Elevating diversity in cybersecurity with BlackGirlsHack Founder, Tennisha Martin

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Leaders like Tennisha Martin, founder of BlackGirlsHack, are on a mission to help close the skills and diversity gap in cybersecurity — a key area that has been a focus for Adobe and the industry as a whole. BlackGirlsHack partners with Black girls and women to help them pursue careers in information security and cybersecurity — sharing skills training and mentorship opportunities. While their focus is advocating for Black women and girls, the organization is open to everyone.

BlackGirlsHack is a training-focused non-profit volunteer run organization that was created to help increase diversity in cybersecurity by bridging the gap between what is taught in educational institutions and what is necessary to build a strong foundation for careers in cybersecurity. Their vision is to provide resources, training, mentorship, and access to Black girls and women to increase representation and diversity in cybersecurity and executive roles.

When we focus on diverse recruiting, strong internship programs, training and professional development, we can make strong headway and start to cultivate the next generation of security leaders.

Tennisha Martin, founder of BlackGirlsHack,

Let’s begin with how you got started in cybersecurity. What sparked your interest in this career field?

I went to school for Electrical and Computer Engineering, and right after school focused my career on Quality Assurance, Software Testing, and Auditing. Over the years, I got involved with organizations like Women’s Society of Cyberjutsu, and Cover6 Solutions, which provided training in ethical hacking and I realized the same skills that made me an excellent breaker of software would make me an excellent hacker of systems. I started attending workshops and self-trainings via platforms like TryHackMe and Hack the Box, then I updated my resume to focus on the skills I could bring from a Test Engineering background.

I started getting certifications and as I gained confidence in my skills, I started live streaming hacking sessions where I invited folks to learn about hacking methodology. The more I learned about ethical hacking the more I knew it would be the perfect next step for me to use the skills I already had and expand past applications into systems and networks. I tried to enhance my knowledge by getting additional master’s degrees, but what I found was that traditional cybersecurity education was very heavy on theory, and light on the practice. What I found is that employers want to see what you can do, not what you know. This is what sparked the idea for BlackGirlsHack, so people could gain hands-on experience that is so important in these types of positions.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned throughout your career?

I’m very much an introvert and initially went about excelling my career by out-certifying and out-educating the competition. From that experience, I learned this is not the way to go progress your career. What’s more important than making sure you have the credentials is having a strong network that can also attest to you having those skills. Many jobs are filled before they ever hit a website or a job portal and typically are filled through referrals and word of mouth. As you establish yourself in the industry, it’s important that you not only build your personal brand, but that you let other people know what you’re trying to accomplish. The more eyes you can get, the greater visibility you’ll have into the cyber landscape and the greater chances you will have to make the right connections to get your start, your next step, or reach your goal.

What advice would you give to those who are often overlooked and considering a career in cybersecurity?

We need diversity of thought as much as we need diversity of people. Above all, stay confident and know your worth. Everyone faces obstacles along the way, but persistence, courage and commitment can make a world of difference. Get a mentor, or maybe three. It’s important that you have the collective experience to know what the expectations are for your next step, how you can show your value, and what that value looks like in terms of dollars and cents.

What do you wish you knew when you were trying to get into cybersecurity?

Developing and increasing your network is just as important — if not more — as developing your technical skills. Networking will help to extend your reach of where you’re able to get to and it’s vital to your success. More than education, more than practicing and getting hands-on experience, I’d say that if you’re trying to get into cybersecurity, you need to find your squad. Get a group of people that you can bounce ideas off of and talk about your experiences to extend your reach. The more people you have in the community looking out for you, the better.

Black Girls Hack Logo.

What inspired you to start a nonprofit like BlackGirlsHack and what impact do you want to have on the industry?

I started BlackGirlsHack because of the struggles I was having getting into the industry. When I decided to make the transition into cybersecurity, I assumed that based on my technical testing skills, certifications, and a master’s in cybersecurity that I shouldn’t have a problem. I have five master’s degrees, but I would only put on the one that was most relevant to the job that I was applying for on my resume, along with my bachelor’s in electrical and computer engineering. I applied for jobs and would either hear nothing or not a good fit. If I did get feedback, it was that I needed more hands-on experience so I started teaching myself hacking in “tryhackme”, “hackthebox” and whatever Capture The Flag games I could find.

As I learned more, I started hosting weekly lab classes to work with other people who were also trying to learn. I didn’t have all the answers and I couldn’t get through all the rooms, but I built a community of people on online sites who faithfully came out and learned how to hack with me. This helped me kickstart BlackGirlsHack.

The vision is to provide resources, training, mentoring, and access to Black girls and women and increase representation and diversity in cybersecurity and executive positions.

How can companies work with organizations like BlackGirlsHack to increase diversity and inclusion in cybersecurity?

Most organizations are aware of their shortcomings when it comes to diversity and inclusion, and if this applies to your company, reach out to organizations that are near and dear to your employees’ hearts and use the opportunity to not only support causes your workforce cares about but increase your diversity and inclusion efforts as well.

At BlackGirlsHack, we’re working with companies to help develop pipelines to employment where the companies set up internships to train newer employees. These employees can then get the certifications and knowledge specialized to their experience and be able to fill a large number of critical roles.

Companies can partner with BlackGirlsHack in a variety of ways:

1) Workshops: We need workshops on a variety of topics (This is a great way to talk about what you do and let people know what types of folks you hire).

2)Training: We’re a training-based nonprofit and we’re trying to expand our curriculums to encompass all areas of cybersecurity.

3) Donations & Sponsorships: For example, if you’re a training company, you could donate licenses or provide discounts.

4) Jobs: Finally, once we train people up, they need jobs. We’d love to partner with organizations to fill their entry to mid-level positions and as we get people from Individual Contributors to Managers, we’ll need some mid-to-executive level support as well!

What continues to motivate or inspire you in your career?

Because there are so few women, Black women, and underrepresented communities in this space, we need to let people know that we are here! Women only represent 25 percent of the industry, and that number gets even lower once you start getting into some of the fields like penetration testing. Our voices need to be heard. We need diversity of thought as much as we need diversity of people. What inspires me most is seeing the other amazing women in the space, like Camille Stewart Gloster, Ya (Tia) Hopkins and CISA Director Jen Easterly.

It’s inspiring to see women who have surpassed the odds and represent what is possible. I’m also motivated by the people who come back and let us know they got the certification, they got the job, or they got their start. I think the impact that we’ve been able to achieve in such a short period of time is what drives a lot of us. We’ve got over 100 volunteers and a couple thousand members and we’re on track to take over the world!