By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
According to Theresa Payton, President and CEO of Fortalice and co-author of Protecting Your Internet Identity: Are You Naked Online, one of the most important things she has learned throughout her career sounds simple, but it’s something many women find challenging. “Saying no sometimes is actually okay. It’s not a sign of not being a team player. “
Payton, who spent 16 years in technology in the banking industry before becoming the first female Chief Information Officer at the White House, continued, “Early in my career, I felt I needed to rush in, grab the ball, and do it all. I quickly became overloaded. There’s a difference between not letting a ball drop and feeling as if I needed to take on everything myself.”
“Fortunately, I had mentors say to me that it’s okay to say no and recommend someone else,” she added.
Career in Tech
Payton studied Economics and Business Administration at Immaculata University, and also received a certification in computers. That certification led to a phone call from the University of Virginia, which was launching a new masters of science program in Management Administration Systems – and they were looking for women. Payton jumped at the offer. “It was a great opportunity,” she explained.
After graduating, Payton took a job at Barnett Bank, where she had the opportunity to do more graduate study in banking at Louisiana State University. Next, she moved to First Union Bank, which became Wachovia (and is now Wells Fargo). After becoming a senior vice president, she moved to Bank of America. “All in all, I spent sixteen years in banking,” she said.
Her next step was the White House, where she became the Executive Office’s first female Chief Information Officer. Payton said that the transition was challenging but not in some of the ways that you might expect. “Banking operations and White House operations had a lot in common-it all comes down to the people. Being a leader of people means being thoughtful, developing strategy, having a vision, and helping people grow. And running global operations in banking is not too dissimilar from the government.”
“What’s different is the mission and who you’re working for – the President, the Vice President, and the Executive Office of the President staff which is roughly 3,000 people.” She added, “Also unique is the top secret clearance and understanding the dangers involved in the digital information you have been asked to care for.”
Payton left the White House in the fall of 2008. “I was thinking about what I wanted to do next. As a faith-based person, I felt I was being called to stay in technology, but I wanted to focus on protecting the Nation and delivering services that met the need to deliver better solutions one person, one organization at a time. And I was pregnant with my third child,” she added.
At the end of 2008, Payton launched Fortalice®, LLC an security, risk and fraud consulting company. “I’ve been learning a lot about running a business. I don’t have entrepreneurs in my family and this has been a great experience.”
Consulting in Cyber Security
Fortalice consults on IT security, fraud, and risk management to the government and businesses, and also has a division dealing with consumer education and kid safety, she explained.
She has also become AmericaNow’s cyber expert, appearing on the program and writing a blog on cyber security for families. “It’s really rewarding to have another outlet for people to ask questions.”
In addition to running her company and contributing to America Now, Payton has also just published a book on personal cyber security, Protecting Your Internet Identity: Are You Naked Online?, which she co-authored with Ted Claypoole. The foreword for the book was written by retired FBI Assistant Director, Chris Swecker. “I get so many emails asking things ranging from ‘my kid is being bullied online’ or ‘my email account has been hijacked,’” she explained. “We wanted it to be a guide, providing real stories and pragmatic steps for advice.”
And while she is spending her career “with a goal to fight the bad guys,” she is concerned that current regulation puts too much of a burden on businesses, while still leaving a back door open for criminals. “The issue is figuring out the right balance of laws, enforcement, and putting structures in place that do not place an undue burden on businesses and families, and the net effect is that we can be safer while our privacy is also protected.”
Getting Women in Technology
Payton believes one of the things keeping women out of the technology field is a misunderstanding of what tech careers entail. “It’s funny – I think one potential barrier to success is just an old stereotype hanging around. When I’ve talked to young people about careers in tech, there’s a perspective that the career is boring, writing code, sitting in wall-to-wall cubicles. In their minds, it’s too far away from being cool and hip,” she explained.
“We still have a real challenge in middle schools, high schools, colleges, with women opting themselves out. It’s hard to get a job in technology when you’re competing against others who have a technology background. If we could grab girls in middle school and say it’s chic to be a geek, I think we would see a difference.”
Payton urges young women entering the technology industry to look for mentors. “Seek us out,” she said. “These are tomorrow’s leaders and at some point I want to retire, and someone has to take over!” she said with a laugh. “Women at my level are flattered to be asked for advice. Seek us out.”
For more senior women who are looking for a career change, she continued, “With the way the job market has been, even in technology, it’s been difficult. The advice I would give is don’t be afraid to do freelance work if you’re looking to get into the field. If you’ve got a full time job, find ways to serve on volunteer committees or projects. And keep a blog to show the world what you do.”
She also encouraged senior women to reach out to the next generation. “Find a way to mentor young men and women in technology. The nation is facing a major labor shortage in this field. Unless we get our young women engaged and enthused, we’re never going to get through it.”
Payton says she is proud of the individuals she has coached or mentored throughout her career. “I’ve seen them grow and have remarkably rewarding professional lives.”
In Her Personal Time
“First of all, a piece of advice is to marry the right person if you’ve got career aspirations,” Payton said. “My husband has been one of my biggest supporters. He has been my coach and he’s often the first to say yes, when I need more time to think things through.”
Payton has two sons and a daughter, and she said they also sometimes serve as her own personal focus group when she’s working on a kid cyber security project.
Additionally, she continued, she is involved in two organizations. First is the American Heart Association. “My daughter is living proof that research focused on women is important,” she said, explaining that her daughter was born with a heart defect that was discovered when she was a toddler. Payton sits on the board of Go Red for Women. “I feel that women don’t really understand the dangers we face from heart disease.”
Payton also sits on the board of Operation Home Front in North Carolina. “It was set up post 9-11 to serve families of those enlisted overseas.” The group provides financial counseling and education as well as assistance, so that people in the military stationed abroad don’t have to worry about their family’s financial situation at home.