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One federal contractor says the most important things a woman should have is organization and a sense of self.
On this week’s episode of Women of Washington, Gigi Schumm welcomed Mischel Kwon, founder and CEO of MKACyber. Kwon, the former US-CERT (Computer Emergency Readiness Team) director, created her company as a consulting firm to help “improve security operations for enterprises and U.S. federal government agencies.”
Embrace a methodology
Among its responsibilities, MKACyber focuses on security operations centers. Kwon and her team provide a product that helps people, both companies and federal agencies, monitor their networks for, in layman’s terms, the bad things that could happen. Then it’s all about organizing and mapping content to help analysts do their job as best as possible, she said.
“Whether a company is mature or not, embracing a more organized and methodical methodology is really where it is today,” Kwon said. “As clients are looking to move more and more towards automation … you can’t move there until you’re organized. You can’t move there until you know what your data is and your data is organized. This is a really good marriage … This is really the new cutting edge. [It’s] all about getting organized.”
Are we more secure today than we were yesterday, last week or last year? Kwon said every analyst at different levels should be able to answer those questions.
“Gone are the days when we go to the board and try to scare them to death with some awful hacks story. They don’t want to hear that anymore,” the nearly 35-year IT veteran said. “So we need to be able to have the statistics and the metrics that show we are finding things this year, and next year, the numbers [of attacks, etc.] are going down.”
Securing funding for a new business is always difficult, but Kwon said she was not sure if her struggle was because she was a woman, or because she lacked experience. Paired with the fact that the company focused on both consulting and product development, it made finding investors harder.
And though she received plenty of advice about picking and choosing where to focus, the company wouldn’t have been the same if it were forced to split the two enterprises. The biggest learning curve came from building the process and focusing on structure, she said.
“I think I have done just about everything in IT from mainframes to coding to networking … I came to a point in my career where I hit a glass ceiling,” she said. “I didn’t have my degrees and, you know, there was a time where you could go pretty far, especially in IT, without a degree.”
Kwon said she reached a point where she realized she would never progress beyond a development manager role unless she “did something.” So she went back to school and saw the difference it made for her career. Interested in STEM from a young age, she said the coursework came naturally to her and within a few years she received her bachelor’s, master’s and certification.
“It was hard,” she said. “It was a very fast-paced time.”
The value of ‘me time’
Through it all, she was also a wife and mother of four children. But she said making sure she had a sense of self at all times was the most important asset in her life. She knew that sometimes, she just needed a little “me time,” to keep her head on straight.
“I am going to be the first to tell you that I actually don’t believe in work-life balance. I believe in ‘life just happens’ and you do the best you can,” Kwon said. “We just have to realize that life is going to be hard, and there are going to hard be things … and we also have to have people we can turn to that will help us through.”
Opening her business helped her go from the back room to the front office — wearing a suit and calling the shots. The glass ceiling was, in her words, busted.
Kwon counts Jane Goodall and Susan B. Anthony among the women who inspire her, and said it helps young women eyeing STEM fields or federal careers to see just how strong women have been from the beginning. Risking everything is not always a bad thing, she advised.
“I just believe in leaning forward. I really think that if you really want to move somewhere in life and you want to get to a better place, it’s your actions that are going to get you there,” she said. “I see it less as a risk and more as a necessary step.”
Gigi Schumm welcomes Washington's most ambitious and influential female executives to share their secrets to success. Contact Gigi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribe to Women of Washington’s audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.