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As a proud Ethiopian immigrant, trained lawyer, mom of four, two-time Amazon bestseller, and award winning children’s book author, adjunct instructor, and cybersecurity professional at a Fortune 500 organization, Zinet Kemal likely has one of the most interesting and diverse resumes you will come across.
Currently an Associate Cloud Security Engineer at BestBuy, Zinet also holds a slew of certifications including CISA, SANS GCLD, CCSK, CySA+, Security+, Network+, AWS CCP, & KCNA and has become a prominent voice promoting diversity and cybersecurity within the business and technology communities.
So how exactly did Zinet get into the cybersecurity industry? And perhaps more intriguingly, where does she find the time to accomplish all of this?
Here is a glimpse into both Zinet’s incredibly fascinating background and journey into cybersecurity.
Sharing one classroom computer in Ethiopia
A self-professed technology nerd, Zinet’s love affair with technology began at a young age in Ethiopia. However, a lack of resources in her home country made learning about computers and getting hands-on experience challenging…to say the least.
“I’ve always been fascinated with technology and what you can do to build things and solve everyday human problems,” said Zinet. “That might have stemmed from not having a ton of access and opportunities back where I came from in Ethiopia. We didn’t have enough access to computers or the internet and all of those things, even in college we didn’t. We might have specific books to study where you take turns and all, but not as much access as people have here in the US.”
“In high school we had one introduction to computer class per week for one hour, and we would get assigned to share computers because we only had a limited number to go around. Some of the teams would have two folks to sit on a computer or three. But because my name starts with a ‘Z’ and is at the end of the alphabet, I always got stuck sharing the computer with four people. We would fight to touch the computer,” she joked. “I also thought I was not good enough at math, so I sort of self-eliminated myself from the natural sciences track where all the computer science and engineering fields are available to pursue.” So that definitely made pursuing technology studies and careers out of option for her.
So with that, Zinet decided to pursue a degree and career in another field, law. “My parents sort of chose for me.” However, after working in the legal field for a few years, when Zinet and her husband decided to immigrate to the US, she took the opportunity to pursue her lifelong goal of working in the technology sector.
“When I moved here, I just thought that this was my second chance to pursue a technology career, so I decided that once we got to the US, I would begin working towards a computer science or technology job,” said Zinet.
Balancing life, education, and the rebuilding of a career in the US
Once she arrived in the US, to say that Zinet had a full plate would be a huge understatement. Between having a young child at home, another on the way, and trying to adjust to a new country and education curriculum, there was no shortage of priorities that she was trying to juggle.
“I was so excited to get started, but it was definitely overwhelming at the beginning,” said Zinet. “When we moved here, there were just so many things going on. I had a three-year-old and was seven months pregnant with my second baby. I had to enroll in community college. I had to get caught up on math after years of not studying it. I was adjusting to the new snowy Minnesota cold weather, learning to drive for the first time at 27 years old, caring for my new baby, dealing with postpartum challenges, and experiencing a lack of support. There was just so much. But once everything got settled, and I began completing my computer science degree program and discovering my career passion, everything felt like it was worth it.”
From there, Zinet began to find her footing and flew through the community college “early days.” Yet, for all of the enjoyment that she was getting from pursuing a degree and career in tech, she still wasn’t completely settled on what type of career she wanted to land in. That was until she joined her Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition Team during senior year of her undergrad program.
“After I transitioned to a four-year degree program in computer science, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do exactly,” Zinet said. “But when one of our professors talked about the cyber defense team, it piqued my interest. The way he talked about it sounded so interesting. I didn’t have any security related classes until that senior year as an elective class, so this sounded like a great new experience. Long story short, I decided to join the team. Granted, it took a lot of self-teaching, doing the extra work on top of doing the program itself and caring for three young children. However, being able to participate in that cyber defense competition, representing the university – which secured third place from all of Minnesota universities – and being able to participate in a collaborative environment, it really lit that spark to start working in cybersecurity.”
Once she was bitten by the cybersecurity bug, Zinet immediately began looking for opportunities to gain real world experience in the cybersecurity field and landed an internship before she graduated first in IT spaces before transitioning to IT Audit role.
“Even though the schoolwork was great, I knew that real world experience would help me round out my education further,” said Zinet. “So, before I graduated, I began an IT internship in the local government doing a whole bunch of different IT functions. Eventually, I landed in IT auditing – which is mainly auditing cybersecurity practices of an organization based on the NIST cybersecurity framework – and within three months I was able to get hired full-time. Meanwhile, I was picking-up certifications and was able to transition to the state government in information security Engineer role, promoted six months later and then now working as an associate cloud security engineer at a Fortune 500 organization.”
Becoming a published author and a diversity and cybersecurity advocate
While she was progressing her education and career in cybersecurity, Zinet was hard at work helping her family become settled and comfortable in a new country and culture. This included helping her children be proud of their faith, heritage and understand the beauty of diversity – something which is very close to her heart.
“Moving to a new country and understanding different cultures and sharing your own culture can be tough, especially for kids,” said Zinet. “Kids do ask some tough questions when it comes to diversity like, ‘Why does Henry have that kind of hair and I don’t have that kind of hair?’ or ‘Why do you wear a hijab or have braids?’ and I think it is really important to let children know that everyone is different and that everyone is beautiful in their own way. And unfortunately, there aren’t many books written about the hijab for children, and we quickly picked up every one that was available. So, I just thought, ‘Why not write a book ourselves and share our own story with characters that look like us?’”
“Of course, I’ve never written anything except school projects and homework – and I don’t think you would consider that writing,” joked Zinet. “So, during the pandemic, I just hopped on Clubhouse and started to learn about self-publishing. I just tried to learn as much as I could, while braiding my girl’s hair or cooking in the kitchen, tuning into rooms where authors share information about their experiences. Then within 4 months I wrote and published my first children’s book, “Proud in Her Hijab: A Story of Family Strength, Empowerment & Identity”. It is about uplifting and empowering girls who choose to wear hijab to be proud of themselves and to create awareness about the importance of appreciate diversity and inclusion.” The book became an Amazon #1 bestseller and an award winner.
Following the success of her first book, Zinet then began thinking about how she could help children build awareness around another topic close to her heart: Cybersecurity.
“During the pandemic, when kids couldn’t go meet their friends, many of them turned to gaming, and so did my kids,” said Zinet. “But because many kids didn’t have a lot of cybersecurity hygiene skills, I started to see stories pop-up in the news and in moms’ groups on Facebook about accounts getting hacked, including my own kids. So, I just thought that would make a good book subject too, and I wrote ‘Oh No…Hacked Again!’ It is about teaching kids the importance of online safety, password security, and online predators. It makes cybersecurity approachable through the games kids already know and love.”
“I described the games in the book in a way that is familiar to children and then back it up with tips on cybersecurity to help them associate the games they are playing with real best-practices.” The kids related to the story because everyone is playing these popular online games which makes connecting with the security tips easier for kids to resonate quickly. The book is also meant to create a spark of interest for young readers to see themselves in cyber careers when they grow up.
Tips for career changers
Zinet’s journey to cybersecurity has certainly been long and demanding. But she believes that it is definitely a worthwhile pursuit – especially for diverse candidates and immigrants to the US.
“I am really proud to have been able to change my career into a space that I had no idea about. I am continuously learning, exploring and loving what I do,” said Zinet. “It can definitely be a little overwhelming but being able to navigate all of these different roles and then take chances to get out of my comfort zone to explore them…it has been so worth it.”
“That said, there are some things the industry needs to change in order to bring in more diverse talent. For example, there are definitely stereotypes of what a cybersecurity professional might look like, and there is always the perception of a guy in a hoodie hacking in a basement. But in reality, there are tons of women from diverse backgrounds doing awesome work in cybersecurity and cybersecurity is a broad industry, definitely pen testing or red teaming isn’t the only career in the industry. Additionally, there are a lot of young women and girls that are looking to get into the space, but they may be hesitant to get involved. We must do a better job of reaching out to these communities. If we can take the right steps – whether it be in school or in children’s book publishing – there is no reason why the industry can’t attract the diverse candidates it is looking for.”