The following is the first in a series of articles looking at winners of the inaugural Gula Tech Foundation grant competition, and their efforts to increase African American engagement in cybersecurity.
“DJ” Darold Kelly Jr. knows what it’s like to be jobless and homeless.
With just three months remaining in his senior year at Howard University, Kelly, a young black man, was accused of a crime he did not commit, he told SC Media. He was jailed and expelled from school. And though he was ultimately cleared of the criminal charges, he estimates that he lost out on roughly 30 job offers as a result of the false allegations.
But his life turned around last summer when NASA recognized his potential and extended him a critical lifeline – an internship in the agency’s Office of STEM Engagement and, later, in cybersecurity.
Now, he’s the one offering a new lease on life to promising individuals, as a “rep” for the Black Cybersecurity Association (BCA). The nonprofit was formed last July to help underserved and underrepresented individuals of all backgrounds – with an emphasis on the black community – find careers in cyber through networking and mentorship opportunities.
Actually, Kelly is much more than just a rep. He’s founder, president and CEO. He just calls himself a rep because the more formal title is a “little stuffy for me,” he explained.
Last week, the BCA received a major shot in the arm, winning a $500,000 first-place prize in a grant competition initiated by the Gula Tech Foundation, a recently formed entity that rewards non-profit cyber and data security organizations with much-needed funds to grow and thrive.
Through their foundation’s first-ever round of grants, Gula Tech Adventures (GTA) President Ron Gula and GTA Managing Director Cyndi Gula wanted to reward nonprofits whose main objective is to increase African American engagement in cybersecurity. Earning second and third place were the organizations NPower and Girl Security, which respectively earned awards of $300,000 and $200,000.
“We really need to grow more people to be responsible and included and involved in this digital world that’s not slowing down,” said Cyndi Gula. “We need to get people involved. And the big thing that all three of these organizations do is [they fill] that ecosystem.”
SC Media spoke with the leaders from the three winning organizations, each of whom experienced key turning points their lives that led them to where they are today, putting them in a position to improve the fates and fortunes of others’ lives as well.
Today we look at Kelly and the Black Cybersecurity Association.
The BCA’s offerings are built around the acronym TASKS: Training, Advanced Skills, Knowledge and Support. Its 2,000 members range from kids to university students to professionals seeking to advance their careers and ultimately land cyber leadership positions.
Among the nonprofit’s most popular programs is its entry-level, free CompTIA Security+ certification course, which averages roughly 100 participants per class period every Saturday. But what differentiates this offering from similar programs, said Kelly, is that the curriculum is taught in an “emotionally sensitive” manner designed to put attendees at ease and build their confidence.
“People come in with their guards really, really high. And so we just aim to not attack those barriers,” said Kelly. “It's okay to not have DoD-grade security around your heart. Just let us go ahead and teach you this content so we can increase and diversify the workforce.”
Still, certification alone isn’t always enough to land a job. “We found that a lot of our members are running into challenges, even after certification, landing their first job because they don't have a lot of experience,” said Kelly. This is especially true of members who are transitioning from other careers such as accounting or electrical engineering. Fortunately, the BCA’s Operation Real World Experience bootcamp helps train up-and-coming professionals to be workforce-ready by teaching them the discipline of ethical hacking.
There’s also the BCA Coffee Shop – essentially a networking workshop where participant can make connections while also receiving professional development and job interview training. Additionally, the nonprofit has a program to teach members how to build their own home labs, leveraging technologies such as Raspberry Pis.
Meanwhile, for the younger crowd, the BCA’s Kids Can Code program introduces the Python programming language to kids to help them prepare for future careers in STEM. The BCA has already graduated between 50 and 60 children out of its code camp program, at least half of whom "look like me," said Kelly.
It has been a long and arduous road for Kelly to land in this position of influence. Beyond his early struggles, challenges emerged while seeking to better himself through education.
“Managing to get a 4.0 GPA wasn't necessarily easy because I was sleeping at the school and the police would try to lock me up and arrest me for sleeping in the building,” he said. “Trying to compete in these capture-the-flag cybersecurity competitions was really difficult because I didn't have access to the internet.”
Ultimately, Kelly earned dual bachelor's degrees in political science and government, and in computer engineering, both from the University of the District of Columbia. During a three-month NASA internship, Kelly saved the agency as much as $80,000 after developing a computer program that allowed NASA scientists to transfer data from one application to a differently formatted application in automated fashion, without resorting to time-consuming manual entry. That led to a second internship and later a full-time offer.
Kelly said that the moment he was able to climb out of his own difficult circumstances, all he wanted to do was help those he saw along the way. "Because I could not help but to realize that despite the changing demographics of the city, everybody in the jail cell still looked exactly like me,” said Kelly. “I'm grateful I saw that; I pour every ounce of my being into helping all the people I saw on the way here.”
Kelly said he plans to use the grant money to grow the Kids Can Code program, expand scholarship opportunities, and invest in more professional development workshops and training programs. He also wants to finally pay his staff members, who since the BCA’s founding last summer have worked entirely for free.
Still in his twenties, Kelly said he strives to exude an infectiously positive attitude as BCA’s leader, while acknowledging that “all the positivity that I really, really try to not only radiate, but inject in our organization, comes from pain. It comes from a place of loss.”