What Does a Legacy Look Like?
What will your legacy will be? The word legacy gets thrown around a lot. Almost so much that I wonder if the meaning has become diluted, an abstract good idea to think about in the future. Or, something so intangible, because it is supposed to be so great and moving (like the naming of a bridge, library, or hospital) that it seems worthless to pursue at a more individual level. But I think it is more than that. I believe that it is real and tangible and personal. After interviewing more than 40 people who have left legacies, I’ve learned that legacies come in many different forms. Some of the less obvious legacies, the ones that just seem to come through a natural form of giving, are the most impactful and long lasting. The legacy I’m sharing is about a woman who probably never would have thought she’d leave a legacy, but hers is deep, meaningful, and has made changes in our world and in many people.
Becky wasn’t born with a silver spoon any where near her mouth. She was one of seven children born and raised in the deep South to a long haul trucker and his Japanese war bride. Her family was loving, but it wasn’t an easy life. Becky never really felt like she belonged. Becky told me when she met someone new, they thought she was “the help” and should be speaking Pigeon English. It was implied that they thought she wasn’t bright even before she opened her mouth to speak. This bothered Becky. A lot. Partly because she was extremely smart, and took pride in this aspect of her self that was often overlooked or undervalued. Complicating matters, she had epilepsy, and her neurologists suggested she stay home and collect disability after high school. This wasn’t something she looked forward to, but wasn’t unexpected during the 1970’s either. Women who wanted a career who lived in her town went to school to become nurses and teachers and then came back home to work. Her natural affinity for math and science didn’t fit with societal expectations. She told me it was nearly unthinkable for her to even consider leaving town to pursue a degree in engineering. This was without the additional road blocks her disability and lack of finances added to any plan for an education. Fortunately, a close friend of the family noticed Becky’s intelligence and academic potential and stepped in as her first mentor. Her mentor guided her, helped her fill out forms, flooded her with enthusiasm, and let her believe the impossible was possible. With newfound confidence, Becky disregarded the advice of her physicians to collect disability, disregarded societal norms, left home with a scholarship in hand, and entered the Engineering department (the only woman) at the University of Alabama. This was a good beginning, but it wasn’t a happy ending. It wasn’t easy being the only woman in the department. It was lonely and frustrating and she didn’t have a mentor or guide to help her through the process.
It wasn’t until she got hired by the National Security Agency (NSA) a few years after graduation that she was appreciated. She was again, the only woman, but this time her boss believed in her, mentored her, and allowed her to exercise her mind and ideas. Becky took off. She was a pioneer in the field of intrusion detection and while tenured at the NSA, she created the Computer Misuse and Anomaly Detection program and her crucial work with the Department of Defense led to the arrest of the 1990’s high profile hacker, Kevin Mitnick.
Becky was at the top of her field, but her personal life was tragic. She suffered the devastating loss of her only son to cancer. The loss was profound. He was her only child and he was her legacy. She couldn’t get far enough away from her life and her loss. Without knowing anyone on the opposite coast of the country, she left the NSA and set up shop in an entirely new field of work: Venture Consulting. She had no idea at the time, that she was actually using this time to set the foundation for a long lasting legacy: this time not with her child, but through mentorship.
If you talk to her mentees or google her name, she is known as the “mama bear”. Her mentoring style is that of a loving maternal figure, like the one she had as a child, and the one she had with her own child. She guided by helping break down walls and barriers that seem insurmountable to her mentees, just like her first mentor did when she told Becky she could pursue an education, leave town, and be the person she wanted to be. Everyone has said she was generous with her time, skills, contacts and knowledge. And, this was my experience when I interviewed her. It was like no one else existed. She was completely focused on our conversation. If I emailed her, regardless of time of day, she responded almost immediately. This is how she was with everyone. She told me her mentees were like her children, and she thought of them in a parental way: she took pride in seeing them succeed, and was there to help them along the way to achieve success. Her mentees were her family and her legacy. She gushed when she talked about their achievements – the same way a parent gushes about their child getting into a good college, or landing a dream job. She fretted over complications they faced and thought about ways to help improve their chances of success. One mentee, David Melnick, said “Over the years, I have watched as Becky mentored many emerging security leaders in our developing profession. She invested generously and selflessly not only in developing others but in connecting these folks together. Whether she’s working with a startup or advising VCs/executives on security strategy, her experience and vast network continues to inspire me…I owe my involvement and leadership in the security profession to Becky, as do countless other current leaders in the profession today.” David aspires to mentor and continue Becky’s legacy.
Becky thought of mentoring as something natural she should do. It wasn’t something that she planned, but something she learned from others, and felt like a natural fit for her life. Mentoring provided a feeling of family, and meaning to her life in the moment, while she was mentoring. But it also gave her a lasting legacy. One that remains now that she is gone.
I received an email out of the blue one day from someone who told me Becky died suddenly. A group of her colleagues from Silicon Valley held a remembrance for her on the West Coast. Those of us who couldn’t make it were plugged in via the internet so we could see the participants live and they could see us on a large screen. Mentorship came up often when describing her. And, I found out that day a Becky Bace Mentorship program was put in place at the University of Alabama. Her legacy thrives and will continue. Becky lives on in the work all of the successful ventures, the innovative work she did, and the people who she loved and cared for. When you work on your computer, Becky’s work helped make it safe from Hackers and others stealing your information. The innovations created by her mentees when she did her VC work continue on. Her values were passed on to countless individuals: help others, promote others to be the best they can, and make a difference in the world regardless of the hurdles you may face. Becky’s legacy is a glowing light in every person who was mentored by her. Becky’s legacy has made her symbolically immortal.