Mentor: Becky Bace

November 14, 2017

 

Growing up, Becky didn’t think about pursuing advanced degrees or moving out of Alabama. In the early 1970s, women who aspired to professional careers in rural Alabama had the choice of becoming nurses or school teachers. Her neurologist suggested Becky stay home and collect disability after high school.  Fortunately, a close friend of the family, and local librarian, Bertha Nel Allen, had other thoughts. She noticed Becky’s intelligence and academic potential and stepped in as an advocate and her first mentor.  She provided guidance, support, and belief in Becky’s ability to do great things with her life. College, once considered a pipe dream because of family finances and her “disability,” became a reality for Becky under Bertha Nel’s guidance.  An after-school job at the public library was secured, college applications were completed, and scholarship applications were pored over and submitted.  Her aspirations came true when Becky was accepted by the University of Alabama at Birmingham with two scholarships, and as the only woman in the engineering school.  The door to her future was open thanks to her first mentor, Bertha Nel. With her newfound confidence, Becky disregarded the advice to collect disability and left home to start her new life. 

In l 1984, Becky started working at the NSA, and in 1989, took an assignment in the National Computer Security Center. The NCSC was chartered as part of the NSA expressly to deal with computer security issues for the Department of Defense and the intelligence community.  Becky described her mentor, Jim Anderson, as “one of the leaders of the computer security community (as well as a pioneer in computing).”  She continued, “I was in a position where I had a friend/colleague/mentor relationship with him that seriously influenced my life path.” Jim answered her questions, made himself available for opinions as she considered how best to bring research to useful form and, over time, he made introductions and brought her to the attention of her bosses and others above her.  Jim opened doors and helped Becky make an enormous impact in the information security industry.  She could trust him, his help was always valued, and he remained a constant source of guidance when Becky needed him.

Becky was at the top of her field, but after the devastating loss of her only son to cancer, she started over emotionally and career-wise in Silicon Valley in the middle of the dot com boom.  She couldn’t get far enough away from her former life and loss.  Without knowing anyone on the opposite coast of the country, she set up shop in an entirely new industry.  Jim Anderson, who never really stopped mentoring Becky since their NSA days, stepped back into her life, joined by Robert Abbott, another pioneer in the security field. They used their connections to get her settled in the area and also provided support as she wrote her first book and set up a consulting business. She picked up the pieces of her life and, working with her mentors and partners, Don Dixon and Peter Meekin, succeeded in building one of the largest venture capital portfolios for information security in Silicon Valley. 

Becky’s life was changed by her mentors.  They offered trust, guidance, support, knowledge, and a belief in her abilities. Becky could have lived a life collecting disability, never to leave the town she was raised in.  She could have settled into a mundane job and put in her time.  Instead, with help from her mentors, she became a pioneer and leader in computer security and venture capital.  Becky stated that her first mentor, Bertha Nel, was always delighted when something good happened for her, up until she died.  Bertha Nel opened the door for Becky, and changed one young girl’s life forever. Jim Anderson and Robert Abbott mentored her as she climbed the ladder to success in the technology and venture capital industries. 

Becky had a long and exciting ride with the NSA and venture consulting, and now she has come full circle.  She is back in Alabama working with a university to educate others in the cyber security world.  She doesn’t need the money.  She could relax and enjoy the fruits of her years of labor.  She returned so she could give back to others the way others gave to her.  Now she is the mentor. 

Becky’s mentoring style is that of a loving maternal figure like Bertha Nel, and an always present guide, generous with her knowledge, skills, and information.  Like Jim Anderson, she gives her time and knowledge around the clock.  She takes on her mentees as one would their own child, and even thinks of them in a parental way: she takes pride in seeing them succeed, and is there to help them along the way to achieve success.  Her mentees are her extended family.    

As I was checking the internet for information about Becky I came across an article in SC Magazine.  Becky didn’t know about this article, or that one of her mentees, David Melnick, was interviewed for it until I forwarded the article to her.  David said, “Over the years, I have watched as Becky mentored many emerging security leaders in our developing profession.  She invested generously and selflessly not only in developing others but in connecting those folks together. Whether she's working with a startup or advising VCs/executives on security strategy, her experience and vast network continues to inspire me. Despite being one of our elder statesmen in the relatively new information security profession, she is always approachable and ready and willing to engage in a discussion around an emerging issue or challenge. I owe my involvement and leadership in the security profession to Becky, as do countless other current leaders in the profession today. She has become the glue that helps tie our profession together."

I spoke with David and he described Becky as a person who made a difference in his life. He described her as extraordinarily generous with introductions and with her time.  He referred to her as a “mama bear” and a role model for mentoring.  He aspires to one day mentor and “pass it on” as she did with him.   

Becky describes her relationship with her mentee Jeehye Yun, CEO of Red Shred, as a mix of ”connection-making, sanity checking, and comforting/reminding Jeehye to cut herself some slack.” She uses a lot of the mentoring skills she’s seen in action, but much of her approach is a sisterly approach.  Becky sees Jeehye as a younger sister, someone similar to herself, and she takes pride in guiding her, as one would their younger sister.  Their relationship is meaningful to Becky beyond that of just guiding her.  Becky feels connected with Jeehye, which is valuable to her.    

Becky thinks of mentoring as something natural she should be doing.  After talking with Becky, it is clear that her role as a mentor gives meaning and value to her life.  She beams with pride, like that of a mother with her children, as she speaks about her mentees.  She wants them to succeed. It isn’t a coincidence Becky moved right back to where she started, back to the small town life where she began. She is right where she wants to be: “passing it on” in Alabama.

 

 

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The Mentor Project documents the role of mentoring and its powerful impact not only on the mentees but the mentor. During my research what I discovered was astonishing. After nearly45 in-depth interviews all the participants unanimously said being a mentor changed their life. It is now my mission to let others know the value and benefits mentors receive from giving back."

Deborah Heiser