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Mary K. Pratt
Contributing writer

How the Lift mentoring program gives women in cybersecurity a leg up

Mar 25, 202110 mins
CareersDiversity and InclusionIT Leadership

The Executive Women's Forum's Lift program connects mentees working in information security, risk management, and privacy with mentors who can help them blaze their own trails. For individuals in the program, the career impact can be transformative.

Audrey Gonzalez, senior information security analyst, General Dynamics Information Technology
Credit: Audrey Gonzalez, senior information security analyst, General Dynamics Information Technology

Audrey Gonzalez was advancing her cybersecurity career when, instead of looking to the next rung, she thought about leaving the profession altogether.

“I felt inadequate. I was feeling like I was not cut out for this type of work, that my peers were more qualified,” Gonzalez remembers.

Had she left, Gonzalez’s departure would have been one more blow to a field that already suffers from too few professionals to meet demand as well as an underrepresentation of women.

But before that happened, Gonzalez shared her self-doubts with her mentor who in turn shared insights about impostor syndrome—the feeling of being not as competent as others believe you to be—and how common it is.

The conversation buoyed Gonzalez, who decided to stick with cybersecurity.

“That was something I worked on with [my mentor], she coached me through that feeling,” Gonzalez says. “She helped me understand it’s OK to volunteer for stretch projects to learn and build up that confidence. The feelings I had are still there, but I now manage that; it’s not something that’s hindering me from setting goals and going after them and staying in security.”

Gonzalez is now a senior information security analyst with General Dynamics Information Technology, a job she landed in March 2021 after a three-year tenure at NextEra Energy. She credits the work with her mentor back in 2019 with keeping her in cybersecurity and on the advancement track.

Gonzalez credits the mentorship program, Lift, too.

Linda R. Dolceamore, Director Leadership Development, Executive Women’s Forum Linda R. Dolceamore, Director Leadership Development, Executive Women’s Forum

Lift is the mentoring program at Alta Associates’ Executive Women’s Forum (EWF) on Information Security, Risk Management and Privacy, a leadership and learning community designed to advance women working in that space. It’s designed to give mentees and mentors opportunities to build their skills, make new connections and accelerate their success.

“We’re equipping them to go back to their organizations as better leaders,” says Linda R. Dolceamore, the EWF’s director of leadership development.

Goal-setting and accountability

Mentorship has been a longstanding professional practice recognized for helping junior workers learn the ropes, navigate challenges, and move their careers forward. One study, from Olivet Nazarene University, found that 76% of professionals involved in mentorship considered their mentors important or very important. Yet only 44% of those surveyed said they have ever had a professional mentor. And of those who have mentors, 59% described the relationship as “casual and loose” with only 41% saying that their mentors helped them work toward formal goals. Some 61% said their mentors worked with them at the same organization.

EWF took a different approach.

Joyce Brocaglia, Alta Associates CEO and EWF founder, and Dolceamore had had in place a small peer-mentoring program that dated back a decade or so. In 2017 they decided to rework it, evolving it to a more structured program that is now known as Lift.

“We just saw a plethora of talented, experienced and knowledgeable women and thought there was a much bigger opportunity to connect women one to one so they could harness the wealth of knowledge in our community,” Dolceamore says.

Lift offers two mentoring programs a year. With each program, Lift matches mentees and mentors who work together over a six-month period during which the pair agree to keep in regular contact. The timeframe creates a sense of urgency, motivating participants to get work done, Dolceamore says.

Participants work on specific goals set by mentees; they outline targets and objectives to ensure accountability and progress. Mentees and mentors can access on-demand training and education through Lift, and mentors can earn an EWF Master Mentor designation as part of the leadership development opportunities offered. Mentees can also opt for 360-degree assessments.

The spring 2021 session has some 165 pairs of women. There have been some 1,000 pairings overall, with many women who started as mentees later becoming mentors themselves.

The value in elevating others

Multiple mentees, mentors, and their enterprise bosses say they get a lot of value from the program, something that brings them back year after year.

That’s the case with Target, which has a long-standing relationship with EWF and has had its female security workers participate in EWF programs. In fact, Target has had 42 team members participate as either mentors or mentees in all eight Lift program rounds; 23 of those workers have participated in more than one round, and 12 have participated as both mentees and mentors.

Brenda Bjerke, a senior director of cybersecurity at Target, is one of the company’s most active participants, having been a mentor in all eight Lift rounds. She was also the first EWF member and Target employee to complete the Master Mentor training.

Brenda Bjerke, senior director of cybersecurity, Target Brenda Bjerke, senior director of cybersecurity, Target

“I’ve been a mentee since the very start of my career and each mentor has helped shape how I work and lead today. As soon as I could, I began mentoring others—formally and informally—so I could pass on all that I’ve learned and help elevate other women. It’s incredible how much you also grow and learn by supporting others in their careers. Mentoring relationships are mutually beneficial and important no matter what stage your career is in,” Bjerke says.

Target CISO Rich Agostino agrees.

“We want all our team members to feel as empowered as possible to develop professionally as practitioners and leaders—especially in a rapidly evolving industry like cybersecurity,” Agostino says. “In addition to our own internal mentoring network at Target, EWF and the Lift program are valuable ongoing opportunities for our team members to connect with and learn from others in the industry with outside perspective and unique insights.”

He adds: “Having a strong network of mentors has played a pivotal role in my career and I want others to have the same—particularly those who have historically been underrepresented in cybersecurity.”

Female by design

Lift only accepts women, who must be either individual members of EWF or part of organizations signed up as benefactors. It also only matches mentees with mentors outside of their own employer.

Brocaglia said Lift’s structure was deliberate and thoughtful. She explained that pairing professionals who aren’t at the same company gave them more space to be their authentic selves and discuss challenges without worrying about how their comments could impact them at their workplaces.

Joyce Brocaglia, Alta Associates CEO and EWF founder Joyce Brocaglia, Alta Associates CEO and EWF founder

“To this day, it’s one of the top benefits women cite about the program, the ability for outside insights and the safety they feel sharing their fears, their challenges, and their hopes. They have somebody who will listen and keep those things confidential and give a different perspective than someone internal,” Brocaglia says.

Ericka Wylie-Chambers, a senior security public policy analyst at Exelon Corp., first participated as a mentee in 2019, joining as part of a group of women from her company.

Wylie-Chambers identified as one of her goals a desire to become a more effective team member. “I had always worked as an independent worker, but Exelon is very collaborative and team-oriented, and that was different for me,” she says, adding that she wanted to learn how to become “an approachable advocate on a team.”

Ericka Wylie-Chambers, senior security public policy analyst, Exelon Corp. Ericka Wylie-Chambers, senior security public policy analyst, Exelon Corp.

Her mentor helped her work on that goal, discussing, for example, how to read a room and respond appropriately to others in such circumstances and how to be a leader from the position she held.

Wylie-Chambers says Lift’s design—specifically the fact that her mentor was outside her own company as well as its goal-setting and accountability structures—helped her more fully tackle these areas she targeted for improvement.

“My mentor held my hands to the fire even when I was licking my paws, and I appreciated that. She held me accountable,” says Wylie-Chambers, who remains active in EWF’s other programs.

As for the women-only aspect, Brocaglia and Dolceamore both say it allows participants to discuss the unique challenges that female professionals face.

“They might be the only woman in the room, and they can learn from other women who might have experienced that. They can benefit from someone who already cut through that path,” Dolceamore says. “There is a shared experience.”

Career transformation ahead

Brocaglia says the woman-to-woman pairing also helps mentees better visualize their career paths ahead.

“Not only does that show them someone who blazed that trail, it makes it real to them. It then becomes very relatable; they can see themselves doing those [senior] roles someday,” she says.

Stacy Mill started as a mentee with the earlier version of the EWF’s mentorship program. She joined as a way to find people who could help her chart her path to the C-suite as well as expand her own insights.

She says she found the biggest value in the accountability provided by Lift’s structure as well as its policy of matching participants who don’t work together to bring new perspectives to both mentee and mentor.

Stacy Mill, chief technology officer, State of Kansas Stacy Mill, chief technology officer, State of Kansas

“There’s no way I would have had the same access to the types of leaders I had if I hadn’t been in Lift,” she says. She says the time for introspection and mentor feedback outside the workplace were big benefits. “It made me more relaxed and open to the process.”

Mill is now deputy chief information technology officer and CTO with the State of Kansas, a member on the EWF Board of Advisors and a Lift mentor. She still finds her work with the program “transformative.”

“It helps me think about how I’m going to mentor both males and females within my organization,” she says.

Nazira Carlage, a director in security assurance at Salesforce and another longtime Lift participant, also credits the program with helping her advance her career. She signed up as a mentee when she was looking to move from a front-line manager role toward a director position, explaining that she was particularly interested in learning from more senior women how they determined their career paths.

Carlage says her mentor helped her understand that what she did to succeed as a manager wasn’t going to get her to the next level. “That helped me shift off some projects onto new ones to build what was needed to move up,” she says.

Her mentor also helped her find ways to get more visibility for her and her team which in turn helped Carlage land the right resources to be successful.

Nazira Carlage, director of product security, Salesforce Nazira Carlage, director of product security, Salesforce

“It allowed me to build the program in a certain way, get more resources, get more of the responsibilities I was looking for, and then I got promoted,” she added. “It allowed me to be more intentional about what I need to work on. It helped me focus on the right things.”

After two rounds as a mentee, Carlage became a mentor to give back. “I felt I could help people moving from [front-line] IT to the management track and could help them do things to set them up to be successful,” she says.