#IWD2022 Interview: Opening Up Opportunities for Women in Tech

Improving female representation in cybersecurity is a two-pronged issue. One aspect is encouraging more women to enter the sector, helping close the cyber skills gap. Once there, they must be allowed to progress, encouraging them to stay in the sector long-term and ultimately improve diversity in senior leadership positions.

With this in mind, Infosecurity spoke to Michelle Zatlyn, who has enjoyed a highly successful career in the cyber and technology sectors. To date, she is one of only three women who had founded publicly-traded infrastructure companies worth more than $30bn when she co-founded Cloudflare, a web infrastructure and website security company, in 2009. Zatlyn, co-founder, president and COO of Cloudflare, is also a passionate advocate for women in the sector. For this year’s International Women’s Day, Zatlyn told us about her career journey and initiatives she is involved in to help uplift women working in the sector.

Do you think the cybersecurity industry has been showing progress in providing opportunities for women in recent years? What have been the main positives?

Since I started Cloudflare with my two male co-founders more than 12 years ago, there has been an increased awareness of the gender imbalance in technology. That’s a good thing. We’ve always said that a diverse team wins, whether with our team at Cloudflare or on our board, where three of our eight members are women. Today more than 40% of Cloudflare’s security team identify as underrepresented gender groups, including women and non-binary. I’m also proud of what we’ve done to partner with organizations to facilitate returnships for caregivers and women looking to get back into the workforce. So yes, I do see progress. I’m proud of our team for being part of that progress, and I want to see more organizations follow suit because it isn’t universal yet. 

Could you tell us about the Yes We Can initiative? What inspired this idea, and how impactful has it been so far?

When we launched Cloudflare TV, I saw an opportunity to provide a platform to the women who continue to inspire me – whether they’re at the forefront of their fields or are just getting started. I started Yes We Can, a series to help dispel the myth that no women are in tech. The series shares the stories of many accomplished women throughout the industry – at all levels and stages of their careers. I’ve interviewed serial entrepreneurs, investors, marketing experts, lawyers, executive coaches, data scientists and engineering leaders and many other terrific women.

Our conversations have touched on a wealth of topics, but I’ve been struck by how consistent some of the themes are. Many of these women have been drawn to the tech world for the same reasons I was: because technology is home to many of the world’s most innovative and creative minds, it’s where builders can invent the future and tech is becoming more ubiquitous and relevant. They’ve been driven by the reward – and thrill – of creating something people want and by how their technology scales and can reach a broad set of people. They’ve been passionate about encouraging more women to pursue the careers they dare to dream. I’ve realized that the best way to support women in tech is to lead a company that supports women in the workplace. This series allows women’s voices to be heard and encourages our roommates, girlfriends, mothers, aunts and sisters to explore a career in tech.

Michelle Zatlyn, co-founder, president and COO, Cloudflare
Michelle Zatlyn, co-founder, president and COO, Cloudflare

During your career in the industry, including founding a publicly-traded infrastructure company worth more than $30bn, did you experience any challenges because of your gender? How did you overcome these?

I had an investor – not one of ours – tell me, “women don’t belong in infrastructure companies.” Sadly, that was only 12 years ago. Needless to say, we didn’t go with that investor, and we didn’t align ourselves with people who didn’t believe in us and the challenges we wanted to help solve. Life is too short to focus on limits. If there is a barrier, make your own path, and find the people who believe in you.  

Fast forward to today, and there are more female investors looking for diverse founders. Now, there are organizations like All Raise, a non-profit founded by 34 senior female investors dedicated to diversity in funders and founders. Studies show that women invest in women at nearly three times the rate that men do. With groups like All Raise, I’m optimistic for the future. 

What advice do you have for women in the sector aiming to progress and take up senior positions?

Opportunities present themselves often, anywhere. It could be a job opening for your dream role or a chance to advocate for your career progression. I’ve noticed that many of us tend to focus on all the reasons we shouldn’t do something. Maybe they think the timing isn’t right, the economic outcome isn’t certain or they are worried about the risk. You miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take. I say, “go for it.” 

Could you tell us about the purpose and work of Cloudflare’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), which launched in 2020? How well was this initiative able to work during the pandemic?

ERGs are a great way to build community. In the end, companies are just a collection of people, and a sense of community is so important. ERGs also help organizations become more diverse, equitable and inclusive. Today we have more than 16 ERGs at Cloudflare, including Afroflare, Proudflare and Womenflare. As the pandemic continued, our ERGs played a crucial role in supporting our team and the mental health of our employees –whether they helped make our team aware of the resources we offered, or they just provided a virtual escape amid social distancing. Our Mindflare ERG, focused on mental health, partnered with one of our benefit offerings to provide confidential chat services with clinically-trained and supervised emotional health coaches 24/7, among other resources. The group put on multiple company-wide activities and awareness efforts to remind us of the importance of mental health. We also saw participation increase with groups like Funflare, where we planned virtual movie nights and game nights – something to look forward to outside of work hours as team members were quarantining and social distancing. 

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