Ida Byrd-Hill is a tech entrepreneur who is determined to achieve what she feels is her most important goal.
The Detroit native is the founder and CEO of Automation Workz Institute, a cybersecurity reskilling and diversity consulting firm. She has made it her mission to dramatically improve the numbers of black women getting high-paying jobs in the cybersecurity industry.
Cybercrime is predicted to cost the world $6 trillion USD by the end of this year. So it’s no surprise that the demand for cybersecurity professionals has grown rapidly.
However, there is a huge shortage of skilled professionals in areas such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of things (IoT) and data intelligence. According to Cybersecurity Ventures there will be 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs globally by the end of 2021. Adding to the challenge is the industry’s lack of diversity. According to the recent (ISC)2 Global Information Security Workforce Study, only 9% of workers self-identified as African-American or Black, 8% as Asian and 4% as Hispanic. These workers were mainly in non-managerial positions. And minority women in the industry reported the highest numbers of discrimination. It’s a gap that Byrd-Hill has worked hard over many years to close.
Her passion grew while serving as President of the Detroit-based non-profit Uplift, Inc. She founded the organization in 1997. Byrd-Hill’s aim was to get more people of color into high-income tech-related jobs. Byrd-Hill’s work with Uplift Inc. made her realize that the negative experiences of African-Americans in areas such as employment, education, healthcare and housing is the direct result of poverty. The pandemic provided a stark illustration of this fact.
The tech entrepreneur says that thousands of black women were caught between jobs that didn’t allow them to work from home and childcare responsibilities. Many were forced to choose the latter. For Byrd-Hill, the answer to tackling poverty among African-Americans is a simple one. She wants to get as many people as she can into high-paying jobs in tech, especially cybersecurity.
Many of the students on the Automation Workz Institute courses have had experience in areas such as customer service, tech logistics, and end-user support. They enroll to upgrade their knowledge and credentials.
However, the make-up of the student body is notable for another fact. Over 75 % are black women. They predominantly hail from cities such Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Jacksonville, and Memphis.
“When I started this in 2019, I really wanted to open up the cybersecurity field to African-Americans and particularly African-American women,” Byrd-Hill says. “What most people don’t know is that the average wage for a woman in America is less than $50,000 a year. This means that, especially if they are a single mom, they are always going to be in poverty.
“So, in launching the course, what I was hoping was to open up people to the world of technology and lift them out of poverty. Black women made up a large percentage of the 5.5 million women who lost their jobs during the pandemic. Many had to be moms and teachers.
“Even if they wanted to work they couldn’t because they had the kids at home” Byrd-Hill continues. “They had to make a choice between ‘do I go to work?’ or ‘do I stay at home and educate the kids?’ That’s a very difficult choice and for me that was disconcerting.
“I’m a divorced mom of twins so I understand what it’s like to go through a struggle to make a better life for your kids. My thinking was if you could give women an opportunity to gain skills where they can both work at home in a good-paying job and educate their kids at home you have moved that family out of poverty in a major way.”
The Automatic Workz Institute’s bootcamp course is based on the industry-recognized nine-month Cisco Systems digital certification curriculum. It combines this with classes on the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning, and data intelligence. As part of a unique approach to learning, the company also combines the Cisco curriculum with games, case studies, and puzzles. These are aimed at immersing students in the real-world situations they will face when they enter the industry. After students complete the program they are well-qualified to apply for top jobs in cybersecurity. And, as well as being popular with students, Byrd-Hill’s approach is winning major plaudits.
Earlier this year, leading job training website Career Karma ranked Automation Workz Institute among its list of top cybersecurity bootcamps in the U.S.
“It was so exciting for me” Byrd-Hill recalls. “We’ve been working really hard for the course to be high quality. And I guess what made it even more exciting is the fact that we’re still very small.
“When I looked to see who was ranked on the list we were right next to Udacity which is a $100 million revenue company. That says that we have made it.”
Another popular aspect of Automation Workz Institute’s approach to learning is its emphasis on what Bryd-Hill calls “personability”.
“At the beginning of each semester the students are given an assignment in which they have to tell us who they are” she says. “We want to know your family as well as what happens in class. We want to know about your goals, your dream job, what you see as barriers, what do you need to overcome those barriers.
“That’s what makes us unique. We go out of our way to get to know our students because that helps us do a better job for you. The personal touch is what helps our students stay and complete the curriculum because it is a very rigorous and challenging one.”
The success of Automation Workz Institute is the latest milestone for Byrd-Hill in a distinguished career spanning three decades.
After graduating with a degree in economics from the University of Michigan and an MBA specializing in People Management and Strategy, Byrd-Hill worked in HR. She successfully developed diverse recruiting strategies and performance growth strategies. She also worked in the finance industry. Her work led to the growth of a Wealth Management company from zero to $353 million of Assets Under Management.
Byrd-Hill is also the author of 8 books and an in-demand public speaker. But her road to success has involved navigating the challenges that come with being a black professional woman in industries lacking in diversity.
“It was tough,” she says of her early career. “Any field where you don’t have a lot of diverse people is going to be a tough nut to crack. People have all types of stereotypes about you before you even walk in the door.
“But I’m of the belief that I’m not here to deal with your stereotypes. I’m here to deal with my future. And I’m going to make it as pleasant as possible because I’m here to make money.
“One of the ways I kept myself motivated was that I have pictures by African-American artists on my walls” Byrd-Hill continues. “I looked at those every single day when I walked into my house. They reminded me that I am somebody and I have the ability to create anything that I choose to.”
It is this determination that drives her current goal of getting more black women into cybersecurity. The tech entrepreneur says she wants “to educate 50,000 students. I don’t know about the rest of the world but we’re going to get to that number”.
Does she ever doubt that she can reach such a lofty goal?
“I can never forget that when I was poor and living in the housing projects of Flint, Michigan, everybody told me what I could not do. And what fuels my fire is when you tell me I can’t do something. I can show you better than I can tell you.”