After being diagnosed with autism in June 2018, Lisa Ventura was able to better understand herself and why she stood out in both school and the workplace. This unique mindset stemmed her interest in non-typical female interests such as technology and cybersecurity. Today, Lisa is the CEO & Founder of the UK Cybersecurity Association and features in this weeks’ blog edition of #YesSheCan.
Can you tell us a bit about you and your career?
I started my career in PR and marketing back in 1995 in the entertainment industry as I worked for an agency that represented the interests of many leading TV and radio presenters in the UK. I worked closely with Chris Tarrant, the host of the hugely popular game show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”, for seven years and got to see “Millionaire” go from a format on A4 paper called “Cash Mountain” to a phenomenally successful global game show – it was an exciting time!
After this, I entered the technology industry and spent nearly 4 years at a leading cyber security software development company based in the Midlands as their Chief Operations Officer, and I stayed in the cybersecurity industry after my time there. Today, I am the CEO & Founder of the UK Cyber Security Association, a membership body for individuals and companies who actively work in the cybersecurity industry, and I am an author, blogger and keynote speaker at various conferences and events.
What’s a typical day in your career?
I work remotely and from home so there is no typical day for me, but I often find that I need to juggle my work with various conference calls and travelling to events and conferences which I take part in as a speaker or panellist.
What made you choose this career/industry?
I have always had a huge interest in gadgets and technology, and I was the only girl in my class at school to have one of the very first home computers, a BBC micro, and I pestered my parents for a computer for ages – then I finally got one! I went on to have an Amiga 500 and 1200 and was always interested in coding, but I also loved writing and that interest took over!
I spent seven years in the entertainment/media industry, but I never forgot how much I love technology and coding, so when I entered the cybersecurity industry in 2009 I knew that is where I wanted to be.
How did you get to where you are now, and did you face any challenges along the way?
Oh gosh, where do I start with this! I have had many setbacks and course changes along the way to get to where I am now as the CEO & Founder of the UK Cyber Security Association. Up until 2012 things were relatively stable for me, but then my husband at the time announced that he no longer loved me as a wife anymore. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and I had to start again not just on a personal level but also with my career as the cybersecurity software development company I joined that got me into the industry was his company. It was heartbreaking and devastating all in equal measure to have to start my whole life again from scratch and recover from my divorce, but I did it.
After a short spell at a national charity I joined BT and worked on their Assure Cyber product, and I remarried and fell pregnant. My only son was stillborn, and I had to start again career-wise because I thought I was going to be a full-time Mum to a son who had significant disabilities and who would need round the clock 24-hour care. Unfortunately, he died before he was born when I was almost full-term pregnant with him, and I’d put plans in place to be a full-time mother. That didn’t happen, so I had to start my career from scratch yet again. After I lost my son I had to pick myself up and dust myself off, and went through a myriad of other close family bereavements. I lost my father in law, 2 close cousins, my beloved Aunty, my Uncle and another close cousin who was aged just 42. My Dad was also taken suddenly and seriously ill in October 2017 when he was diagnosed with epilepsy age 70, and on top of that he also has lots of other health problems so I’m always having to adapt and change my schedule to help him. I went through all of this while also still trying to forge a career in cybersecurity and founded the UK Cyber Security Association, so there have been quite a few challenges and setbacks along the way.
What is an important initiative that you feel passionate about in your role?
Neurodiversity and cybersecurity, and how the industry is very well suited to those who are neurodiverse. I was diagnosed as being autistic in June 2018, and that diagnosis led me to understand myself so much better and what made me tick. It made perfect sense as to why I was so interested and passionate about tech and why I entered the tech and cybersecurity industry as a career.
What do you think gave you the drive and determination to succeed?
I have been bullied throughout my entire lifetime. I have suffered unspeakably at the hands of bullies and on my last day at school I walked out and thought thank goodness I don’t have suffer bullying anymore! But it was WORSE after school, and the bullying I encountered in the workplace and even from those who I thought were my friends was nothing compared to school!
I was also cruelly betrayed by people who I thought were my friends, and so what drives me and gives me the determination to succeed is to prove all the bullies and my ex-friends who betrayed me and who said I was useless and that I would never amount to anything wrong.
Do you have a mantra you live your life by?
Yes I do, and it is “fortune favours the bold”. I had heard that line before but ever since I heard it in the Queen biopic film “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which I have seen numerous times since it was released (I am a HUGE fan of Queen and Freddie Mercury), something clicked with me and I have had the courage and strength to go for things I might not have otherwise done, such as keynote speaking, being a published writer and industry expert in my field. It is scary, but fortune really does favour the bold which I can attest to by my recent award wins and my achievements.
‘It is scary, but fortune really does favour the bold’
What is the best bit of advice that you have ever been given?
Never, ever, ever give in to bullies. If you are being bullied speak up and report it. No-one has the right to belittle you, bully you and make you feel insignificant, or that your work and achievements aren’t valid, no matter who they are. I know from bitter experience the effect that bullying can have and it is even worse when it is done to you by people who you think are your friends. I strongly support the #StampOutBullying campaign, and I get very sad whenever I hear that a teenager has taken their own life because they are being bullied. Speak up, stand up and stamp out bullying!
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
My beloved Aunty Maria. She lived through the war and came over to the UK to live from Southern Italy not knowing a word of English. She taught herself English by reading Janet and John books and worked as a seamstress. She didn’t have children of her own but brought up my Dad like her own son when he came to the UK to live when he was 11, and I got my love of reading, films, the theatre, Shakespeare and TV from her.
She taught me that no matter what life throws at, or how people treat you, life is beautiful, and it should be treasured, for things can change in the blink of an eye. She passed away age 84 from dementia in 2015, and I miss her dearly to this day.
‘No matter what life throws at you, life is beautiful, and it should be treasured, for things can change in the blink of an eye’
Do you think enough is being done by businesses to address gender imbalance?
We have made progress in addressing gender imbalance, but so much more needs to be done. The “old boys club” mentality has never been more prevalent than in the cyber security industry. I attended Infosec in London earlier this year and just walking around the event it was clear that it was geared to a male audience. I heard about an incident where a heavily pregnant lady couldn’t get into a talk being given at the event, which ironically was about women in the cyber security industry, and because she was a few minutes late due to her train being late she was barred by security from entering the talk. When she asked for a seat as she wasn’t feeling well after rushing to make the event, another security guard directed her to a stone bench outside the venue! I also saw exhibition stands serving beer mid-morning on the second day of Infosec, and people on those stands were offering the beers only to men walking past, not women. I called this “Beer Bias”. While great strides have been made, sadly in my experience there is still a long way to go for gender imbalance to be fully addressed.
What’s one key leadership lesson you’ve learned along the way?
Communicate, communicate, communicate. So much can be solved by talking rather than blaming or assuming. Also, never jump the gun and accuse someone of doing something until you have found out all the facts. Even if the person you have accused has done something wrong, you may find that they weren’t aware of it or realised that they had made a mistake. Then they can put it right and have the chance to apologise. I’ve had managers do this to me in the workplace, and it is humiliating. Everyone is human, and we all make mistakes. Owning them and taking responsibility for them is key. I know first-hand what it is to be accused of something I didn’t do, so I make it a point of ensuring I find out all the facts about a situation before I jump in feet first.
Lisa Ventura’s story is truly inspiring, having overcame adversity she has risen to the top of her field. If you’d like to read more about inspirational female leaders in the workplace you should check out Jenna Alexander, CEO of JoinedTo.