The following is Part 2 in a series looking at the winners of the inaugural Gula Tech Foundation grant competition, and their efforts to increase African American engagement in cybersecurity. SC Media spoke with the leaders from all three winning organizations, each of whom experienced key turning points in their lives that led them to where they are today, putting each in a position to improve the fates and fortunes of others’ lives as well. See Part 1 on the Black Cybersecurity Association here.
An impromptu conversation with a stranger at a gas station changed Robert Vaughn’s life dramatically.
In his own words, the chance encounter sparked a journey that transformed him from a “kid from Chicago with no interest in college, no financial opportunity to even go to college,” to an accomplished IT professional with 42 certifications.
He went “from a gang and getting in trouble all the way to the boardrooms in corporate America,” designing cyber programs for the U.S. military and serving as deputy chief information security officer at Globe Life and global information security risk director at GM Financial.
As an infosec leader, Vaughn witnessed first-hand the dearth of available IT talent that’s available to hire. So when he learned about NPower – a nonprofit organization that provides free IT training to young adults and military veterans from underserved communities, with an emphasis on tech fundamentals, cybersecurity and the cloud – he wanted to be a part of its movement.
“Next thing I know I started running the whole organization in Texas and decided to build a National Instructors Institute (NI2) where we can really innovate and create curriculum that is meant to be meaningful across our blueprint,” said Vaughn, NPower vice president and head of the NI2.
NPower operates in seven different states and across Canada, and the NI2 within it develops the parent organization’s coursework and cultivates its instructional talent. Founded in 2000, the nonprofit aims to “launch pathways for prosperity and economic mobility, particularly by helping to launch digital careers,” said Vaughn.
Members range from entry-level beginners to experienced individuals seeking advanced career placement. Vaughn remembered when he was just a beginner.
Unlike his friends who went off to college, Vaughn stayed local after high school and found work at a grocery store at 19 years old, with a child on the way. The bills piled up quickly. Vaughn came across a man wearing a nice suit at the gas station, and asked what he did for a living. The man's reply: a systems engineer.
“I'm thinking, ‘Oh, he got a master's, so forget that,’” said Vaughn. But no – the man said all he needed was an official certification. Vaughn sensed new opportunity.
Unfortunately, at the time there were no NPower-type programs offering free or even low-cost cert programs. Instead, Vaughn pleaded with his mother and grandparents for a $20,000 student loan to enroll in a training course. “I wanted to drop out after week two because it was way over my head,” said Vaughn. But with the encouragement of an instructor, he stuck with it and became a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer and later he, too, became an instructor with Global Knowledge and New Horizons.
“I learned how powerful digital careers could be. Not just for myself, but for so many people,” said Vaughn.
Over time he realized what that cert training was a true life-changer. As an instructor, he learned that every time he earned a new certification that enabled him to teach that same cert course, he would earn a $2,000 raise. “So I went from a $48,000 job to $96,000 job within one year, because I literally studied everything,” said Vaughn.
“But I'll never forget… my experience and all the students in the class who did drop out, especially ones who look like me, because they just felt like they weren't smart enough and couldn't keep up,” Vaughn continued. “I vowed that as I learned this, I was going to teach this to people who… needed a little bit more handholding.”
NPower trains 1,200 students annually, 40 percent of them women of color. Training – which has taken place virtually since COVID-19 shut physical spaces down – includes technical skills such hacking, pen testing and logging, but it also covers the NIST, ISO and PCI cyber frameworks and how to conduct an IT governance audit. The program also emphasizes professional development, building up students’ leadership and collaboration skills. “We want them to know there are so many different trajectories and different directions you can go in,” said Vaughn.
The curriculum takes a trauma-informed approach toward education. This typically means instructors recognize that their pupils may have experienced trauma or hardships in their lives (e.g. racism, poverty, etc.) and strive to respond to their needs accordingly, while fostering their social and emotional development. For NPower, this means not assuming that a student comes in with any prior knowledge about coding. Nor is an admission test or reading score required for entry.
To help students maintain progress, NPower provides them with social support managers, career placement instructors, an appointed mentor, and eventually internships or apprenticeships for real-world experience.
The program works: 80 percent of students who enroll in the program graduated, 81 percent of graduates land jobs or continue their education, and graduates also see an average 361 percent salary increase. (The average salary among graduates is $80,000.)
NPower is also piloting a new program in cities such as Baltimore and Detroit where students staff a community IT help desk to support locals who don’t have internet access or perhaps don’t know how to use browsers or an application to, for example, book a vaccine appointment. The company also recently created a digital literacy program for students.
NPower won second prize in the Gula Tech Foundation's first-ever grant competition for cyber nonprofits. Vaughn said that the $300,000 grant will allow NPower to double enrollment for its virtual cybersecurity training course, drawing trainees from around the U.S. and Canada.