Elisabetta Zaccaria PHOTO: Secure Chorus.

Cybersecurity, Forma Mentis: Inside The Mind Of Elisabetta Zaccaria

The twists and turns of an industry veteran and global thought leader

Di Freeze, Managing Editor

Northport, N.Y. – Sep. 17, 2019

Elisabetta Zaccaria readily admits that she didn’t necessarily “tick all the boxes” of the typical cybersecurity professional when she decided to pursue a career in the industry. And yet, she’s been able to make valuable contributions to the global cybersecurity industry.

“Throughout my career, I have frequently found myself a ‘foreigner’ working on national agendas of several countries that are not where I’m originally from, and I’m also committed to an industry in which women are under-represented,” she said. “My academic background is unconventional for this industry, in which engineering, computer science and mathematics dominate. I studied law, followed by international relations.”

So just how did Zaccaria end up founding Cyber Y, a British consulting firm that helps government and corporate clients design, structure and realize technology ecosystems in products and services in cybersecurity; as well as Secure Chorus, a private not-for-profit membership organization whose vision is to become a thought leader in the development of multi-brand ecosystems of cybersecurity products and services that adopt their technical approach of interoperability, security and auditability by design?

Looking back, she says she’s not surprised at how her career path evolved over the years. “I believe our surrounding environment influences our outlook on life and choices to a high degree,” Zaccaria says.

She grew up in the cosmopolitan and intercultural melting pot of Italy’s city of Trieste. “I consider myself to be very much a typical product of every aspect of the place,” she said. “Throughout history, it has been influenced by its location at the crossroads of Latin, Slavic, and Germanic cultures. It was the free port of the Austrian empire for more than 500 years, attracting commerce and immigrants from all over the world. It was then incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy in 1918. After the Second World War, it was the capital of the ‘Free Territory of Trieste,’ remaining for nine years under Allied military administration of the USA and UK.”

Following the 1954 London Memorandum, Italy annexed Trieste. “My parents were in their twenties when the ‘Free Territory of Trieste’ came under Allied military administration,” she said. “As a result, they fell in love with the newly imported American and British cultures — an exciting, liberal future that was all about democracy, freedom, opportunity and equality.”

Zaccaria, who has a Master of Jurisprudence and a Master of Arts in International Relations and Affairs, started her career in the defense and national security sector working for a British company whose main client base was the U.S. Government — “the two countries my parents had admired all their lives.”

She began working with Global Strategies Group, a British group of companies operating at the technical cutting edge of defense and national security, in 2003. During her time with the company, she played a key leadership role as chief strategist and led its operations worldwide between 2006 and 2012, turning the start-up into a $600 million-revenue international business in six years. This included several ground-breaking multi-disciplinary security programs for a wide variety of critical infrastructure and high-risk facilities worldwide, several acquisitions, an IPO (Nasdaq) and an exit to a private equity house. 

Zaccaria’s first deep dive into technology was in 2007, when Global Strategies Group established its technology division with the acquisition of two companies, SFA Inc. and The Analysis Corporation (TAC). They integrated into one company and rebranded as Global Defense Technology & Systems (GTEC).

GTEC provided mission-critical technology-based systems, solutions, and services for national security agencies and programs run by the U.S. Department of Defense, Intelligence Community, Department of Homeland Security, federal law enforcement agencies and other parts of the federal government charged with national security responsibilities.

In 2009, they took GTEC public. That same year, Zaccaria was part of the top leadership team that was awarded the “ACG National Capital Deal for the Year Award, under US$100m” for the IPO of GTEC. “During the most challenging of economic climates in decades, we successfully completed the first USA government services sector IPO on Nasdaq of a technology company in three years, with a deal valued at $63 million.”

During the following two years, they continued to drive GTEC expansion in the U.S. defense technology and intelligence markets, including the acquisition of two more companies specializing in cybersecurity and software engineering, Signature Government Solutions, LLC and Zytel Corporation.

Zaccaria left Global Strategies Group in 2012 and set up Cyber Y in 2015. She co-founded Secure Chorus the following year. The UK National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which is part of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), joined Secure Chorus as its first government member in 2018, alongside an international community of industry members spanning from major corporations to tech start-ups. (Secure Chorus’ launch period, 2016 -2021, is funded by the NCSC, as part of its £1.9bn transformation investment in the UK’s National Cyber Security Strategy.)

“Our mission is to serve as a platform for multi-stakeholder co-operation for the development and implementation of common technology standards, where such standards are to be adopted by multi-brand ecosystems of technology products that have a requirement for interoperability, security and auditability by design,” she said.

Zaccaria is also a keynote speaker, author, and contributing writer. “At the moment, these activities focus on my role as chairman of Secure Chorus, so I mainly discuss topics related to cybersecurity for Information and Communication Technology (ICT). These typically include areas such as the requirement for global multi-stakeholder cooperation for fighting cybercrime, the need for common cybersecurity standards and the necessity to find a balance between the individual interests and the greater interest of all citizens of a nation in relation to data privacy.”

Additionally, she is an entrepreneur mentor in residence at London Business School. She joined the London Business School Entrepreneur Mentor in Residence Programme (EMiR) back in 2014. “As an LBS EMiR, I volunteer my time to help students who want to launch their own technology ventures,” she said.

Zaccaria understands that launching a venture can be challenging and disheartening. “At Global Strategies Group, I always felt we were a team of two — my boss always had my back, and I had his. With Cyber Y, I was alone, and I remember times when I was overwhelmed by fear of failing, of losing everything I had.”

When she felt like that, she remembered the teaching of her father. “He taught me to believe in myself, and to never give up, which helped me greatly.”

She says she was also lucky to meet exceptional people, on two occasions, in both the private and public sector, who understood her vision and were prepared to give her a chance. And she remembers someone else who helped her when she was facing challenges establishing herself as a senior leader. “I sought the advice of a serial entrepreneur,” she said. “I will always remember something he said: ‘It’s easy to get along with people we naturally connect with, but the mastery is getting along with those we consider difficult.’”

Through experience, she realized that the difficult part is not so much acquiring the hard skills, but the soft ones. “The soft ones come from self-awareness, having a clear perception of your personality, including strengths and weaknesses, beliefs and emotions,” she said. “Self-awareness is the first step in creating strong soft skills and, as a result, building successful relationships at work.”

Zaccaria recalls having many doors slammed in her face. “I learned that we don’t fit into every organization, and that’s okay. What matters is finding a working environment that shares our personal and professional values, for us to be able to strive and succeed in it.”

From where she is now, what does Zaccaria think has helped her succeed in this industry? For one, she says that creativity is key to cybersecurity, as you need to be able to think outside of the box, and her parents helped in that area. “I was raised by an art professor and an engineer, both working in creative professions, which meant that my creativity was nurtured from early childhood,” she said.

Next, she says cybersecurity requires continuous innovation, which she believes is best achieved by bringing together people from different backgrounds. “I grew up in a town where diversity is the norm,” she said. “My friends were from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, as were my parents and my grandparents.”

Zaccaria says that pervasive computing technology has recently brought along a requirement for a multidisciplinary approach to cybersecurity. “We are currently seeing the need to welcome talented professionals from different academic backgrounds so that we can develop strong solutions,” she said. 

That brings us back to her education. She says it played a great role in her successful career with Global Strategies Group, but that it wasn’t so much due to the academic disciples she studied. “It was more related to the ‘forma mentis’ – or ‘way of thinking’ – I gained from my studies; the ability to make connections and integrate information from multiple sources, and to engage in effective ways of making decisions and solving complex problems.”

In conclusion, she shares words of hope for women who might not think they have a future in cybersecurity. “A career is a journey that takes us down both predictable and unpredictable pathways. Conventionally, if you study law you become a lawyer. But you don’t have to; there are so many other professions to which you could apply your skills to equally good use. So, if you become a cybersecurity professional, you’re not ‘turning your back’ on your education; you’re actually exploring the possibilities it creates.”

Zaccaria is featured in “Women Know Cyber: 100 Fascinating Females Fighting Cybercrime.” To learn about more women fighting cybercrime, pick up a copy of the book.

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Di Freeze is Managing Editor at Cybersecurity Ventures.