20 Questions with Teresa Carlson

by Catherine Trifiletti

At work and at play with the Amazon Web Services executive

On any given day, Teresa Carlson might be across the world meeting with high-ranking government officials to discuss how their countries’ infrastructure would be better served on the cloud, or advising female entrepreneurs in Bahrain through a mentorship program she established earlier this year in partnership with Halcyon. In her dynamic role as vice president of Amazon Web Services’ Public Sector, Carlson is a wizard at adapting to varied environments. The veteran executive learned to be nimble early on in her decade-long tenure at Amazon, where she has evolved harmoniously with the changing needs of clients and the rapidly advancing tech world.

Though Covid-19 has slowed her travel, it has undoubtedly ramped up Amazon’s cloud computing business as governments and organizations have hastily transitioned to remote work. Despite clocking in plenty of overtime, Carlson finds a way to stay true to her Kentucky roots and approach each day with confidence and grace.

At Work with Teresa Carlson

How do you start your workday?

Coffee and exercise! I need both to keep me focused and energized.

Cloud computing can be a challenging concept to wrap one’s head around. How would you explain it to a 90 year old?

I have an amazing 91-year-old mother, so I have good practice! You probably use cloud computing every day and you may not even know it. Netflix is an example of a service that you request on demand, watch as much as you want, anytime, anywhere, and on any internet-connected screen. Netflix runs on AWS. AWS is the world’s largest provider of cloud computing services and offers the same resources over the internet with pay-as-you-go pricing to anyone, whenever they need it.

Why are public and private sector partnerships so important?

I’ve always said that governments should have access to the same innovative technology as any commercial startup, including cloud computing. And we have worked hard to make that a reality. Public sector customers know their mission, but they don’t always know what technology they need to help achieve it. We work closely with our customers to understand their challenges and then we work backwards to leverage the right technology and build the solutions they need to get the job done.

What’s it like to be a woman in the tech industry?

Early in my career I was (more often than not) the only woman in the room, and I am committed to changing that dynamic. I truly believe that technology is a great place for women to establish strong careers and I’m proud of the diverse team that I lead and the unique perspectives they bring. Diversity in business should always reflect the diversity of customers and I am using my voice to make sure we get there faster.

Despite significant advances, there are still barriers to women and people of color in tech. What is AWS doing to move the social ball forward?

Around the world, women and people of color are still offered lower wages, have fewer opportunities to learn new skills and wait longer to be promoted. We’re prioritizing pay equity and setting out to transform our industry. We have also created programs like AWS Educate and We Power Tech to engage underrepresented communities and close the skills gap. More recently, we launched a program with the U.S. Department of State’s Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) to train and mentor cohorts of women entrepreneurs in Mexico and Chile. We have more to do, but we are making good progress.

What are some lessons you’ve learned about the tech space in Washington versus the rest of the world?

It often surprises people when I say that the D.C. tech sector is one of the fastest growing in the world, largely driven by big U.S. Government projects and now the home of Amazon’s HQ2! Most importantly, the D.C. region is home to dozens of leading and diverse colleges that attract the best and brightest students and create a sustainable talent pipeline. Innovation is spurred by creative thinkers and they gravitate toward dynamic companies that give them opportunities to work on engaging projects and thrive on great teams. The D.C. market has all of that.

You’ve been at Amazon for more than a decade, what would today you tell then you?

“Buckle up!” I always knew that cloud computing could help public sector organizations accelerate their missions. We were challenged in those early days because very few in the government knew what cloud computing was. On my early trips to Capitol Hill, I was asked questions like “Are you here to talk about books? Tax?” When I said that I was there to talk about the cloud, I got inquisitive looks. I quickly figured out that we needed to find the visionaries who saw the power of AWS and were willing to move their early workloads. We were fortunate that we found them in customers like NASA, NIH, and the Intelligence Community. Today, AWS has grown to millions of active customers.

What does AWS look like in another 10 years?

When we first started this business, customers were attracted to the ease and cost savings of cloud. But pretty quickly, they figured out that they could experiment, move much faster and be more secure in the cloud. Customers also gave us great feedback on services they needed. AWS Ground Station, a fully managed, pay-as-you-go service for down-linking data from satellites, is a great example of a service that we created to meet a critical customer need. AWS will continue to be an integral part of governments’ and customers’ digital transformation and we will keep inventing and building on their behalf. Over the next 10 years, we will make big bets in areas like edge computing, open data sharing, and space.

You recently launched a tech incubator with Halcyon in Bahrain. How did the idea originate and what does it mean to you?

In 2019, venture capital investment in all-female founding teams hit a high of $3.3 billion in the U.S. We can all fist pump about that number, but it was only 2.8 percent of the capital invested across the entire U.S. startup community and for people of color, that percentage was less than 1 percent. AWS and Halcyon share a commitment to supporting women entrepreneurs and diversifying startup ecosystems worldwide. This program will equip early-stage, women-founded social enterprise tech startups in Bahrain with the support they need to take their businesses to the next level.

What is your number one negotiating tip?

Negotiating is not a winner-take-all exercise. You have to put yourself in the other person’s position to understand their goals and work backwards from there to achieve the best outcome. Earning trust through fair and transparent negotiating is critical to getting to an end state that meets everyone’s needs.

At Home with Teresa Carlson

Favorite date night spot in Washington + go-to order: I love Cafe Milano and Franco’s team. As for my go-to order, I will order halibut on any menu!

Favorite D.C. landmark: The White House, Lincoln Memorial and Decatur House (where the White House
Historical Association is located) are by far my favorite landmarks.

First thing you do on a day off (if you have those?): I don’t have many these days, but I love to be outdoors in any weather.

Book you’re reading now: I recently read “Double Jeopardy” by Daniel Poneman. His view is that a commitment to developing cleaner energy sources and combining that with rational nuclear non-proliferation strategies is the path to reversing climate change and keeping us all safer from nuclear threats. It opened my eyes about the power of nuclear and the blockers to its adoption.

Tell us about your Southern roots and what you miss most about Kentucky: I grew up in a very small town in Kentucky, where my family is today. I love Southern hospitality and the comfort of its rituals. This year, the Kentucky Derby was postponed. It is my favorite event of the year and I was sad to have missed it.

Most used phone app: Amazon Chime, AWS’s online meeting service. Amazon and Net-a-Porter for shopping!

Item always in your bag: The new fashion statement—a beautiful face mask, hand sanitizer, Thrive mascara, Aquaphor Lip Repair, Charlotte Tilbury lipstick and a warm blanket I carry everywhere for travel that my friend made for me.

Something on your bucket list: A trip to the International Space Station with my husband. I love fashion,
so attending Fashion Week in Paris with my amazing and smart circle of girlfriends.

Best thing about being a married woman (congrats!): My husband and I were married in March—right before the shutdown. Although this pandemic was unwanted, we’ve had the benefit of a lot of wonderful and unexpected time together these last six months.

Motto to live by: Take your seat at the table and once you are there, make sure that your unique and strong voice
is heard.

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