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“Be a person of integrity” with Ellison Anne Williams

We are fundamentally changing the paradigm of secure data usage by protecting data while it’s being used or processed — the ‘holy grail’ of data encryption. The technology that makes this possible, homomorphic encryption (HE), has been a topic of academic research for decades, but had long been considered too computationally impractical for commercial use. […]

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We are fundamentally changing the paradigm of secure data usage by protecting data while it’s being used or processed — the ‘holy grail’ of data encryption. The technology that makes this possible, homomorphic encryption (HE), has been a topic of academic research for decades, but had long been considered too computationally impractical for commercial use. And in its initial form, it was painfully slow, bulky, and expensive to implement. But we’ve had made breakthroughs in the past several years that have allowed us to build market-ready solution to address a number of business use cases, especially in industries that are dealing with highly sensitive and/or regulated assets.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ellison Anne Williams.

Dr. Ellison Anne Williams is the Founder and CEO of Enveil, the pioneering data security company protecting Data in Use. Building on more than a decade of experience leading avant-garde efforts in the areas of large-scale analytics, information security, computer network exploitation, and network modeling. Ellison Anne founded the startup in 2016 to protect sensitive data while it’s being used or processed — the ‘holy grail’ of data encryption. Ellison Anne leverages her deep technical background and a passion for evangelizing the impact of disruptive technologies to cultivate Enveil’s capabilities into category-defining solutions that enable secure search, analytics, sharing, and collaboration.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Istarted Enveil four years ago, and while I have always been an entrepreneur at heart, I arrived in this field rather unexpectedly. I pursued math in college because it was interesting, and I graduated with a PhD in pure mathematics, along with Master’s degrees in math, computer science, and machine learning before it was ever the cool thing to do. I was hired by the U.S. National Security Agency, which happens to be the nation’s largest employer of mathematicians. I spent about 12 and a half years at the National Security Agency and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, which is where I encountered homomorphic encryption (HE), the technology at the core of Enveil’s solution. There are business-enabling capabilities that HE facilitates that are not otherwise possible, and I knew I wanted to start a company that would help finally move the technology from the realm of the theoretical to the commercially practical. And that’s what we’ve been building at Enveil ever since.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

We are fundamentally changing the paradigm of secure data usage by protecting data while it’s being used or processed — the ‘holy grail’ of data encryption. The technology that makes this possible, homomorphic encryption (HE), has been a topic of academic research for decades, but had long been considered too computationally impractical for commercial use. And in its initial form, it was painfully slow, bulky, and expensive to implement. But we’ve had made breakthroughs in the past several years that have allowed us to build market-ready solution to address a number of business use cases, especially in industries that are dealing with highly sensitive and/or regulated assets. This is significant because HE is not making something better; it’s making something entirely new possible. The business-enabling and privacy-preserving capabilities it enables are allowing organizations to securely search, share, analyze, and collaborate using sensitive data. And the fact that a category — Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs) — has formed around the utilization of HE further affirms that it has shifted into the mainstream.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Needless to say, there have been many lessons learned. At this point, I still feel almost too close to it all to look back and reflect, but I will say that it is amazing (and a bit cringe-inducing) to go through our early materials — pitch decks, marketing materials, etc. — and recognize how far we’ve come. It’s a good reminder to keep embracing that growth and change as we continue to mature our category — and our company.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

In addition to being part of the Mastercard Start Path startup engagement program where we received technical guidance and operational support, I’ve been fortunate to have had a number of great mentors at every stage of my career — from those who helped guide me in my academic pursuits and then on through my years spent in the government space. But as an entrepreneur, I’ve found that the guidance I’ve received from other founders and CEOs has been unmatched. Running a startup is one of those things you have to experience in order to truly understand. I have one mentor in particular, Tim Eades, who never fails to pick up the phone when I need a sound board — even when those calls come in during nights and weekends.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I think it’s easy to forget that disruption — even when it ultimately delivers a better outcome — can be painful. It’s not easy for organizations to re-think the way things have always been done or to disrupt a process that is the result of years of time and effort. It’s also not easy to have to reconsider your position on a topic more broadly, which is what we’re seeing in the privacy arena right now. Despite the accelerating regulatory environment that has been taking place over the past several years, we are now just seeing the tip of the privacy iceberg, both from a regulatory and consumer standpoint. As awareness continues to grow, companies are being pushed by both consumers and regulators to prioritize data privacy and security. Will this mean overhauling industriyindustry standards and practices? In some cases, yes. But will we collectively be better prepared to deal with the next challenges on the horizon? I think the answer to that is also yes.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Be a person of integrity — do the right thing.

Be a person of substance.

Ignore people whose opinions you can’t change.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Honestly, I’m excited to be exactly where we are right now. I can see the market we’ve been working hard to form over the past few years coming to fruition and it’s amazing to work in an area of such rapid innovation. When I started the company, mentioning homomorphic encryption (HE) would most often elicit blank stares, but now we can see really momentum building as people begin to realize the power and possibility it can deliver. It’s refreshing — and I can’t wait to see where we’ll be five years from now.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

The Bible — an oldie but a goodie.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I think you can’t go wrong with, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” While I always thought it was a strong adage in my life, I didn’t realize just how foundational it is in business as well until I started a company. When the pace is fast, it is essential to know who you are and what your core values are. At Enveil, we simplify it even further by embracing a “People first” philosophy.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Equal opportunities for women — it’s not a new movement, but one in which we still have a long way to go. Educate and empower women and we will change our communities and our world.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me on both LinkedIn and Twitter. And if you have an interest in data privacy or emerging technologies, I would also encourage you to following the Enveil accounts (LinkedIn / Twitter). We talk about the work we’re doing, but we also offer a look at the news our team is reading and the trends we’re paying close attention to as we work in the space.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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