The great thing about mistakes and failing in general are the lessons that can be learned from the situation. Fail fast, learn quickly and remember not to take things too seriously. In technology, being the only woman at the table most of the time, you find everyone is watching to see what you know and how you will react.
Asa part of my series featuring accomplished women in STEM, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie Benoit-Kurtz, Director of Cyber Security, Station Casinos.
Stephanie Benoit-Kurtz is a cybersecurity professional and part time faculty for the University of Phoenix College of Business and Information Technology in Las Vegas. Benoit-Kurtz received her BS and MBA from the University of Phoenix and is currently enrolled as a doctoral candidate at Capella University in the Doctorate in Information Technology with an emphasis on Information Assurance and Cybersecurity. She has over 30 years of IT experience, working with organizations that range from small business to the Fortune 500 companies in security, innovation and technology transformation. In her current role, Benoit-Kurtz serves as the Director of Cybersecurity at Station Casinos in Las Vegas. In her role, she is responsible for working with IT and the business to embrace security best practices, policies and procedures, as well as collaborative, solutions-based consultation between the business and IT.
Benoit-Kurtz’s goal is to create opportunities that change lives by transforming students into lifelong learners. She is passionate, dedicated, and persistent in finding new ways to impact the learning experience in and outside of the office and the classroom. In her spare time, Benoit-Kurtz lends her passion and expertise to IT Works, ISACA, Westcare and others to help disadvantage youth earn living wages within IT careers. She actively mentors students on the career development journey, focused on IT career options and choices. Benoit-Kurtz is not bound by walls, but believes that opportunities need innovation and strategy. A Nevada native, Benoit-Kurtz continues to call Las Vegas home with her husband James and her daughter Ashley.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ifell into this particular career path at an early age. While I was in high school, I interned at a radio station — that turned into a paying job like many do. The job started out as market research, but soon turned into fixing broken things around the office. When I graduated from high school and started at University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) I became an assistant in the computer lab, and quickly was moved to the main office where I supported faculty, staff and students across campus. It was not long after that I began to understand what type of gaps and opportunities there were in the field and that by filling those gaps that I could move through the ranks quickly. At what was then the Community College of Southern Nevada, now CSN, I was the Academic Computing Coordinator when I realized that governance, risk and compliance (GRC) were important, and that someday that GRC and security would play a huge role in my career choices. Turned out I was right!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Over the course of my career I have worked with everyone from businesses on the Fortune Top 10 to small shops. All had different stories to tell with their technology environments. The current organization has an amazing story to share — based on how different the organization views what’s important in the technology landscape. From the boardroom to the executive staff, everyone is very supportive of listening to where the gaps are and finding ways to close them. Cybersecurity is generally is viewed as a barrier to getting things accomplished by IT and the business, but Station Casinos proactively asks questions and thinks about the risk associated with technology. It is this mindset that has set the strategy and foundation for cybersecurity.
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?
The great thing about mistakes and failing in general are the lessons that can be learned from the situation. Fail fast, learn quickly and remember not to take things too seriously.
In technology, being the only woman at the table most of the time, you find everyone is watching to see what you know and how you will react. When I first started in IT and was called to meetings, and I was so young that I did not understand how important it was to actually sit at the table. I would generally find a chair somewhere else in the room and park. One day I parked, and the CEO of the company, said, “Hey, I invited you to this meeting, so would you please sit at the table.” I was so embarrassed that he had to ask. I had no idea that this mistake of avoiding the table not only impacted my message, but those around me. It was that moment that I understood why it was important to always SIT AT THE TABLE. I thought I was just being respectful to others, but in reality it was a self-sabotage.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I believe it is our culture that makes the company stand out. In my department I take pride in being inclusive, as well as diversified. On top of the wide and much appreciated diversity, we also have a large number of those who are or who did serve in the armed forces. We also are making sure that there is formal mentoring process for those women who are interested in advancing their career within cybersecurity — not something you see every day.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I enjoy having projects on a variety of fronts. Professionally we have about 12 active projects in continuing to deliver on the strategic plan for the organization.
In my spare time I teach graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Phoenix. Beyond teaching and working to constantly improve curriculum in the classroom, I am currently working on how to right the gap in the education continuum for IT professionals. A degree is not the only answer to professional development. Right now, it’s a combination of approaches that students need and employers demand to advance and maintain employment within the IT and cybersecurity fields.
I also volunteer and sit on the board of IT Works in Las Vegas, which provides outstanding opportunities for disadvantaged youth. Through this program students get IT skills, an internship and certifications to prepare them for a living wage job. The program is funded through philanthropy and donations so the students can focus on how to make a commitment to change their lives. In working with the team to bring this Philadelphia based non-profit to Las Vegas over three years ago, the focus was how to help the youth in our community. Last fall one of my current employees asked if she could attend an event to share her story. I 100% support any staff that are out in the community giving back in any way. She came back from the event and started to break down in my office. She shared that she came to the US from Syria as a refugee less than two years ago and went through the IT Works program in Las Vegas. That she was hired by Station Casinos based on the experience she had obtained through that program. That I profoundly changed her life. It is always so humbling to see that kind of impact in action.
Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Satisfied? Absolutely not. More women need to be encouraged and developed to take jobs in the STEM fields. Part of the solution is to start education and opportunity discussions at an earlier age. The other is developing confidence of women who are looking at these fields. In the classroom I see the overwhelming male presence in IT courses. However, when the women do come to that table, I focus on letting them know that it wasn’t that long ago that I was where they are. I was the one girl in the room. It takes confidence and grit for women to be successful in IT and as leaders need to find ways to foster development programs and teach women how to leverage their talents and training into career currency. Teach how to harness grit and use it to dig deep where necessary to stick around, add value and become an agent of change.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Mentoring, formal professional development plans and making sure that as a leader you address the employees holistically. Over my 25+ year management experience, I’ve maintained and retained staff at a much higher level than my male peers — usually by double digits. It is not just pay that that entices employees to perform, be productive and ultimately be retained until they are at a point where they advance out of the team, it is a holistic approach to the employees’ journey.
In several organizations, I managed government, or public service employees. In other organizations our pay may not be as high as competing employers, but what is always different is my approach to investing in employees through integrated career development plans. These plans include things like training, certifications, mentoring others, and spending time in the community to give back. I have senior staff mentoring junior staff on key projects so that the leaders of the team learn the value of mentoring and the junior team members get the skills necessary in an interactive and meaningful way.
Do not wait for the occasional passing in the hall. Interact with your employees regularly, which doesn’t mean micromanage! I run self-managed teams. I believe in autonomy of individuals and teams. In my current role we are an Agile shop so I expect that the teams self-manage to deliver results. I only get involved on escalations that hit my desk. It’s their issue to find a resolution for, but my role to share that the escalation is happened and to engage with unplanned work to respond.
The last recommendation is encouraging the teams to get involved in giving back to the community. After employees start to get involved in that dialog, they find it rewarding and provides a satisfaction of feeling accomplished by giving to others.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Over several years, I have managed both large and small teams, virtual and onsite. All have opportunities and challenges. My advice is stay connected no matter how large your team is. The hands-off approach translates to a lack of involvement and lack of understanding of the employees and their work. Look for ways to take the achievers and provide them opportunities quickly to engage in different projects and tasks. Use collaboration tools to offer virtual office hours like, Skype, Zoom, or WebEx. Even if employees do not use the virtual office hours, they are aware of the open door policy where they can reach out at any time. Hold meetings where employees can share what they are doing. Employees need engagement from management, and that engagement can translate to amazing outcomes.
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 been very lucky to have a number of mentors, prior bosses, and peers that have inspired me, and helped me navigate the bumpy road. They range from my University of Phoenix mentor Dr. C.T. McIntosh, who pushed me into the community service pool — Head first, no waterwings, into the deep end of the pool. Every day I think about the impact he has had on my life and wish he could have understood the value of the gift he gave me prior to his passing.
Dr. Richard Moore who at the time was the President of the Community College of Southern Nevada who said he would no longer promote me until I got my degree. As a single mom working 60 hours a week, I was unsure about why he pushed me down that road, often kicking and complaining. In retrospect it was one of the most impactful decisions of my career.
Ken West, John Johasky and Jon Shank from Hewlett Packard provided mentoring on how to find my voice and be comfortable at the table. Through endless exercises of working with C-Level executives, being the subject matter expert at the table and understanding how to reach down deep and command the necessary presence to be taken seriously at the table.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Giving back to the community and mentoring others is so important. I do whatever I can to find ways to volunteer, sit on boards and volunteer with time and money to help others. Teaching is a labor of love, so I teach whenever asked. I see that as an investment in the future. Finding how to connect classrooms to careers by working with disadvantage youth in finding ways to get the necessary skills to find living wage IT jobs. The last area really is a focus on women in the field. I personally am not OK with being the ONLY WOMEN AT THE TABLE. Although I am comfortable there, it is something that I have defined as a lifetime mission — to help as many women as possible to gain interest in STEM opportunities and to join me at the table. A diverse workforce delivers amazing results and as a women leader in the field, it is critical that I do what I can to reach out and find ways to inspire others to engage.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Find your inner voice. As women we can understand environments and situations at a different level. Make sure to nurture your inner voice to share what you see. Keep in mind that is not always popular. Not too long ago I shared my observations with a management team where the response was explosive. It was right to bring it up, it was right to not be silenced. It was the right thing for the organization. The management in the room have since apologized however, in reflection I would not hesitate to do it again after seeing what impact it had in changes that are required within the organization.
Always sit at the table. Never sit in other chairs unless you arrive too late to get a seat. But think about that, if you arrive too late to sit at the table, what is that telling you? Arrive early, be at the table, and engage.
Find joy in everything you do. IT work is not always easy or fun. Find a way to enjoy every minute. People regularly ask me what I do for work. My response is that is difficult since I have never worked a day in my career. I enjoy everything I do and continue to look for different ways to create change.
Always be FANTASTIC. IT can be a tough gig. It takes a ton of grit and dedication to create meaningful change. There are times when the tide seems to be tossing you out to sea. Always go in with a FANTASTIC attitude, even if you are a little less than fantastic that day. Positivity breeds positivity. Bring as must positivity and optimism into your environment. There are enough whiners, complainers and folks that are generally just grumpy in the department. Look for ways to convert others to a place where they too are positive and FANSTASTIC
Embrace your strengths and use that as currency always. Often individuals are too modest about talent or knowledge in specific areas. Embrace that special talent and use it often. For example, I have a very specialized talent for researching information, creating models and articulating business cases. For too long I did not use these skills in the work environment. Embracing these skills has created a level of credibility that I did not have with my peers and executive management when I can come in and talk business value, as well as technically about why and when change might be required.
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. 🙂
This goes back to my lifetime goal of creating opportunity and changing lives. My movement is to encourage employers through tax incentives to create REAL Career Development Programs with outcomes — where employers start to invest in employees and offer training, degree programs, certificate programs, and certifications. Lots of organizations talk about it but few, very few really invest in their employees at a meaningful level. $500.00 for college reimbursement annually is honestly not enough to cover books for a 10-week course. Nor is it enough to cover a certification course and testing. Not to mention all the CEUs that are required once certifications have been obtained. Those can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars annually. Over the length of my career very little of my development has been funded by others. Those costs come right out of my personal pocket in most cases and now are not even eligible for a tax deduction. For those women who want to make a switch or want to investigate STEM, there are very few financial programs that are public knowledge. My current boss believes in enabling individuals, so my development is now covered in my goals and objectives. That has not been the case throughout my career and the additional educational endeavors continue to be self-funded.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Dance like no one is watching, sing like no one is listening and live each day like it’s your last. Wake up every day with the focus to make a difference every day. Go after everything you do with purpose. It will change your life and all the others you touch.
Some of the biggest 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 🙂
There are so many powerful women out there that this is a difficult question. Condoleezza Rice is the person that I would like to have lunch with. After years of serving our country as often the only woman at the table she now continues to serve others through teaching and sharing her experiences with students. In her book, No Higher Honor, she shares some very personal experiences that I believe that I could learn from and improve how to deal with adversity, criticism while continuing to excel.
Within the technical industry, I think that Alieen Allkins the Corporate Vice President of Customer Service & Support at Microsoft would be my selection for lunch. She has been transforming organizations through service. I would love to understand more about driving business value, inspiring technical talent, and how to drive meaningful change.