The founder of ‘Black Girls in Cyber’ sees lots more work to do
The cybersecurity workforce famously lacks diversity, but for Talya Parker, constantly seeing herself on pandemic-era video conferences as one of the few — if not the only — Black woman was a wake-up call.
“You always know that you’re the minority in the room, but there’s something different about being reminded of it visually every day,” Parker said.
“And so, I said to myself, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’” she added in a recent interview with The Hill.
Parker, currently a privacy engineer at Google, said she started conducting a Facebook Live series called “Black Girls in Cyber” where she would invite other Black women in security, privacy and other STEM industries to share their journeys and experiences.
The Facebook events became popular, garnering a lot of attention, prompting one of her peers to suggest that she start a nonprofit organization to address the diversity challenges in the cyber workforce.
And so, she did.
In 2021, she founded a nonprofit with the same name as her Facebook Live series, seeking to help women of color transition into cybersecurity, privacy and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.
The organization provides mentors, scholarships, training and networking opportunities for its members, often collaborating with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that offer cyber and STEM programs.
The nonprofit also partners with corporations to create internships and full-time employment opportunities for members interested in pursuing careers in those fields.
“We’re able to bring these women of color in front of organizations that they wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to connect with,” Parker said, adding that the industry faces widespread worker shortages, regardless of race and gender.
That was the case for Akilah Tunsill, who transitioned from health care to cybersecurity after working for more than a decade as a nurse practitioner.
“Transitioning to cybersecurity from a 14-year healthcare career was a huge leap…but working with Black Girls in Cyber has given me a network of opportunity that I would otherwise be lacking,” Tunsill said in a testimonial on the nonprofit’s website.
Tunsill now works as a security analyst at Accenture Federal Services. She’s also an operational board member at the nonprofit, where she heads the cybersecurity curriculum.
According to a report published last year by the Aspen Tech Policy Hub, only 4 percent of cybersecurity workers self-identified as Hispanic, and only 9 percent self-identified as Black.
Meanwhile, women make up just 24 percent of the cybersecurity workforce.
To tackle some of these challenges, the Biden administration hired Camille Stewart Gloster, a former Google executive, to join the White House cyber office to develop the nation’s ecosystem for tech talent including building a more diverse cyber workforce and strengthening cyber education.
Stewart Gloster is also the co-founder of #ShareTheMicInCyber, an online movement aimed at addressing diversity issues in the cyber field.
Parker said Stewart Gloster is a former colleague of hers and a friend, and that she was “elated” to hear of her recent hire at the White House.
Prior to joining Google in 2021, Parker worked in the security risk management and privacy space for Deloitte, Nike and the Georgia Tech Research Institute.
During that time, she also found time to earn a master’s degree in cybersecurity from Brown University.
Parker said she decided to pursue that degree because of the wide scope and range the field offers.
She was also drawn to how the industry is constantly changing, particularly when it comes to laws and technologies related to cybersecurity and privacy.
“There’s all these different paths that you can take, and some of them continue to be developed today,” Parker said.
“I think that’s what kept me very curious,” she added.
But when she got into the industry, she soon realized that there was a lack of minorities, particularly Black women.
“There weren’t a lot of people who looked like me which also made me feel a sense of responsibility to continue down the path and try to be for others what I did not have in this space, like mentorship and guidance,” Parker said.
At the beginning, Parker said she often felt isolated from her peers, which led to her feeling unmotivated at times, adding that it didn’t help having no one in leadership who looked like her.
She says, however, she was able to find her path and build relationships with different individuals who appreciated the value of her work and created more opportunities for her to grow.
Parker added that since the U.S. is a melting pot, the cybersecurity workforce should reflect the diversity of this country, including diversity of thought, skills and backgrounds.
As for her organization, Parker said she hopes to expand it with more programs, partnerships and financial resources, and she wants to encourage more Black women to join.
She added that the nonprofit will officially launch its privacy program next spring, and she hopes to have programs in the future on software engineering and product management. The organization also plans to host its first conference in Atlanta next fall.
“I’m so glad it went from ‘Why am I the only woman of color in the room?’ to ‘What am I going to do about it?’ and then actually doing something about it,” she said.