Vinnie Persichetti grew up in “a very close, very tight Italian family” in small-town Pennsylvania. He’s the second-youngest of seven kids — three sisters, three brothers — and the only one to join the military.
“My dad was an electrician so he made decent money, but we did not grow up well-to-do,” he said. “And after watching all of my older brothers and sisters going to college and him working overtime, trying to pick up extra money to help support their tuition, I decided I didn’t want to go that route. The Air Force offered great tuition assistance programs and that was really the deciding factor for me to join, was to help pay for my education.”
Persichetti served 30 years in the Air Force before joining the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC exactly a year ago, as its first director of cybersecurity programs. Since then, he’s been leading work on the first Regional Cybersecurity Strategic Plan, which aims to elevate Colorado Springs’ status as a cybersecurity hub.
This week Persichetti spoke with the Business Journal about the strategic plan and the city’s cyber strengths and challenges.
Tell us about your path to the Springs.
I spent 30 years in the Air Force, traveling all around the world. I started out in an administrative career field which later transitioned into communications — for the Air Force, communications is the term that they use for cyber. I spent the majority of 10-plus years working in cyber in different programs, overseeing network operations, deployed to the Middle East overseeing some Special Operations networks — more from a managerial leader position, not so much on the technical side. But I got a good grasp for the concepts, and cybersecurity is a large piece of that.
My wife and I spent five years in Washington, D.C., prior to moving to Colorado Springs in January 2006. I was stationed at Peterson working out of Building 1, which is headquarters for Air Force Space Command. The transition from Washington, D.C., to Colorado Springs was just amazing. … We immediately felt at home and knew that there was potential to make this a long-term home for us. My wife stayed here through those next 11 years before I retired. I spent stints on different assignments overseas and came back to Colorado Springs before eventually retiring in 2017.
You’ve been in this role about a year — talk about that.
It’s been absolutely amazing. … The team here is so professional and so focused on this community that there are no egos, there are no agendas. Everyone works together for a common purpose. Working on the cybersecurity program has been amazing in getting to know the different key stakeholders around town and getting a better understanding of all the resources we have in Colorado Springs from a cybersecurity ecosystem perspective — and really looking at how we can develop those reputationally on a national level to bring more exposure to the city.
Are you finding the challenges are different from those you expected?
When first taking over we were first charged with getting a better understanding of what this ecosystem looked like from a resources perspective: What companies did we have here; what type of capabilities; educational institutions and programs; professional organizations; the workforce itself? And having had a little exposure previously to the cybersecurity industry, I know they don’t like to talk very much. They can be very protective of their assets and their tools — and that was never our goal, to find out anything from a cybersecurity tool perspective, what type of work they did. It was more about the resources that they had here in the city. So there was certainly concern about who would talk to us when we first started.
What I found was the complete opposite. The companies here are very community-focused, very interested in seeing Colorado Springs grow and continue to develop as a technology center in cybersecurity. That was a pleasant surprise, to see how much excitement and willingness to participate that we experienced during that first year.
When it comes to creating a cybersecurity hub, does the size of the city matter?
Certainly that’s a great point, and I would point to a city like Augusta, Ga., which has a fair number of cybersecurity resources which are a direct result of the Army placing their cybersecurity assets within Augusta at Fort Gordon.
When you look at Colorado Springs and the resources we have here from a defense perspective with the five installations, it’s not surprising to me. We’re not a small city by any means, but based on the size and the resources that we have here supporting the very important DoD missions that take place around the city, we have all of the ingredients to really develop a diverse and nationally known cybersecurity hub. And we’re well on our way.
Talk about the Regional Cybersecurity Plan.
We are sub-recipients of a grant that was awarded to Pikes Peak Community College by the DoD’s Office of Economic Adjustment. From a chamber perspective, we were focused in three areas. The first was to get a better understanding of those military members who are transitioning in our community and what skills they can bring to our workforce. The second was to get a better understanding of that ecosystem and the resources that are here, to find out what the community looks like. Then the third piece was developing a strategic plan of how we grow this community so it can be — I say cybersecurity hub, but a resource not only from a commercial perspective but also one that is better prepared to support our defense assets that are here as well, which is what really ties us back to that DoD grant.
We are currently working with Pikes Peak Community College on a Phase 2 grant through OEA, requesting additional funds to execute that strategic plan that we developed in Phase 1. … That funding would be split between Pikes Peak Community College and ourselves to address a number of actions and I would say the total we’re looking at from the DoD is just under $1 million. Then there will be some local matching between PPCC and the chamber that will raise that total up over $1 million for an 18-month timeline.
What are the strengths of the Springs business community, and do you see areas where we’re yet to come into our own?
From a workforce development perspective we have some very strong, diverse programs. Speaking specifically in cybersecurity we have great training programs … like those at SecureSet and Leaderquest and Onward to Opportunity that do a great job of assisting military and transitioning veterans, help find a landing spot within the community and give them usable skills that translate immediately. There are incredible programs, whether it be the two-year technical degree at PPCC or the four-year degrees that you find at other NSA-certified Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber that we have here, like CTU and UCCS and the Air Force Academy, Regis University. It’s the bachelor’s, the master’s and even the doctoral programs that add layers of strength to that workforce development that we see here. And we see that research angle in cybersecurity, as it ties into the National Cybersecurity Center here, is really starting to take off and their accelerator program under Exponential Impact is adding a dimension to that entrepreneurial and that cutting-edge-technology-focused development of small business that we desperately need. I would say that’s the angle where we would like to see growth in Colorado Springs, is that cutting-edge technology development. The NCC and the work that they’re doing with Exponential Impact and the resources at Catalyst Campus, are focused on just that.
Can you mark a turning point in your career?
Absolutely. While working at the Pentagon about the midpoint of my career, I was fortunate to be asked to join the team for the Air Force Chief of Staff at the time, Gen. John Jumper. Amazing man, just an amazing man, and an amazing team that he put together. That gave me a perspective of the Air Force that I had never seen before, because from a career standpoint I had only seen a piece of it. But being able to work in the Chief of Staff’s office for about 2½ years — I was able to travel and see the different pieces of the Air Force and how a lot of that came together and what really made it so special. At that point I realized that, for me, it wasn’t just a 20-year career to get to retirement — it was about serving for as long a period as I felt that I could still make a difference. I think that’s what ultimately led to my serving for 30 years.