated from Cal State Fresno in two and a half years before taking a national accounting test, on which she received the country’s second highest score.
She spent a few years working as a certified public accountant with Ernst & Young, and then enrolled at HLS and then at Harvard Business School.
In an interview with the Bulletin in 2002, Covey said that when she first arrived at HLS, she felt completely out of touch with the rest of her class.
“We’d go to lunch and people would talk about their favorite 17th-century poets, and I’d be thinking, ‘Could I even name five poets?’” said Covey. “It wasn’t until we got our first-semester grades back that I started to realize that everything was going to be OK.”
Covey joined Amazon in 1996 as the company’s first chief financial officer and helped guide a massive expansion and the process of going public. She was named one of Fortune magazine’s 50 Most Powerful Business Women in America in 1999, and in 2000 she was selected as one of the World Economic Forum’s “Global Leaders of Tomorrow.”
In the interview with the Bulletin, Covey said Harvard taught her “a certain way of thinking” that served her well. During her time at Amazon, she recalled, “we spent a lot of time thinking unconventionally, and thinking through things based on our core principles, which is the kind of thought process I learned in law school.”
Her connection to Harvard over the years ran deep—in addition to supporting law students and alumni through fellowships, she served on the law school’s Dean’s Advisory Board and had been a member of the Visiting Committees of the law school and Harvard Business School.
“First as a student, and then as a wise adviser, Joy shared with HLS her vibrancy, powerful intellect, and relentless search for tackling tough issues with rigor and creativity,” said Dean Martha Minow. “Her commitments to environmental law and public service challenged and supported the school, enabling truly meaningful opportunities that altered the careers of individuals while advancing the public good. We mourn her loss deeply and will remember her always.”
Covey was 50. She is survived by her 8-year-old son.