The following is the final installment 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 and Part 2 on NPower here.
As founder and CEO of Girl Security, Lauren Bean Buitta is in a position to help reshape cybersecurity into a more diverse, inclusive and welcoming industry. But to rise to this level of prominence, she first had to escape what she described as a toxic work environment while trying to establish herself as a female professional in the security sector.
Girl Security provides trauma- and equity-informed programming and non-technical training through its “SEA Model,” whereby girls and young women are secured, empowered and advanced. Buitta described the nonprofit’s mission as “forging equity and national security by empowering girls with learning, college-to-career training, and mentoring, to advance them in national security careers.”
Originally from Illinois, Buitta in her early career sought work in foreign policy, looking to help her country in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In 2003, she landed her first job at a national security think tank.
“On the one hand, it was one of the most impactful opportunities. I was able to participate in conversations around the Patriot Act and things like the authorization for the use of military force,” said Buitta. Unfortunately, according to Buitta, the office was also a hostile workplace, and her superior not only “marginalized my voice, but was really kind of grooming me through a lot of inappropriate conduct.”
In response, Buitta submitted a resignation letter “that I have framed so that I can show my daughter someday that if you have to get out of a situation like that, it’s worth risking everything.”
At the time of her resignation, Buitta was still attending law school and expecting a child. With relatively few women in the field of national security, she feared that if she spoke out about her negative experience, she may not have been taken seriously. “It was a terrible experience to have as a young woman – many young women in this field have it – but it led me to some of the most important work that I've ever done that I wouldn't take back for anything in the world.”
Indeed, Buitta rebounded by starting what would ultimately become her own consulting firm, Stele Consulting. It was through this work that she spearheaded a major lawsuit against the city of Chicago for civil rights violations and racial discrimination related to affordable housing. “Through that work I really had the privilege of kind of self-educating about how systemic racism becomes imbued in policies to the point that it can be almost imperceptible,” she said.
Still looking for ways to change the system for the better, Buitta in 2016 founded Girl Security to create a new generation of women leaders in national security, while simultaneously seeking to bolster the representation of other minority groups as well, including African Americans.
It was the right time to charge ahead with the concept, especially after Buitta gained additional perspective from her work with the firm.
“I wondered how a girl – a girl of color on Chicago's South Side whom I worked with who grew up in a gang area – might re-envision what security means, as opposed to a girl from perhaps a more resourced community who has a very different understanding of national security,” Buitta explained. For example, “a lot of girls in our program have very negative associations with things like immigration [enforcement] and counterterrorism.”
With that in mind, "Girl Security is an effort to bring the lived security experiences of diverse girls to the forefront,” Buitta continued.
Earlier this month, Girl Security won third prize in the Gula Tech Foundation’s first-ever grant competition for cyber nonprofits, and was awarded $200,000 in funding.
Serving over 3,000 young women across the country, Girl Security focuses on developing important leadership skills and building confidence. “We emphasize ethics…, strategy, innovation, collaboration and critical thinking,” said Buitta. The nonprofits then sets participants up with additional organizations that can provide the actual skill training.
Last year alone, Girl Security onboarded more than 400 girls from across the U.S. “And we're on tap to probably double that number this year,” said Buitta, noting that grant funds will help the organization “create a pipeline from high school to college” by helping girls attain university-backed certifications or course credits while attending, high school, community college, historically black colleges and universities, and other institutions.
“That’s where we'll be pointing our arrow this year and expanding our impact," said Buitta. "We're losing a lot of women and... people of color in the field at those early undergraduate intervention points, so that's why we're honing in on that upper high school to early undergraduate.”
To expand its influence, Girl Security creates learning modules for middle and high school students, designed by women national security practitioners from the intelligence, law and policy and cybersecurity communities. Content is designed to be integrated into classroom lessons on subject matters such as history, civics and computers at partnering high schools in 20 states.
The organization also conducts classroom national security simulations and red team exercises for upper high-school girls based on real-life war-game scenarios.
Meanwhile, the organizations' college-to-career training offers more advanced programs for girls and young women who wish to pursue national security as a pathway to a career. “And this grant will specifically enable us to expand a scholars program that we launched last year,” Buitta added.
The organization’s educational framework is both trauma- and equity-informed, with the understanding that “a lot of the more visible impediments to advancement” in the field of national security “oftentimes have to do with race and gender,” said Buitta. In that same vein, Girl Security intends to use a portion of the Gula grant money to help launch its upcoming Equity Task Force, which will further aim to identify and break down these same impediments.
Girl Security also sets up participants with mentorships with leading companies and government organizations. The mentorship program is a six-month experience during which mentors introduce young women to their social networks and assist them with career-building tasks such as writing a winning résumé.
Recognizing that many internships and jobs were lost due to COVID-19 last year, another recent Girl Security initiative was to create a six-month professional development and leadership program that helped girls ultimately secure internships or jobs at landing spots such as the Department of Defense and FireEye.
Beyond career development, Girl Security has a second mission, said Buitta: “shaping the debate [around] the intersection of national security and racial injustice.” The nonprofit is doing that by asking industries and government bodies “to make commitments to ensure that if girls and women – and especially girls of color – can and want to advance into national security, that their future employers are... ensuring those workspaces are equitable but also safe.”