There is no such thing as over-communication. When I stepped into the CEO role, I realized that, to keep all departments aligned, I had to communicate the near- and long-term priorities and company vision many times, in many ways, over and over (written, verbal, in person, on calls). I felt like I was repeating myself all the time, but for an engineer in the company focused on one piece of the product, it’s easy to forget how what you are doing fits into the big picture. And that’s a key role of leadership: to clearly and regularly communicate what we are doing and why to keep everyone rowing in the same direction.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Frances Dewing. Frances is the CEO and co-founder of Rubica. Since the company’s inception, Frances built and directed Rubica’s core operations teams, including cyber operations, customer support, finance, legal and human resources. Formerly COO of Concentric Advisors, a consultancy specializing in cyber and physical security for some of the world’s most high-profile figures, Frances was instrumental in developing Concentric’s business in Seattle and Silicon Valley. Frances is a Washington State attorney with a JD from the University of Washington.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve had a very nonlinear career path. I was practicing law as a public interest attorney, providing free legal aid to marginalized low-income populations. I took an in-house legal position with a private security firm (Concentric Advisors) thinking it would be a temporary detour from my public service career — you know, make some money to pay off my law school loans and get back to the mission! But I loved the security business, had a knack for it, and stayed.
As Concentric grew, I held a number of different positions in the company and ended up as Chief Operating Officer, where I pioneered the creation of our cybersecurity service for our most high-profile and high-net-worth clients (think of former Presidents and Fortune 500 CEOs). These years of experience translating security jargon into meaningful terms and actions for external decision-makers, and earning the trust of our most elite clients, gave me unique insight into how the cybersecurity industry was currently failing the individual consumer. People deserved more. This led me to want to build cybersecurity into people’s everyday lives, practically and unobtrusively.
That’s how I got into security initially, and cybersecurity ultimately. I’m now the CEO of an industry-changing cybersecurity startup called Rubica.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Working in the rarified world of protecting high-profile individuals and celebrities means my most interesting stories are confidential. But, in general, what’s most interesting to me are the customer stories about what happened in their life to cause them to be concerned about their cybersecurity and seek out Rubica’s services. I get weekly calls from prospective clients who have lost over $1M of personal money in fraudulent wire transfers, who had their phones compromised and their contacts and emails exfiltrated overseas, etc. It’s our job to help put their lives back together and make them more secure so it doesn’t happen again. Never a dull day in 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?
Rubica was my first experience raising venture capital, and I was naïve about a lot of things. I over-estimated the importance of the pitch deck and underestimated the value of casual coffees and developing relationships outside the business pitch. People need to know you, not just your business plan. I’ve learned the human element of fundraising is so important.
One of the funniest things was navigating the world of Silicon Valley during our seed funding efforts. The spectrum of meetings ranged from super formal presentations in high-rise office buildings to meetings in private homes with dogs and kids running around. We literally negotiated one deal over text message, with acronyms and emoticons. Can’t make this stuff up!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Rubica is the only cybersecurity solution on the market that is powerful enough to protect a world-class corporation but designed specifically to provide security and privacy for individuals and families. Our mission is to empower individuals to take back control of their digital life.
We enable people to make informed decisions about their own security and privacy by providing them with both the tools and support needed to interact securely online. Traditional consumer security tools (like antivirus and identity theft monitoring) aren’t effective anymore given the increase and sophistication of cyber threats targeting everyday people.
The thing that always hits me is how emotionally and psychologically traumatic a cyber incident is for people. Having your email hacked, your family photos ransomed or deleted, or losing control of your computer is as impactful as having your home physically burgled. It makes you distrust technology and feel unsafe using anything online.
I remember being on the phone with one client who was afraid to turn on or use anything internet-connected in his home because he was so paranoid about being compromised again. He would only make phone calls from a landline and was totally disconnected from email and everything online, until we were able to illuminate the practical ways to stay safe online and provide him that safety net of protection.
We believe being secure online is an individual right, and we want to democratize the availability of true cybersecurity to all people. Where there is fear and uncertainty, our Rubica team is here to bring peace of mind and the confidence to engage actively and fully with your digital world.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We just conducted an illuminating study on free mobile apps marketed to kids, and the privacy and security issues in them. Kids are often overlooked by the cybersecurity industry, but they are huge targets for cybercriminals. Hackers look for weak links to exploit, and because kids naively click on everything and are susceptible to influence and suggestion it makes them vulnerable nodes for their families. Cybercriminals target children as an entry point into their parents’ devices and accounts by infecting devices shared between family members.
And when kids are downloading and playing games on their parent’s phone or iPad, this opens up another layer of security risk. Free games, even ones marketed to young kids, contain ads that are not only deceptive and inappropriate, but which present serious device infection and privacy invasion issues — such as apps with the ability to send emails without your knowledge, read your contacts, track your precise GPS location, access your browsing history, etc.
As part of our commitment and mission to keep families safe and better informed, each quarter Rubica will be publishing a list of safe and unsafe apps for kids, with tips for what to watch for as a parent. As a parent myself, I believe that teaching “cyber street smarts” to our kids is part of our responsibility as parents raising kids in the digital age. Digital safety is now just as important as physical safety, considering our physical and digital identities have become inextricably linked.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
For teams to thrive, you need to build an environment of trust. When teams trust each other on a fundamental level, they feel comfortable being vulnerable with each other about weaknesses, mistakes, fears, and behaviors. If everyone can be completely open with one another, without filters, and unafraid to engage in passionate dialogue in order to seek the best result, that’s where great ideas and solutions are born. Lead by example here and admit your faults. Admit you when you don’t know the answer, and look to your team to help problem-solve with you. That’s empowering for the team.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
As teams get large, it’s important to not directly manage too many people. People leave or stay at jobs based on their experience and relationship with their direct manager. Each manager needs to be able to give individual attention to each of the direct reports to understand their strengths and weakness, where they shine and where they are struggling, in order to put them in the right role and give them the right resources, direction, and support to succeed. People are your greatest investment of capital and greatest asset — don’t miss the chance to develop that unique potential in each of them. Therefore, having good managers and team leads is critical.
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?
Roderick Jones, Founder and President of Rubica. Before we created Rubica together, Roderick was CEO of Concentric and within a few months of my joining Concentric to do legal and contract work, Roderick pulled me aside and asked me to lead the finance department. I had no formal training in accounting or finance, but Roderick recognized my managerial and organizational skills and ability to learn on the job. We had bookkeepers and accountants but needed an interim person to oversee and direct those operations while we looked for a permanent Director of Finance. I ran finance for almost a year and that role helped me pivot into other roles within Concentric and ultimately landed me in the Chief Operating Officer role. Without those opportunities to explore and apply my varying abilities on the job, I probably would have stayed in the legal field. I’m much better suited for cybersecurity and business-building, so I’m grateful!
I’m a true believer in experiential, on-the-job skills, and have found that it’s my transferrable skills (more so than any subject matter expertise) that have allowed me to succeed in all the roles I’ve held over the years, and in leadership. Roderick is the type of leader that recognizes the potential in people outside the confines of a resume. He gives them opportunity, even if it means sharing his own power. Roderick leads with the level of confidence and lack of ego that every leader should emulate, and he has been an amazing advocate and mentor to me.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m a public servant at heart, and whatever I do has to link back to bettering the world in some way. As the CEO of a high-growth tech startup in the expanding field of cybersecurity, I believe I have a responsibility to use Rubica as a platform for broader change and social good.
Rubica is in a position to not only help bring another level of safety and privacy to consumers, but to be a role model for a better way to build a business. We are building our company with diversity, inclusion, and equity at its core, showcasing how diversity at all levels of the company produces better outcomes and better innovation. Frankly, diversity makes good business sense, as does building a company culture where everyone feels heard, and valued, and where they can challenge the status quo and offer a different perspective without backlash.
As a female founder and leader in a white-male industry, I also believe it’s my duty to share my small slice of privilege and power with other women. I speak and post frequently on the topic of race and gender and women in leadership, and where ever possible I open up my network to other women. The power of a warm introduction and vouching for someone can’t be undervalued! If I have a platform and a microphone, I’m not going to squander the chance to say the things that need to be said, amplify other voices, and hand the mic over to them.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- There is no such thing as over-communication. When I stepped into the CEO role, I realized that, to keep all departments aligned, I had to communicate the near- and long-term priorities and company vision many times, in many ways, over and over (written, verbal, in person, on calls). I felt like I was repeating myself all the time, but for an engineer in the company focused on one piece of the product, it’s easy to forget how what you are doing fits into the big picture. And that’s a key role of leadership: to clearly and regularly communicate what we are doing and why to keep everyone rowing in the same direction.
- Be genuine and transparent. When we just starting out, I had to convince some really smart, capable people to leave big companies and high-paying jobs to help us build Rubica and make the vision a reality. That requires a leap of faith and trust in me and our leadership team. Being genuine and honest and transparent helps earn and keep that trust. My team knows that we are in this together, that I will not abandon them or leave them in the dark, and we win and lose together.
- Don’t avoid the hard conversations. I learned early on in my career — both in HR and management of internal staff, and in managing client satisfaction — that being forthright and setting clear expectations can save you a lot of headache down the road. If you have to deliver a hard message, like letting someone go, it’s better not to sugar coat it. Be empathetic but be direct and clear. If an employee is underperforming, address it early and often. They need to know what’s expected, where they are falling down, and receive guidance on what they can do to improve. If you are falling short on a deliverable for a client, own it, apologize and figure out how to fix it or make amends. Being vague or noncommittal leads to miscommunication and misaligned expectations.
- Ask your employees to give you honest reviews. It’s hard to know if you are doing a good job, unless you ask. Perception within the company is just as important as the hard number metrics. I make it a habit to set up a method for all employees to anonymously review me, as CEO, and the rest of the leadership team. Do we treat employees fairly? Do we motivate and inspire? Are they confident in our ability to lead? Do we exemplify the company values in our actions? Do we provide clarity and direction for the organization? We internally publish the results of these surveys so the leadership team can be held accountable to taking action and improving where needed.
- Hire people that aren’t like you. Being the leader doesn’t mean you have all the answers, and it doesn’t mean you are the most knowledgeable or best in every area. Be comfortable with this and open about this. Focus on surrounding yourself with smart people that fill in your weaknesses. Surround yourself with people better than you in some way. Putting aside personal ego will allow you to build a winning team.
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. 🙂
If we want to bridge the wealth gap in America and solve the race-based inequities in our country, we need women of color in positions of power and leadership. That alone would have trickle down effects to solve a host of economic and political disparities for generations.
Our country has a problem with race that’s never been adequately addressed. One way to short-circuit this and see rapid social change is to have women of color in the C-suite of the largest companies, making investment decisions for the deepest pocket investors, and leading at the highest level of government and private sector.
My dream is to ask a room full of children to draw a picture of a leader, and to watch each of them draw a black woman.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Fake it ’til you make it” — To me, this quote is about self-confidence and bravery and willingness to take personal risks. The majority of women won’t apply for a job unless they meet 100% of the qualifications, and most of us are waiting for someone to tell us we are good enough, rather than just believing we are. Imposter syndrome and self-doubt are common. As girls and women, society imbues us with this idea that we need to be perfect, over-prepared, overqualified, before we take on a challenge or a position. Wait for someone to validate our abilities, rather than taking a risk and possibly fail. But taking risks is a required part of life. It’s a life skill.
When I was thrown into the finance role at Concentric, early on in my career, that was a turning point. I could have backed away, feeling unprepared and unqualified, but I seized the opportunity and took a chance when someone was willing to take a chance on me. Throughout my time at Concentric, I pivoted into various security and business roles, and finally ended up as Chief Operations Officer. Because I was instrumental in developing our cybersecurity offering and operations at Concentric, I was uniquely positioned to cofound a new cybersecurity company — Rubica — and the rest is history.
What I tell people, and try to remember myself, is: It’s not about what you’ve done, it’s about what you can do. You are more capable than you think you are.
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 🙂
Jay-Z and Beyoncé, for sure. The way they brilliantly leveraged their brand and success as artists into becoming business moguls spanning multiple industries, against all the odds and while continually being underestimated…talk about an example of business acumen, grit and intelligence! I respect them and what they’ve built and would love to hear their off-the-record insights and story!