Johanna Baum of Strategic Security Solutions (S3) Consulting: “Trust your gut”

Women typically bring a tremendous amount of empathy and authenticity to an organization. As a founder, we set a supportive tone to ensure that while business objectives are critical, so are the people that make up our organizations. This can create more socially and people-conscious organizations that can contribute to the greater good. I also don’t […]

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Women typically bring a tremendous amount of empathy and authenticity to an organization. As a founder, we set a supportive tone to ensure that while business objectives are critical, so are the people that make up our organizations. This can create more socially and people-conscious organizations that can contribute to the greater good.

I also don’t think it’s necessary that we must have more female founders, but we must provide the platform, opportunity, and potential for women to seek out the possibility. The ability to choose an entrepreneurial path should not be disproportionately skewed simply due to perceived societal or gender norms. The option should be equally available regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, or any other characteristic.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Johanna Baum, CPA, CISA has over 25 years of advisory experience in IGA, Security, and eGRC. She is the founder and CEO of Strategic Security Solutions (S3) focused on providing professional services expertise related to programmatic Cyber initiatives.

Johanna is a recognized expert and is an active influencer in the Cyber community. She serves on the Advisory Board for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville Accounting/InfoSys Department, several technology vendor advisory boards, Ambassador/Mentor for SPJ Capital, and a mentor for multiple Entrepreneur and Women in Leadership Organizations.

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?

I’m an accidental entrepreneur. My career began in public accounting, but that was a launching point. My mentors repeatedly reinforced that I didn’t fit the traditional accountant mold. As an auditor, I pushed the narrow boundaries and was way more interested in the story behind the numbers.

I was able to weave from accounting to consulting services and application security management, but I was still on the fringe of what I wanted to accomplish.My interests were suited to strategy. I enjoyed reframing business issues and wanted to develop solutions that combined operations with technology through a risk lens. Bad strategy (which is everywhere) still fires me up.

A colleague asked if I was interested in a contract position to develop and rebuild a security organization for a large pharmaceutical company. I went from running a security practice and fighting the continued boundaries of a woman in IT and the older guard for a global consulting organization, to a one-woman 1099 show hoping to make an impact.

In 2005, I founded Strategic Security Solutions (S3) Consulting to provide strategic professional services and guidance around security, eGRC, and IDG services for Fortune 2000 companies. Since beginning the company 16 years ago, I have been hands-on in providing successful assessment, implementation, and deployment solutions throughout the full life cycle of both technical and strategic initiatives.

Almost 16 years later, I still try to push the limits to redefine identity governance, data protection, security strategy, and operations, with my team (with far less friction and organizational boundaries!)

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

In our early stages, a friend and colleague recommended us to a client. The client initially reached out asking for some quick advice,I was happy to help, but noticed that the “quick help” calls were coming in with increasing frequency. For a few weeks, I fielded very specific questions, gave guidance, and even delivered a few high-level presentations to help. I was prepared to tell him on his next call that I needed to step back a bit, but he said he was calling to give me good news.

To my surprise, he told me that he submitted the materials and we had won the bid for a large segment of work. He stated that our team not only listened to him but never asked what was in it for us. We were objective, supportive, and simply wanted to give him our guidance in an effort to help him through his process. We also beat an extremely large global organization which really cemented our new competitive reality.

There’s a fine line to walk before you move into someone taking advantage of your generosity and expertise, but typically you can read the tea leaves.

A decade later, that client remains with S3. We’ve worked through concerns and continued to celebrate a wonderful collaborative relationship together. It always serves as a reminder that you should pay it forward and listen. You never know when you might be competing.

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?

Similar to many founders, I have a mountain of experience to look back and chuckle on when it comes to mistakes. Luckily, each had a very valuable (and often humorous) lesson.

On one occasion, I was asked to speak on a conference panel. Just prior to my stage call, someone spilled an entire cup of coffee on my lap. I frantically changed into a backup dress and when I arrived and put on the mic, I saw the stage was full of barstools. I’m 5’1”, the only female, and seated in the center of the stage.

I was a bit of a deer in headlights as a ballroom of approximately 700 people waited for me to sit down onto a high barstool in a shorter dress. My humorous approach was to ask if everyone in the ballroom could turn around and turn off the cameras so I could sit. After a good laugh, they reset the stage with better seating.

I now always ask about stage and seating set-up, I continue to have a backup outfit for any occasion, and typically wear pants just in case!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have had many wonderful mentors and advisors throughout my career and each played a vital role in supporting my growth.

Early in my consulting career, I was pushing against an internal ceiling related to a delayed promotion. I had an amazing female mentor who was honest with me that regardless of my performance and no matter how hard I worked, the promotion was simply unattainable. Not only would I be passed over, but the optics of my actions would result in me getting further sidelined. There was already one woman within my group, and that was one more than leadership was comfortable with. Unfortunately, my mentor was correct. I was passed over with the justification that client executives might be uncomfortable with a female and perhaps I would consider a role outside of leadership.

There were many lessons to be learned from this

  1. Let your frustration take a quiet backseat. Because of the advanced warning I recieved, I was able to lower my temperature and develop a response. Instead of acting in the heat of the moment or rolling over to the painful truth, I created a plan.
  2. Optics rule the day — whether or not I agreed with the directive, this was something I had to acknowledge Going forward, I looked at every angle and paid way more attention to where I was placing my effort. Don’t be too invested in silently working towards a losing battle that can be avoided.
  3. Consider all options and make an impact where you can. My mentor was able to point me towards my next path where I could really make an incremental impact that I hadn’t previously considered. I was too fixated on the goal and proving that I could achieve it to know it wasn’t worth fighting for, YET. Important to note, I circled back to it years later. I not only started the practice, but ran it after I paved a better path to achieving it.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Women are fixers. We are the jack of all trades for our households, our work “family,” and our friends. In most instances, we are responsible for everything from MacGyvering hockey skates to recreating a staffing model on the fly to support changing market conditions. I recently spoke to the CIO of a Fortune 50 organization and we laughed about the fact that she’s steering one of the largest global organizations and after a very heavy and exhausting workday (including a massive cyber breach), her very capable family asked where dinner was.

Traditionally, women have been in more supportive roles outside of leadership and certainty not entrepreneurial endeavors. This is a hard trend to reverse. We have to fight against a strong current of letting our household down on occasion to create or run a business. We take phone calls during sporting events, perhaps miss a class party, rush through airports while FaceTiming and singing nursery rhymes, we manage multiple carpools with an MS Outlook schedule, and sleep standing up.

We prioritize our personal lives while also balancing the demands and responsibilities as an employer. We also do that in the face of some potentially heavy criticism. You have to want it every day and twice on Sunday.

For working mothers in pandemic times, the predominant expectation is that women will delay career aspirations to home school and manage the household. This not only holds back entrepreneurs but women in the workforce altogether. We have set back our progress decades simply due to the inability to merely remain in the workforce and maintain the small gains we had made.

When it comes to shifting into founder mode, the stakes are high. So is the time investment. Women not only need the courage and strength to commit to the difficult but very rewarding path, but the supportive space and opportunity to do so.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

That’s a tall order. To start, we need to stop using gender (and many other characteristics) as criteria to segregate qualifications or attract a specific gender. As an example, retailers sell “NASA” t-shirts in the boys section. LEGO and robotics toys and clubs are both marketed to boys. As women, we are led towards safer career paths.That needed to end… yesterday.

We must continue to be vocal about career paths and support/promote STEM opportunities at a young age to our children in our homes and in schools. As a woman in a STEM career, we have an opportunity and responsibility to share that experience. With so many social media platforms and a global reach, we can truly impact a generation of women to engage at a very early age.

As a sidebar, my father was initially very dismayed that I didn’t become a chemist. He was later pleasantly surprised that I pursued a career in technology. He took a computer apart with me when I was in grade school and the wonder of it stuck with me. My parents pushed me to explore and also be an advocate for change.

At this point in my life and my career, it’s my moral imperative to use my voice to inspire and suspend the mass exodus from women in STEM and female entrepreneurship. I can only hope that my contribution, in addition to others, makes a difference.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Women typically bring a tremendous amount of empathy and authenticity to an organization. As a founder, we set a supportive tone to ensure that while business objectives are critical, so are the people that make up our organizations. This can create more socially and people-conscious organizations that can contribute to the greater good.

I also don’t think it’s necessary that we must have more female founders, but we must provide the platform, opportunity, and potential for women to seek out the possibility. The ability to choose an entrepreneurial path should not be disproportionately skewed simply due to perceived societal or gender norms. The option should be equally available regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, or any other characteristic.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?

  1. I always have a plan and feel confident or comfortable with myself and my approach.

I usually have a general idea, but sometimes — I need to wing it to plot out my next steps. I also have an annoyingly persistent undercurrent of a crisis of confidence. I’ve taken classes on the topic and routinely have to bottle it up! Factually, I recognize my experience and my role. But this is a tough one to manage. It’s also a fairly consistent theme with many founders.

2. I’m not available, or only available to certain people.

I am always available to whoever needs me. I might have to juggle, but I have a very open-door policy.

3. I have a great idea and I’m a great employee, so it will make a great company and I will be a great founder.

No way. Just because you have a great idea, it won’t always translate into a successful (or profitable) company. There are a ton of facets to consider and risks to account for as you start and adapt through growth. Timing is also everything. Often, the hardest worker also doesn’t make the best founder. Heads down and barrelling down the wrong path, will only keep your business afloat for so long. It doesn’t scale and it doesn’t motivate your team.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

I have run across founders of every variety. A generally consistent trait I see is the desire to push the limits and boundaries of a particular area. Not only do they have an idea, but they have dedicated their efforts to pursuing it after repeated failure points or limitations. They were studious but had a stronger desire to learn what was outside the classroom. A founder has probably heard “no” more times than “yes” but kept refining and surging ahead anyway. It takes resilience and persistence that is hard to quantify and even harder to build. In my experience, a founder’s spirit is either there, or it isn’t.

To take it one step further, you have to be willing to be out on a limb and accept the consequences of possible failure in your hunt for success. You will face your fears daily and learn to embrace the unknown.

As far as a “regular” job? I’ve repeatedly said, I’m not sure I’m employable at this point! I would push the limits further than a standard corporate gig would allow. A founder has to embrace the unpredictable and constantly adapt. If that fluidity gives you hives and your schedule and approach has to remain rigid, this ride is not for you.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Trust your gut.

Everyone will want to give you opinions, especially in the beginning. Know when to seek feedback and when to trust yourself or you’ll feel like you’re in a turnstile. Be decisive and trust your direction. If you make a mistake, own it.

2. Get out of your own way.

On occasion, your fear may prohibit your growth. When you see it coming, delegate to someone invested in the company’s success, but less emotionally charged.

3. Learn how to set and reassess your risk boundaries.

Being an entrepreneur doesn’t take one leap of faith, it takes one every day. Know when you need to take a big risk or when to walk away.

4. Do the right thing. Full stop.

You will have to make tough decisions regarding people and clients. Those decisions might also cost more money but are the right thing to do. Those steps will show your employees, customers, and partners that they can trust you and you have their best interest at heart. It will also help you sleep at night.

5. Lastly, be authentic.

The bigger the success, the more expectations and pressure to be controlled. Your authenticity is what started the journey, don’t let external management of the founder persona change your approach. Be vulnerable, be authentic, and use your voice for causes that you believe in.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

As a voice in data privacy, protection, and cybersecurity, I have looked for ways to improve victim protection and privacy for women and children. I have been a vocal advocate for victim rights, legal privacy protection, and speaking to women to empower a larger movement, to not only normalize trauma but help women find their voice and successfully navigate to a healthy future.

In addition to this effort, I have dedicated a good bit of time to mentorship, teaching, and speaking to women in STEM to support both the entrepreneur community and women throughout their careers. Without this effort to give back, we leave a void in building the future of our community.

I’m committed to making a difference to build a safer space for more women in our field for the future.

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

Given the staggering numbers of adult and child sexual assault victims, I would greatly expand advocacy efforts to restore hope, privacy, safety, and justice to the hopeless.

With an increased focus on technology for law enforcement, privacy laws for victims, and programs to support recovery, we can restore dignity to a significant portion of the population. From a technical standpoint, there are very limited collaborative solutions across law enforcement agencies and even less protection for victim privacy. We have the ability to provide much-needed tools and support for these archaic practices that could truly aid in meaningful change.

In addition, many other female founders, entrepreneurs, and leaders have been pursuing larger-scale advocacy efforts to bring women back to the workforce and into STEM careers. As a leader in the space, we need to begin more grassroots, local efforts in our schools to increase awareness for young women, but also programs for women to re-enter the workforce.

CEOs and leadership teams must evolve internally to offer more adaptive and fluid work environments while supporting employee needs. We should be investing to create an adaptive environment where all employees are encouraged and acknowledge that extremely valuable contributions can come in many forms.

If we don’t adapt here, we run the risk of becoming even more homogeneous and eliminating a very important segment of the population, and their contributions, from our workforce.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

As a duo, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston have used their celebrity to support a variety of women’s issues and shine a light onto many topics that were hiding in the shadows. Their efforts with the “Me Too” movement, advocacy for victims rights and support, and their pursuit of equality for women makes them amazing mentors for many seeking for real change.

I would love to connect with them on how to facilitate real change and be a better and more effective advocate for women and children who were the victims of assault.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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