Author and Amazon veteran Kristi Coulter has found her voice. Funny and feminist — with a viral essay under her belt and a book coming out next year — she talks with The Seattle Times about what it’s like to be a woman working in tech.
On her evaluations at Amazon, Kristi Coulter used to get notes like this: “I wish she’d speak up more.”
Funny now, when you think about the way Coulter’s voice — funny, acerbic, feminist — reverberated around the internet after she wrote an essay for Medium last year about all the “super double tanked” women around her.
“Maybe women are so busy faking it — to be more like a man at work, more like a porn star in bed, more like 30 at 50 — that we don’t trust our natural responses anymore,” she wrote. She called the piece “Enjoli,” after the perfume once advertised with a song about a woman who can “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and never, never, never let you forget you’re a man.”
A columnist for The Washington Post remarked that almost every woman she knew had read the piece. Time, Slate and the New York Post chimed in. Within a week, she had a book deal seemingly well-positioned to make her a sought-after cultural observer at this moment of reckoning over gender roles.
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“Nothing Good Can Come From This,” her series of essays about quitting drinking and seeing the world newly sober, is coming out in August. Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux — comparing her to authors Cheryl Strayed and David Sedaris — plans to push it hard, Coulter said.
The Washington Post recently interviewed Coulter for a piece about the current tsunami over sexual harassment, a subject that also animates her Facebook posts.
“Do you guys understand how incredibly (expletive) dumb you sound?” she wrote, posting a New York Times story about men wondering if they need to cancel holiday- work parties and take other extreme measures so as not to unwittingly harass women.
So why did Coulter have trouble finding her voice at Amazon? “It wasn’t that anybody was trying to keep me silent,” said the 47-year-old, who has worked at the retail giant since 2006, currently as the principal writer promoting the futuristic grocery store Amazon Go.
Rather it was the alpha males trying to out talk each other, none stopping to ask what she thought. “Oh my God,” she would think, “this is a room of dudes practically yelling at each other.”
In two hours of conversation at the Belltown cafe Assembly Hall, Coulter talked about what it’s like to be a woman working in tech, why she thinks sexual harassment is more pervasive in Silicon Valley than in Seattle and the inevitable backlash that comes with being a blunt female writer.
In person, she’s more approachable and easygoing than you might expect from her writing. “I can be very acerbic, but I also don’t think that’s a great way to move through the world,” she said, though one senses having sharper edges might have helped her at times.
Case in point: Ann Arbor in the late ’90s. Coulter, a graduate of the University of Michigan’s MFA creative-writing program, interviewed for a job with the founder of a company archiving movie and music data.
“He asked me the least amount of money I could live on,” she recalled. She told him the truth: $30,000. He gave her $31,000.
“Oh, child,” she said of the young woman she was, who never thought to negotiate her salary.
She stayed seven years before moving to Seattle for a job at Amazon managing content, promoting books and other media — first in the U.S. and then worldwide. “Seven months after I had gotten to Amazon, I was in Tokyo. It was like that Talking Heads song: “How did I get here?…
“I just went with it, because what else what I going to do?”
Plagued by a “deep, deep insecurity,” she was overwhelmed. But this was the Amazon way, as she understood it. “Just go and figure things out.”
“It actually was probably the smartest thing I ever did — to just be brave.”
Life among alphas
She went on to take on a variety of roles, including West Coast editorial director of Amazon Publishing and coordinator of a leadership-coaching program, before assuming her current job at Amazon Go.
She said that’s one of the reasons she’s stayed: “You can reinvent yourself every few years.”
She has worked through Amazon’s alpha-male environment, as she described to hilarious effect, without naming the company, in her essay “Enjoli.”
The scene was a work panel for interns she was on. One asked: “I’ve heard this can be a tough place for women to succeed. Can you talk about what it’s been like for you?”
Her answer: “If you’re tough and persistent and thick-skinned, you’ll find your way … I have.”
At which point, a man on the panel jumped in to offer an even rosier view. And then another. And then — “just to make sure we have 100 percent male coverage on the topic,” she wrote — the third man on the panel.
This is not an experience unique to tech. Still, she mused at Assembly Hall, tech has a lot of people who “think they know things they don’t know” — including, as she sees it, what it felt like to be her.
At Amazon, the culture is changing, she said. People are thinking about the idea of inclusion. There’s been what she described as a grass-roots attempt to raise consciousness about how women feel when they’re interrupted, and concerns about being perceived as too aggressive despite a “leadership principle” that urges employees to “respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting.”
Change, she said, has also followed an explosive 2015 New York Times piece that depicted the Amazon workplace as brutally demanding.
“Without making a big deal about it, I feel like Amazon took that to heart,” she said. “How are you feeling?” managers will ask. “Are you guys taking your vacation?”
Not in Seattle?
She said she has not seen a harassing culture at Amazon, though she guesses there have been cases, as at any large company.
There have, including an allegation against Amazon Studios head Roy Price, who resigned. That happened in October, after voluminous allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein unleashed the #MeToo movement.
With more stories pouring forth by the day, it will take more time to know how any one company will fare in this moment of reckoning.
But Coulter suspects predatory behavior — legendary in tech’s bro culture — may be less of a problem at Amazon because of its focus and relative maturity.
“A lot of the stories out of Silicon Valley are from startups,” she said. Ones that create an environment geared for men just out of college: beer kegs in the office, foosball, video-game competitions.
Young men getting “all this stuff thrown at them,” she said, “develop the notion they’re more important than they are.”
The Seattle area doesn’t have the startup scene that Silicon Valley does — yet; Coulter noted this region is getting more of one as people leave companies like Amazon and strike out on their own. And that, she speculated, may be why we’ve heard about fewer harassment stories here.
So what’s next, The Washington Post asked Coulter, in reference to the landscape around sexual harassment. “In a strange way, figuring that out is exhilarating,” she replied. “It’s also exhausting. And then I’m bracing for a backlash.”
That sounds like where she is in her writing career.
After her essay came out, she got thousands of emails.
Some were from men, along the lines of “I don’t think I’m that guy…” They were referring to the panelists she described, and letting her know that they were now trying harder not to be that guy. (She never heard from the actual panelists.)
Other letter-writers told Coulter she had changed their lives; they were quitting drinking, or quitting something.
Still others were furious. Was she telling women they shouldn’t drink? “It was as if I said: ‘Debbie in Montclair, New Jersey, put that margarita down.’ ”
There also was a lot of press criticism, which took issue with what they took to be her message to women — as the New York Post summed it up, “Your boozing is the fault of the patriarchy.”
“Actually, I was kind of proud at the time that the word ‘patriarchy’ appeared in the Post,” she said, alluding to the paper’s conservative bent.
But she said she wasn’t totally blaming the patriarchy. Feminism, from its earliest days, empowered women to drink and smoke, just like men, she said.
Coulter looked at drinking through women’s experiences because, well, she wanted to write about women. The anger she got — that comes with the territory of doing so frankly, unapologetically, she figures.
“I needed to be hardened,” she said. “When the book comes out, I’m going to get more of all of it.”