Women in Security: Linda Ziemba

Founding CEO of AeroDefense finds calling in technology
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Monday, December 9, 2019

Linda Ziemba remembers it well. It was 2004 and she was working in sales. She had just cold-called the VP of sales for a web security company, who told her about his company’s internet browser security product. “Wow, this is really big and important because the internet is going to affect EVERYTHING we do,” Ziemba thought to herself, as he spoke. The conversation resulted in Ziemba getting hired, essentially on the spot, and the moment she entered the security industry.

Fast forward to 2015, “I saw drones interfere with California firefighters, crash-land in front of Angela Merkel and end up in the stands of the U.S. Tennis Open,” Ziemba remembered. She once again thought to herself: “Why not use internet security techniques against these flying computers to enhance privacy safety and security?”

Her thought bubble soon disappeared with the founding of AeroDefense, provider of solutions to detect drones and pilots at correctional facilities, stadiums, critical infrastructure and other high-value targets, during that same year.

“Today many of us can recognize how the internet changed our lives, but just wait until you see how drones will be revolutionary in a similar way,” Ziemba explained. “The younger generation cannot imagine how people like me grew up without cell phones and the internet. Their children will look at them [drones] with the same wonder of how their parents grew up without drone deliveries, rescues, inspections and many yet un-imagined fantastic things.”

Certainly, as with most technology, there is, however, a dark side. Ziemba noted that drone-borne attacks are a significant national security concern. “It’s very rewarding to work in an emerging technology area where I can have a significant impact on creating a safer environment.”

Ziemba grew up in the late 1960s and early 70s during a time she said women didn’t generally have many professional opportunities. Fortunately for Ziemba, she had strong women within her family in which to pattern her life.

“My Aunt Evelyn, the first female store manager in the country for Sears, and my grandmother, a bookkeeper for a lumberyard, instilled in me a mindset that women can do anything they put their minds to, so I never really felt limited.”

As Ziemba transitioned into her professional year, she had the “great pleasure to work with Patricia Russo, who became CEO of Lucent Technologies,” learning about leadership.

With at least three strong women influencing her, Ziemba said that even to this day, at trade shows, sometimes men will speak to her male co-worker and ignore her. “I encourage my employees to lead conversations, but it still stings a little to be ignored as if I have nothing to add to the conversation,” Ziemba said. But, in the end, “it’s nice to get the last laugh when the guy who put his arm around me and called me ‘dear’ figures out I founded and own the company, referring to AeroDefense.” Ziemba added that any woman from her era has a few ‘me too’ stories, but she simply plays it all off as “temporary lapses in judgement with no harm done” as she feels lucky that there haven’t been any interactions that could not be dismissed as such.
 
Even with some glitches that have occurred, Ziemba said that we [as a country] have come a long way to become more inclusive of women. “I realized when I was old enough to vote, a right I completely took for granted, that women had only been allowed to vote for 50 years,” she explained. “Shortly before I started working, discrimination against pregnant women was not considered a form of sex discrimination because women could choose whether to become pregnant. Thank you, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for making it illegal for employers to treat pregnant women any differently from other temporarily disabled people!”

As a hiring CEO at a tech company who has also worked at security companies, Ziemba sees how far we still have to go, especially in the technology and security industries.

“The ratio of male to female applicants in the technical fields is at least 10:1,” she estimated. “Many women focus on softer skilled careers that generally offer lower compensation” and in response to this, “I hope one day to form a program to expose young girls and boys, particularly from non-privileged backgrounds, to technology and open their minds to possible technical career paths.”

She defined her greatest challenge working in the drone security industry in one word: regulatory. “I spent many a sleepless night trying to navigate the very undefined, complex regulatory environment around Radio Frequency (RF)-based drone detection and mitigation,” she reminisced. “What seemed in the beginning to be an ‘ethical hack’ to protect people from malicious drones and their operators turned out to violate FAA, FCC and DOJ regulations with penalties of jail time and financial ruin-level fines for me.”

But, Ziemba didn’t give up; instead she pressed forward to fully understand the regulatory landscape and refocused her company’s product from a mitigation system to a system that had no mitigation capability to affect the flight of a drone (FAA); did not interview with someone else’s radio network (FCC) or demodulate or decode a private communication (DOJ).

“Today, I am extremely proud of the team that delivered the first, and so far, only drone detection system awarded by the Department of Homeland Security’s SAFETY Act Developmental Testing & Evaluation (DT&E) designation,” Ziemba said. “U.S. Congress created the SAFETY Act in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks to encourage the creation and use of Qualified Anti-Terrorism Technologies (OATTs) and provide liability protections to their sellers and end users.”

She is also excited that NYC Comptroller, Scott Stringer, proposed a call on companies to include gender and racial/ethnic diversity as they interview for open CEO and board positions. “This represents the first time a large institutional investor has called for this structural reform for both new board of directors and CEOs,” she said.

Ziemba leaves other women who are thinking about getting into the industry or just starting out in security with these thoughts: “Get technical; set up your own lab. Seek a mentor. Most of all, be curious and ask a lot of thoughtful questions.”