Nonprofit opens new cyber paths for minorities


Minorities, women and underserved communities are strikingly underrepresented in cybersecurity careers, despite growing cyber threats and an acute talent crunch.

Now a Springs nonprofit is on a mission to reach those groups, and fill the growing cybersecurity workforce deficit in southern Colorado.

The nonprofit Cyber Institute is working with academic partners and industry to bring free cyber summer camps to Pueblo and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, to reach students who traditionally don’t pursue cybersecurity careers.

The Latinos in Cyber & STEM camp will be launched in Pueblo in July, Native Americans in Cyber & STEM will be held with the Southern Ute Tribe in August, and a cyber camp for girls will be held in Colorado Springs. They’ll be the first cybersecurity-specific youth camps in the region aimed at boosting diversity and engaging underserved communities.

The inaugural camps have been developed based on conversations with the Cyber Institute’s UNESCO, European Union and NATO partners, Vance said, and will introduce kids to cyber through activities like virtual reality gaming, 3D printing and drones.

A survey by the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education found that fewer than 1 percent of those in cyber careers are Hispanic, Cyber Institute Founder and Executive Director Andrew Vance said, and women represent less than 15 percent of the cybersecurity workforce.

Even minorities with cyber skills encounter too many barriers on traditional paths to cybersecurity careers, so Vance and Cyber Institute co-founder Taylor Rodriguez are looking for inventive ways to get — and keep — them in the field.

“When Taylor and I were at Catalyst Campus working on our for-profit small business, we wanted to hire a cyber workforce — and what we recognized was there wasn’t a wide breadth of cyber workforce for us to tap into,” Vance recalled. “A lot of them want the $120,000 jobs, and they have the background to demand it … from all the big companies. They have the four-year degrees and the certifications.

“But we just knew that there are people who are interested in getting into cyber, but they aren’t technically employable on contracts [because they lack a degree and certifications].

“What we’d like to do is develop a career pathway in which all businesses — including small businesses — can reach a cyber workforce that doesn’t need a four-year degree.”

Vance said in Pueblo, where more than half the population is Hispanic, young people who want to pursue tech careers typically move out of the community. Vance and Rodriguez want to help change that.

Working out how to meet students’ needs and capture their attention early is key, Rodriguez said.

“[I]t’s hard to recruit kids or young adults who have amazing ability when they love to hack or they love to code, but they want to do it right away,” she said. “They don’t like to get certifications, they don’t want to go to a four-year university. Companies are really looking for the people with the talent that they have, but … those kids want to hack. And the ‘unprofessional’ side of being a hacker is more appealing sometimes to a younger cyber person.”

As well as getting students interested in cyber through camps, Cyber Institute wants to map nontraditional — and more rapid — career tracks for young adults who need them, Vance said.

Local community organizations are interested in focusing on cyber education for K-12 and in underserved communities, Rodriguez said, “but the ball hasn’t really started rolling with it yet — and we’d like to be the ones to energize it in Pueblo and Colorado Springs.

“We like to show Colorado Springs as a shining example of how cybersecurity is growing and successful, so we have plans for having a lot of local partners help us as well — not only with the summer camps but also to further our initiatives for getting more minorities and Latinos and girls into cybersecurity specifically.”

This year’s pilot cyber camps are built with guidance from the National Security Agency; camps in 2019 will be fully funded with NSA GenCyber Program grants. Cyber Institute is developing partnerships and seeking funding, and the grants are important to those efforts, Vance said.

As for partnerships, Rodriguez said, “We believe the more the merrier. Because the more people who help attack this problem, it helps our community, helps the nation, helps the industry of cyber.”

Brad Revare, director of business partnerships at the youth apprenticeship system CareerWise in Denver, said his organization does not yet offer a cybersecurity occupation but is vetting one with current and prospective business partners.

He said CareerWise hears from its tech businesses that they want to recruit underrepresented groups to fill apprenticeship positions — women and minorities are a priority, he said.

Colorado and the cybersecurity industry can benefit from opening the doors to new communities and training models, Revare said.

“Many companies traditionally hire based on degrees and years of experience,” he said in an email. “In times of extremely low unemployment, that talent pool is tapped. Transitioning to a skills-based hiring practice and developing strategic talent pipelines from underrepresented communities with CareerWise apprenticeships can expand [the] talent pool and help businesses uncover talent they may not have considered in the past.”