Achieving diversity: What’s the secret sauce?

By Safi Mojidi
Special to

Frequently stated, not often enough repeated, “Diversity is an action, inclusivity is a culture, and belonging is a feeling” (Forbes, 2017).

Earlier this year, MindPoint Group (MPG) sponsored a group of employees, including myself, to attend the 5th Annual Lesbians Who Tech Summit. During the conference, I remember feeling chills run through my body as I sat in the Castro Theatre for the opening ceremony. I looked around the auditorium at all of the other technology minded professionals from many different walks of life. The space was both lavish and intimate. The Art Deco motif mixed with elegant pieces of rare furniture further accentuated the very sentiments behind the reason for our attendance. I looked around and felt a feeling that had become very familiar to me: conscious of myself, and of the people around me. However, it was not alienation that I felt, but cohesion and appreciation of the uniqueness I was surrounded with.

I returned from this conference excited about how empowering and rare it is to be a part of the LGBTQ community in technology, particularly cybersecurity. The Lesbians Who Tech (LWT) Summit included over 5,000 Lesbian, Queer Women and Allies in all areas of technology. I was inspired not only being able to engage in my professional passion of cybersecurity every day, but humbled that I can do it while feeling comfortable being myself. When thinking about this further, I realized that this is the first company that I have worked for where I have been able to share several of my invisible identities with those who I work with. When I first joined MPG over five years ago, I was optimistic yet somewhat skeptical that I would not be embraced by the company’s partners, management team, and employees should I decide to bring my “whole self” to work. It was important to me to be able to live transparently in all facets of my life, especially being able to feel like my genuine self while doing the work that I love. Somewhat reluctantly, I began to let my guard down and allow myself to share various aspects of my identity with those who I worked with. The response and inclusivity at MPG quickly demonstrated to me that this company believes in fostering a true, trusting environment; one where everyone can learn to work creatively and productively while being surrounded by all types of diversity.

In wanting to share my experience at LWT with others, I began to reflect on the things I heard during various conversations, breakout sessions, and seminars. I came to realize that many people did not share my workplace experience and support. Instead, many had to make heartbreaking sacrifices to leave a job that they loved in order to remove themselves from a toxic work environment. For some, removing themselves was not an option, and as a result, they were not able to bring their whole self to work. Reflecting on life at MPG thus far, I realized I could be unapologetically me; having been inspired by notable members of the LGBTQ community such as comedian and writer Lena Waithe; businesswoman, actress and transgender rights advocate Angelica Ross; and US Virgin Islands Senator Janelle Sarauw who were all breaking barriers in not only their communities and field, but creating a cultural shift that inspired people to be true to themselves, and enabled them to be “free to be me.”
After self-reflection of my current workplace environment, I contemplated how I came to feel so comfortable here at MPG. It became evident to me that MPG is clearly built on the foundation of inclusion, as represented by the population of diverse employees within the organization. Interestingly enough, while researching for this blog, I discovered that they do not actually have a documented diversity program. This revelation raised many questions for me:

— How did they manage to accomplish such diversity within the company?
— Once established, how is diversity and inclusion maintained within the organization?
— As the company continues to grow, how are they able to ensure diversity and inclusion remain one of the pillars of the company’s foundation?

— All of those questions lead me to one overarching question that I was determined to discover the answer to: What is the secret sauce to achieving such diversity and inclusion without a mandated policy?
So I set out to find answers to my questions by seeking statistical data as well as MPG’s perspective on some of these topics through interviews with the partners about their experiences and commitment to diversity and inclusion, and the importance that it plays while continuing to build and grow this company. 

Women in the Cybersecurity Workforce
Since the end of the industrial revolution, more and more women are trading in their baking pans for briefcases. For cybersecurity and other predominately male dominated industries to become truly diverse and progressive, organizations across the globe must act to eliminate the rampant and often unapologetic sexist cultures and toxic norms.
According to “The 2017 Global Information Security Workforce Study,” women comprise only 11% of the global cybersecurity workforce and only 4% of leadership positions. In comparison, at MPG women comprise 25% of the company’s workforce which is 13% higher than the global average. More interestingly, women make up 40% of the leadership team at MPG which is astonishingly 10x more than the global average.

How is the Leadership Team Committed to Diversity?
As a managing partner and Vice President of Corporate Operations at MPG, Mariam Es-Haq understands first hand the many challenges women face in the workforce having experienced different forms of workplace discrimination throughout her career. Leveraging these experiences, she advocates diversity in all facets of business is vital to sustaining a positive and healthy workforce, stating “at the core of who we are at MPG is diversity, acceptance, celebration of individuality and perspective that each unique identity brings to the group.” This belief has translated into a corporate culture and a company that is a:

  • Promoter of “Bring Your Whole Self to Work”
  • Advocate of Diversity of Perspective / Experience
  • Early adopter of Benefits for All (gender neutral) prior to State and Federal Mandate
  • Activist of women in cybersecurity and STEM education
  • Champion of Professional Development / Career Growth

All of these components of MPG’s culture and the support shown to its employees when hiring members of minority populations enable MPG to become representatives of diversity and intentionally buck the norms of resistance to diversity in a corporate arena.

How do you keep the momentum of diversity going as MPG continues to grow?
“It’s simple really, by paying it forward and putting your money where your mouth is.” In hearing Marc Dixon, Managing Partner and Vice President of Business Development Operations, speak on this topic, it is clear that MPG continues to make their presence known in the cybersecurity realm. Dixon said “we are always looking for ways to support and promote programs or initiatives that provide opportunities for various diversity groups to have greater participation in our industry. Case in point, the goal of having more women in technology, specifically cybersecurity, is an ongoing focus for us. We consistently support programs that work toward that objective from internal training and mentorship of female employees in more technical fields such as security engineering or penetration testing to sponsorship of STEM programs at grade schools.” I nodded in agreement as I echoed the statements of Marc, thinking about the corporate initiatives that we have participated in from a philanthropic standpoint. As a member of MPG’s Volunteer Initiative Program (VIP), I know firsthand the monetary commitments and resources that MPG makes to further the diversification of this field, knowing that this specific return on investment is not primarily focused on increasing the company’s bottom line. Instead, the value that is assigned to these activities is much more substantive, coming in the form of creating future generations of diverse and inclusive environments, aimed at opening the door to individuals of typically marginalized populations.

Minority Representation in the Cybersecurity Workforce
While reviewing data compiled from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for the San Francisco Bay area, the “Scan Progress for Minorities in Cracking the Glass Ceiling” report found that in 2015, the racial gap in technology leadership positions between white men and minority men was larger than the gender gap between white men and white women. Even more astounding to discover was the fact that white women were 31% more likely than Hispanic men to be executives, 88% and 97% more likely than Asian and Black men respectively to hold those same positions. There aren’t too many ways this data can be interpreted other than for minority women, being underrepresented in both groups, it turns out that race, not gender, was the more important factor in limiting this demographic from successfully entering the management pipeline.
According to “Innovation Through Inclusion: The Multicultural Cybersecurity Workforce, 2017,” only 26% of the U.S. cybersecurity workforce is comprised of minorities. In comparison, MPG’s workforce is comprised of 55% minorities, which is 29% higher than the U.S. average but more importantly, at 55% of the workforce, minorities represent the majority at MPG, creating a truly diverse work environment.
With regard to minority representation in leadership, at MPG minorities make up 67% of the leadership team, compared to 23% of the U.S. average. That equates to 44% more minorities in cybersecurity leadership positions at MPG than the U.S. average.

The statistics referenced above speak to the fact that while we still need to make significant progress in terms of diversity, the increase in women and minority representation is due to the efforts of companies like MPG who understand that diversity of perspective is key to innovation and success. As a manager in the field, I know how important it is for everyone on a team to be able to bring different ideas to the various problems we are tasked with solving. From the creative methods used to securely thwart cyber attacks of environments, it has been proven that in fields that value innovation and new ideas, diversity undoubtedly helps. A study that demonstrates this is “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” by Katherine W. Phillips. The study was designed to examine the influence of racial and opinion composition in small group discussions. The cogent evidence illustrates that diversity propels us to act cognitively in ways that homogeneity simply does not.
Based on my conversations with the partners at MPG, they figured out very early on the key to diversity and the positive impact it can have on the company and the cybersecurity industry. They understand that due to the technical nature of the field, people are often brought together to solve problems in groups. When those groups consist of homogenous individuals, it often times makes it difficult to bring forth different opinions and perspectives, components that are vital while trying to be innovative. People who differ in gender, race, age, and various other dimensions bring unique information and experiences in support of the task at hand.

How is the Leadership Team Committed to Diversity?
Taking into consideration barriers to entry, support of employees with education and training, and inclusion of minorities in positions of leadership, Managing Partner and Vice President of Information Security & Privacy, Matt Shepherd, shares his rationale for why he believes strongly in creating a culture that ensures diversity is incorporated at each level. “If we take a hard look at MPG, I do not think we would be disappointed at what we saw. As an executive team, we have made sure there are no barriers to entry for candidates who pursue employment with MPG. We have very serious intentions for supporting diversity and would like to think we have created safe spaces for employees to share their concerns openly,” says Matt. The creation of an environment where employees at MPG know who in leadership positions they can go to for questions, ideas, and criticisms related to diversity and inclusion, and receive visible support is one that was very intentional. He too shared the sentiment of Patti Chanthaphone, Managing Partner and President that there is always more that can be done. This illuminated an important component of the answers that I have been in search of; that there is no end to achieving diversity and inclusion. Ensuring and appreciating the independence of humanity, cultures and practicing a mutual respect for qualities and experience different from that of our own does not happen accidentally, neither is it an activity that starts and ends.

How Does Diversity Impact Employee Hiring?
At this point, it was pretty clear to me that MPG was founded on strict principles of diversity and inclusion from the partner level, as evident in the diverse makeup of the leadership team. One of my questions had been answered: How did they manage to accomplish such diversity within the company? Answering that question only brought about others; how exactly does diversity impact employee hiring? As I posed this question to Managing Partner and President of MPG, Patti Chanthaphone, it became even more evident that diversity wasn’t an abstract concept or practice at MPG, it was MPG. Patti said that “although we (the four Partners) all come from very different backgrounds and ethnicities, we all share many of the same beliefs and ideologies of what a workplace should look like.” It was only after getting involved in the SBA programs did she realize the uniqueness of the company’s ownership, saying that “the culture here is built on empowering our employees. Programs and contracts show that we are geared to redefining diversity in the cybersecurity realm.” I thought to myself, whether it is conscious or not, the partners were communicating that this field should not be dominated by males or any other majority group. With the proliferation of cybercrime in today’s day and age, companies in the cybersecurity industry who are able to be agile in their recruiting methods and remove the boundaries and typical methods for recruiting talent will inherently be able to provide the most innovative and talented pool of resources to their clients.

So how did It happen?
After individually examining the four partners’ thoughts on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, I thought it prudent to examine all of the parts of the leadership team together.

When you examine who these individuals are, it is no surprise MPG’s inclusive culture started with its four (4) founding partners who were the initial champions of its inclusive culture and who laid the groundwork for the company’s diversity. The founding partners are comprised of:
• 75% (3 out of 4) Minority,
• 50% (2 out of 4) Female,
• 25% (1 out of 4) LGBTQ,
• 25% (1 out of 4) Caucasian, and
• represent four different religious backgrounds.
More interestingly, 3 out of the 4 partners are/were in interracial marriages and have beautiful interracial children which gives them a unique and vested perspective and appreciation for diversity and inclusion.

Diversity Cannot be Achieved Without Allies
Too often, I think we forgot that true diversity means inclusion of everyone, and that it takes participation from everyone to achieve diversity. While so far, I have dedicated a significant amount of this blog to highlighting the “minority segment” that contributes to diversity, I think it is equally important to have a discussion regarding the importance of allies to diversity. While interviewing for this blog, I asked the partners a series of questions. One question was “Do you feel you can disclose your entire identity at work”. All of the partners who I interviewed on this specific question are part of the ”minority segment”. When asked if he was able to disclose his entire identity in the workplace, Matt Shepherd responded, “I feel my viewpoint is irrelevant on this question. I don’t think it would be fair of me to claim there are some aspects of my identity that I have to keep secret because I think it diminishes the real concerns that people might have about discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, and any other aspects that they feel they may need to conceal, even to the point of having to be fearful of their personal well-being. I am a white, CIS [cisgender], heterosexual male, so typically, the default setting of society and certainly the workplace in the cybersecurity industry for me is “comfortable.” He went on to further explain, not casting aside individual issues that a white, CIS, heterosexual male may have as being valid ones, but also acknowledging the importance of specific attention being paid to protecting any demographic from discrimination.

In that moment, I realized how important diversity was to the four partners; the notion that no one needs to sacrifice the importance of their own diversity to ensure others feel included was a powerful concept. It was in this moment I knew I had found the last ingredient to the secret sauce, the recipe was complete! At MPG, diversity and inclusion were baked into the mold, as a founding principle of the company. Even with the foundations being deeply rooted in equality, preservation of such a culture would be difficult to maintain without the help of Allies. These individuals are typically members of the dominant group who work to end the oppression in their own personal or professional lives by supporting and advocating change. These thoughts took me back to my memorable experience at LWT. Without the need for excessive deliberation, I realized that more often than not, allies are some of the most effective and powerful voices of any movement, and that was certanly the case at MPG.

So What’s the Recipe for the Secret Sauce
As I continued the conversation with the partners, I also began to see a reoccuring theme that MPG was founded by a group of individuals who in one way or another have experienced or witnessed discrimination. Despite the negativity that they have witnessed, they did not run away from adversity, but took it upon themselves to do their part in the proliferation of diversity in the cybersecurty industry, by creating a company. One that makes sure people who may not fit into the majority are empowered enough to bring their entire identity to MPG, not only because diversity and inclusion inherently increase the strength of a workforce, but also because it is simply the right thing to do.
The answers I found throughout my journey boil down to the following ingredients:

Ingredient 1 – Four Parts Common Mindset: The four partners that established MPG reflect different backgrounds and thus established this organization based on a very strong belief in diversity. The founding partners all come from very different places and were united because they all had the same mindset. Getting involved in the SBA 8(a) and WOSB programs, reading about each other’s socio-economic backgrounds and associated bias, discrimination and other challenges as well as successes helped them see just how unique MPG is. The company culture that was established inherently uses this uniqueness to ensure all employees and programs are geared to reinforcing diversity not only in our workplace, but in the field of cybersecurity. MPG believes that this field and the company can be just as successful if not more with a diverse workforce. Our diversity program may not be as formalized as many companies, but it is imbedded in the fundamental beliefs and behavior of our leadership team, and our company culture.

Ingredient 2 – Equal Parts Fairness: “There is a commonly used phrase “the underdog” that comes to mind when I think about the need for diversity. In social justice, an underdog is a victim of injustice or persecution. In sports, the underdog is the player or team who face tremendous odds and as a result is the predicted loser in a struggle or contest. Women, minorities and blue collar workers of all races are the underdogs in our current workforce whether it is due to gender-bias, harassment, discrimination, or simply because of the lack of skills and training to participate in an economy transitioning to highly skilled labor. For me, it’s not enough to root for the underdog. You must empower and give the underdog a fair chance to succeed. The rest is up to the individual.” – Mariam Es-Haq, Vice President/Managing Partner

Ingredient 3 – An overflowing cup of Experience: Members of the executive team understand the importance of never underestimating the value that people who share different experiences can bring to the workplace. Those from various backgrounds, with unique perspectives, entrenched in different cultures and lifestyles, all enrich the professional experiences of those around them. Encountering new concepts, values, and behaviors leads to thinking in deeper, more complex, and more creative ways to solve problems. By embracing each other’s differences, we can spark innovation, better understand and serve our customers, and gain competitive advantage (after all, we are talking about a business).

Ingredient 4 – A Slice of Life: Ensuring diversity not as a priority, but a way of life. To reiterate, MPG’s leadership collectively represents almost all the groups represented by the diversity spectrum (age, sex, race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious and political beliefs, disability, personality, socioeconomic status, education, and culture) in some capacity. And because that is the case, I believe that we are committed to making sure that diversity here is nurtured and sustained as a way of life rather than promoted as a mandated requirement. Hailing from all walks of life, MPG encourages its employees to bring those differences to the workplace adding their slice of life to the diversity recipe.

After personally sampling the ingredients of the secret sauce, I now have answers to the questions posed at the beginning of this blog post. The how is pretty evident: the establishment of diversity within the company was accomplished during the inception of MPG. Before the first small business designation was even applied to the organization, the partners managed to ensure the importance of diversity and inclusion permeated throughout all layers of the organization. In this field, as rapidly as security threats change, it is vital that cybersecurity practitioners can combat those threats with innovation and originality. MPG has created a full course meal of strategic problem solvers who are equipped to affect change, manage diverse groups of people, and ready to nourish the appetite of this industry. Like the climate in the Castro Theatre at LWT, the temperature to create diversity is perfect. As you determine what parts of the diversity recipe your organization is missing, try adding some of the ingredients listed above. I guarantee if your leadership team are as good of cooks as those at MPG, your recipe is sure to yield a Michelin star meal.

Buck Gee, Denise Peck. The Illusion of Asian Success: Scan Progress for Minorities in Cracking the Glass Ceiling from 2007-2015

“How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” by Katherine W. Phillips

Innovation Through Inclusion: The Multicultural Cybersecurity Workforce, 2017

The 2017 Global Information Security Workforce Study: Women in Cybersecurity, 2017

The Lesbians Who Tech Summit

Safi Mojidi, CISSP, ITIL manages the day-to-day delivery of security support services for the AWS environment at NASA. During his time with NASA, he helps enforce client security policy and procedures, as well as manages and provides oversight of security engineering related activities for NASA’s systems owners. He has successfully on boarded enterprise level cloud applications such as G-Suite, as well as Box, utilizing well adopted risk assessment methods to determine the necessary level of applicable security controls required for information systems. He is currently pursuing his Doctorate in Information Technology with a concentration in Information Assurance and Cybersecurity. In his free time, he is a starting free safety for the two-time WFA Championship DC based semiprofessional tackle football, the D.C. Divas, and is a recent inductee into the Semi Pro tackle football Hall of Fame.  Safi currently works for MindPoint Group, a cybersecurity firm in Northern Virginia, and resides in Maryland.

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