The most powerful leadership tool you have is your own example - John Wooden.
In this April 2021 Cyber Leaders on the Move series, I sat down with Noureen Njoroge, current Director of Global Cyber Threat Intelligence at Nike and a graduate from the Cyber Leadership Institute.
Noureen’s awe-inspiring story began in Nairobi, one of Africa's most influential cities, where she was born and educated. Nairobi, also known as the Green City under the Sun, means the place of cool waters in Masaai.
“I had a good upbringing, and I am grateful for that. My parents, both qualified engineers by profession, invested a lot in our education and instilled a never-ending quest for self-discovery and learning. Those ideals stuck with me and continue to serve me well,” the charismatic Noureen opened up the conversation.
At the tender age of fourteen, Noureen striped her home PC down, carefully studied dozens of individual components, and then rebuilt the PC. From that moment, her tech career started. When other Nairobi teenagers were receiving frivolous Christmas gifts, Noureen petitioned her parents to buy her computer parts. She eventually assembled a few computers from scratch and donated to local schools & hospitals in need. “I am passionate about helping others and find great fulfilment in doing so” explained Noureen.
Soon after high school, Noureen left Kenya to pursue her university studies in the USA. She recalls having mixed feelings, “I was elated about my new adventure and nervous at the same time since I did not know what to expect in a foreign country. This was my first time living away from home, and I was still very young. Fortunately, I had a large extended family across the USA, which gave me a softer landing”.
Noureen was soon accepted by three universities, thanks to her early community engagement — coaching and supporting young girls. Her first pick was a four-year university, but the first year of school was not easy. She sought advice from one of her college professors, embraced the advice & transferred to a community college. There, Noureen was able to focus better as the college offered more options and lots of support, especially to international students.
She later joined the University of Massachusetts Lowell (UML) soon after graduating from MassBay Community College with a computer science degree. While still in college, Noureen was accepted into an internship program at Intel Corporation, the global manufacturer of semiconductor computer circuits. That internship set strong career foundations and soon opened successive technical and product development roles at Monster (an international online recruitment firm). Upon graduation from (UML) she joined Bose Corporation (audio equipment giant) and later joined Leidos (a defence, aviation, and technology company) both companies as a Systems Analyst respectively.
As we collaborated with Noureen during the 8-week Cyber Leadership Program, her rare combination of deep technical expertise and business acumen stood out. There is a reason why. “I have always lived by the mantra ‘Preparation Meets Opportunity!’ My mum also reminds me to always be prepared for an opportunity that I may not have than have an opportunity and am not ready.”
“I tackled each of my earlier technology roles with a near-obsessive level of intent. Bose gave me tremendous opportunities, and I stepped up to the challenge. I rolled up my sleeves and spent countless hours in the data centre. I built critical applications in the cloud, set up demilitarized zones (DMZs) and any other technical work I could lay my hands on”.
Noureen’s narrative again proves that the journey to cyber leadership roles rarely takes a predictable path. One day, an internal presentation on malicious code intrigued her curiosity. She promptly leveraged her internal networks and jumped ship into the brighter side of cybersecurity. "That remains one of my best career decisions. Look where we are now; cybersecurity has zoomed to the top of every corporate risk profile".
Fortuitously, during the same year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched an intensive Cybersecurity program in Technology, Application & Policy. Noureen enrolled in the inaugural class, further solidifying her technical expertise and broadening her network.
A few years later, CISCO, the world’s largest networking and communications company, came knocking. In the spring of 2016, Noureen joined CISCO as a cybersecurity engineer. During her tenure, she stepped up to leadership, lead a Cyber Threat Intelligence Team, which she grew from a team of one (herself) to a fully-fledged department by the time she left, almost five years later.
"My secret weapon has been and will always continue to be investing and nurturing those meaningful connections I establish along this career journey”. I still stay in touch with my elementary school teachers, previous managers, and university professors. At CISCO, I was lucky to meet so many great mentors, like Omar Santos, whose wisdom helped me a lot in my security journey, understand the company culture and avoid career-derailing mistakes."
As Noureen rose through the ranks, one thing became glaringly apparent — women were grossly underrepresented in technology. During her time at CISCO, she decided to turn those lemons into lemonade, founding North Carolina Women in CyberSecurity Network. This organization has inspired young women from dozens of countries to pursue careers in cybersecurity. In addition, Noureen founded the Global Cybersecurity mentoring program which has been running since 2019, with a global representation of roughly 30-38 countries. Her goal is to inspire, motivate, and mentor others in the industry of cybersecurity. (Check out more here cybersecmentorship.org). “We need more mentors in this industry” Noureen emphasized. “As a leader, I aim at raising other leaders and NOT followers as there is no success without a successor. Success always leaves clues!”
Noureen has received multiple industry accolades for her courage to lead, most notably the 2021 Global Cybersecurity Ambassador award, CISCO 2019 Cybersecurity Champion, and 2020 Cybersecurity Woman of the Year Award. Noureen, together with two other change-makers, Diana Waithanji and Vandana Verma, received a scholarship to join a cohort of cyber leaders / CISOs at the Cyber Leadership Institute, where their brilliance shone through.
Noureen’s boundless humility and bare-knuckled approach to big problems strongly reflect our ideals at the Cyber Leadership Institute. We are very proud to have her join our recently formed Community Advisory Board, helping us infuse CISO perspectives into our roadmap. When I asked Noureen to share her parting advice to aspiring cyber leaders, she spontaneously replied, “Just DO IT.”