Diversity & Inclusion
Cybersecurity / DEI / Events / Hackathons / POC in Tech

With support from DEFCON, this DC org is using conferences to boost diversity in cyber

Blacks in Cybersecurity founder Michaela Barnett invites Black technologists to "come as they are," whether they're newcomers to the field or old pros.

The Blacks in Cybersecurity team at a winter summit. (Courtesy photo)

For DC cybersecurity technologist Michaela Barnett, heading into the primarily white DMV tech employment market following attendance at a historically Black university was a bit of a surprise.

“When I stepped out of that and went to work in the greater DC area, it was kind of like a culture shock a little bit, just to see less diverse people in a space that was so up and coming,” Barnett said.

It didn’t take long for her to decide to do something about it. Her organization, Blacks in Cybersecurity (BIC), attempts to bring more diversity and address the subsequent cybersecurity job pipeline problem via events that gather both cybersecurity newbies and old pros. Barnett started BIC in 2018 as a meetup for Black technologists to attend cybersecurity conferences in the area. At these events, Barnett said the group would have dinner, connect and try to find new ways to support each other as they moved into the industry.

Today, it hosts ambassadors for its program in 30 cities across the U.S. and worldwide, with meetups, conferences, mentorships and job training, plus additional chapters at universities. And this month, the organization received a Black Badge award from hacker conference DEFCON, the highest award the conference offers, for BIC’s cybersecurity event and training offerings.

In creating conferences and events, Barnett, who is also a senior analyst at Accenture, said BIC tries to be as laid back as it can be, allowing people the space to do whatever works best for them and be as “non-conference-y as possible.”

“There’s a lot of emphasis on collaboration, knowledge sharing and just that free education of, ‘Hey, I made something cool and I’m going to give a talk about it, so you can come see and interact with me,'” Barnett said. “Or, if you’re really into Capture the Flag or competition hacking, then you can kind of just sit down next to someone, log in and enjoy the atmosphere and competition in that way.”

Michaela Barnett. (Courtesy photo)

Receiving a Black Badge, Barnett said, means that the DEFCON coordinators felt the BIC competition was challenging for people while also helping them learn a skill, while simultaneously bringing a passion to better the community. She felt the award showcased the vision of BIC, while also displaying the talent in the community.

“[BIC has] that spectrum of people from different backgrounds coming together to do this one thing, which is kind of unmatched anywhere else,” Barnett said. “You may join these other organizations where it’s kind of long-founded and you have these people who are kind of steeped in being 20-year professionals, but we just happen to have a lot of hobbyists, we have a lot of students that kind of make that neurodiversity happen.”

Following the award, Barnett said BIC is looking to expand on its current program, offer funding for those involved and providing community resources. But she also wants to build on the global community, and communications director Garrison Best also noted that he’s seen a lot of interest from potential ambassadors in cities in Africa and Europe.

“We’re founded on the principles of open knowledge and just knowledge sharing and that collaboration,” Barnett said. “So, I just want people to understand that they can come as they are, nothing special. Just come as they are. We’ll help them get the materials they need, and all they need to bring is the drive and the willingness to learn.”

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