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What to Tell Young People of Color About InfoSec Careers

CEO and founder of Revolution Cyber Juliet Okafor and Baker Hughes Director of Global OT Security Programs Paul Brager talk about the unique lessons and hard truths they provide when mentoring young black cybersecurity professionals.

Filmed for the Dark Reading News Desk at Black Hat Virtual USA. Interview begins at 01:45. Excerpts below. 

JULIET OKAFOR: "Everyone talks about diversity; nobody talks about the change. … To be black in cybersecurity today is to be one successful at cognitive dissonance. To both experience something and be told it’s not true at the very same time. And as a black woman it is even moreso, because then my gender is also held against me. [Working in infosec] has been one of the best opportunities for my own personal growth, but if not for who I was before I got here, it would have killed me. …

"Now I’m sitting in this world where people want to talk about it and there’s protests and these riots, but I also have to be cautious about how much I talk about it -- because I’m also trying to grow a company, and I don’t want to be perceived as being too out of step, too violent, angry – in order to get the work. So I have to fit into the club, but I ‘ve got to show the club that I belong but I’ve also got to show them that I’m better than them, but I also can’t overperform them because that makes them feel bad."

PAUL BRAGER: "Young black men that I mentor, trying to convince them to come into the [cybersecurity] space, they’re really uncomfortable. They’re really concerned, they’re really scared about what exactly it is they can say, what they can do, how they’re going to be perceived, are they perceived as a threat. They’re walking into rooms where there’s no one in that room that looks like them at all. …

"When you’re trying to mentor someone like that, you’re talking to them about the skillset they have to have and all those other things. But coming at it from a black male perspective, you know it’s like 'okay, boy I need to sit you down, right. Because I need to tell you what this is going to feel like for you.'"

OKAFOR: "Security is a risk-based industry. ... People don't talk about the fact that black people come attached with a 'high-risk' label. ...

"We keep preparing our entry-level applicants to do the best job on-paper. But that's not why they're not hiring us. They're not hiring us because in the world we live in, we pose a severe risk and a threat, bodily threat, perceived by whites. So when they're now hiring us in the office, it's now 'do I feel comfortable?' You didn't feel comfortable with me out in the streets. So how do I get in with you now that you have the ability to make a decision about me? ...

"To get more blacks, to get more non-white people, into cyber I am training people to reduce the risk that is the perceived risk that people think they pose. ... We've got to be honest that you are, in our society, the highest risk that anybody could bring into an organization. If we can admit that, then we can solve the problem around diversity. We won't admit it." 

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