As a leader in cybersecurity, Zinet Kemal is paying it forward to the next generation.
Originally from Ethiopia, Kemal moved to the United States in 2013 with her husband and oldest son, who is now 14, due to a diversity visa lottery. She had previously worked in the legal field and had to make a career change when she came to what she deemed as the land of opportunity.
Kemal took this opportunity to nurture her fascination with technology, believing it had the power to improve lives, she told AFROTECH in an interview. She enrolled in a local community college in Saint Paul, MN, and took a computer programming course, which she describes as a “complete reset.”
By 2016, she had earned an associate’s degree at Saint Paul College, a community and technical college, in computer programming and transferred to Metropolitan State University to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science. By her senior year, Kemal had stumbled upon the cybersecurity field by representing her school in a cyber defense competition, and it became clear this was the career path she wanted to pursue.
“I think it was just seeing that interaction of it’s a business simulation case where there would be simulated attacks on that business environment where the blue teamers have to defend against that attack,” She explained. “So it kind of gives me like, ‘Okay, this is one part of it.’ I know that cybersecurity is in all of that, because it’s a very vast and broad industry. But from that point on I knew that maybe I didn’t want to become a programmer like I learned in cyber, in computer science programs. Maybe this is what I want to do. So that’s why, at that point, I have had a lot of scholarship opportunities to pursue security-related certifications.”
Kemal then took on internships and obtain certifications, which helped her land a role as an information security engineer in 2020. She has since changed roles three times and currently works at Best Buy as an associate cloud security engineer, a position she held while obtaining a master’s degree in cybersecurity from Georgia Institute of Technology.
Today, Kemal, a multi-award-winning cyber security practitioner and self-published author, is leveraging her experience in cybersecurity to introduce the youth to the sector and helping to ensure they can remain safe online. She has a book titled, “Oh, No… Hacked Again,” and it was inspired by her children who were hacked while surfing the internet.
In the book, the lead character, Elham, who is 8, is a lover of games but must rely on the safety net of her family to make safe choices. Kemal hopes the read will be helpful for children and parents to protect themselves against online predators.
“My kids got hacked not once, but, I think, two incidents happened during COVID-19, and then one attempt by an online predator… That just opened up my eyes as a parent,” Kemal said. “I work in cybersecurity, but my kids are still getting hacked. I’m telling them to be careful, but what are some of the things that I need to instill in them and other parents on how to protect themselves from online threats?”
She added, “The whole premise of “Oh, No… Hacked Again,” is teaching kids about password security, how to protect themselves from online predators, primarily to establish this open and close relationship with parents, grownups, caregivers, and guardians — that [kids] can feel safe to go back to them whenever they run into issues because these online predators love families that are broken, who don’t talk to their parents, because it easily allows them to isolate them and put them in danger.”
Kemal also wants the book to offer a sense of hopefulness for children, she says. She feels her choice to create diverse characters may embolden them to consider becoming cybersecurity professionals in the future.
In May 2023, she expounded on this theme with her latest book, “See Yourself in Cybersecurity,” after receiving an influx of inquiries from professionals who were interested in cybersecurity but did not know how to approach their entryway.
“The common theme from all of their question is that they didn’t understand that cybersecurity is a very broad term with so many domains within the field,” Kemal shared. “I thought if so many aspiring professionals are having this question, what about our younger generation? So, those questions gave me this idea to say ‘Okay, I’m going to break this down into a language that a middle-schooler and high-schooler would understand and showcase folks who come from different backgrounds, and then show what kinds of roles they could potentially be working in.’ You can’t be what you can’t see, especially within this industry. So, I covered about 14 roles highlighting people from every background working in this industry.”
Kemal hopes she can expand her reach and is actively seeking out schools; the Girls Scouts; and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs.