Voice of Experience: Stephanie Fohn, CEO, WhiteHat Security

fohnBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

“Really, what I am is an entrepreneur,” said Stephanie Fohn, CEO of WhiteHat Security. “I found out very early on that what I love to do is create something from nothing.”

Fohn is emphatic about her love of entrepreneurship. “I love being an entrepreneur and I feel very strongly about creating – whether creating companies, jobs, or security, which has a positive impact around the world.”

“I would like to see all women become CEOs or COOs,” she said. “The biggest thing is to find something that you love to do – and not everyone can – and stick with it. Don’t give up. It’s so challenging and rewarding.”

Finding Her Passion

After receiving her undergraduate degree in business from the University of Washington, Fohn went to work for Chevron. “Chevron was great in terms of development,” she said. “What I was really interested in was combining IT with business. This was the early 80s, so tech as we know it today didn’t exist,” she explained. So Fohn decided to go back to school – this time earning her MS in Management from MIT.

“At the time I came out of school,” she said, “the big push was venture capital.” Working in VC and investment banking for six years, Fohn said, “I got to see so many things, but it still wasn’t quite right for me.”

She continued, “I didn’t live for the deal. What was really fun for me was digging into those emerging companies and their business models. I was quite good at the numbers, but what was lacking was the creativity.”

Fohn entered the IT security space in the mid ’90s, working with start-ups, first in marketing and business development at Pilot Network Services, then as a Vice President at Tripwire, and then as President and COO at SecurityFocus, which was sold to Symantec in 2002. In 2004, Fohn became CEO of WhiteHat.

“What I learned is that I have the attention span of a gnat,” she joked. “It’s why I love being in a young company – there’s something new every day.” WhiteHat, which specializes in Web application security, has grown from a team of eight to a team of 70 in the time Fohn has been with the company. “There might be larger companies in the space, but we’re the company to beat,” she said. “Obviously this is a team effort. We’re really proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

“Security has always been important,” Fohn continued. But until recently most companies didn’t realize how vulnerable their Web applications were. “The Google Web app attack raised awareness of the issue. People realized how wide open and insecure so many websites are,” she explained, citing a 2009 WebSense study [PDF]. The study revealed that “61 percent of the top 100 sites either hosted malicious content or contained a masked redirect to lure unsuspecting victims from legitimate sites to malicious sites.”

“More attention needs to be paid to website security,” she said. “And the industry is starting to recognize it. 80% of attacks happen through web sites. People do not typically attack through the network anymore,” she explained.

“It feels really good to have grown a company that makes a difference,” she said.

Challenges to Women Entrepreneurs and Women in the Security Industry

“One of the challenges women entrepreneurs face, particularly in technology, is the ability to raise venture funding. Women entrepreneurs still receive only a small percentage of the total venture funding dollars.  I believe this is partly due to the perception on the part of Venture Capitalists. In the past, and this is changing, the image of a successful entrepreneur was either someone who was very technical or the consummate “salesman.”  People who fit that mold were more likely to be perceived as credible, and thus, more likely to be funded.  Women don’t necessarily fit this narrow image.  But I think this is beginning to change as more women are getting funded and their companies are successful.  The perception of what constitutes a successful technology entrepreneur is evolving.”

Fohn also sees women achieving higher ranks in the security industry. “In the past people grew up from the tech side – mostly men. But this is starting to change. People are starting to recognize that security is at the cross section of a number of different functions: IT, development, business, privacy, risk management. Women are particularly good at bringing people from different organizations and perspectives together to help them understand and agree on common goals.  Women tend to have the ability to take technical ideas and issues and translate them into business concepts that senior management can understand. And because of this,” she says, “more and more women are taking on senior roles in security.”

Work/Life Balance Advice – Make it Work

“Being a start-up CEO is more than a full time job. There’s no such thing as a balance that’s satisfactory, but you can make it work. I gave birth to twins three years ago while I was a CEO,” Fohn said. “And I made it work.”

“Having children for me is something that brought a new dimension to my life. Before I was very mono-dimensional, but my life has been enriched. And my company has continued to thrive.”

She continued, “I think it’s tough and I can only speak from personal experience, but having kids later allowed us to have the financial security we wanted. And I have a very supportive husband. Early on you’re always torn about whether you are spending enough time with your kids, and second-guessing your decision to continue working full-time. And my mom gave me the best advice and said ‘the most important thing is to be true to yourself and who you are. If being an entrepreneur brings you joy, stay with that. You want your children to see you happy and strong, and living your own life.’ And she told me very strongly to continue.”

Also, she said, “don’t be afraid to ask for help. As long as you are good at what you do, companies today are going a long way to make compromises.”

Besides running a company and raising twins, Fohn manages to find time for travel and sports. “I also like working with other women entrepreneurs to give advice and guidance.” Fohn also serves on boards and advisory boards, and is an active member of Astia, an organization that builds women leaders and works to advance the funding and growth of women-led startups.

Inspiration and Advice: Go For It

“One person who has helped me out tremendously is John Dean, Chairman of the Board of WhiteHat. And at a distance, Pat Woertz, Chairman, CEO, and President of Archer Daniels Midland. I worked for her at Chevron early in my career. Now I see her success, and that makes me proud. She’s an exceptional person, though I worked for her only a short time.”

As far as career advice, Fohn says, “The most important thing I wish I had been better at during the beginning of my career was managing up and communicating up,” Fohn said. “Early on, I thought that if I just did a good job and kept my head down… But we know this is obviously not the case. Manage up well and speak up for yourself. No one is going to do it for you – not just about raises, but promotions as well.”

She continued, “Communicate up the chain who you are, what you’ve accomplished, and that you’re excited about the organization. Build relationships.”

For women with entrepreneurial aspirations she said, “Many people are afraid to take the step into entrepreneurship because they don’t have experience in every aspect of running a company. It is important to remember that most entrepreneurs are doing something they’ve never done before. Don’t be afraid to go for it.”

She continued, “I want everyone who’s ever thought about having their own company or being their own boss to become an entrepreneur or small business owner. It’s so challenging and rewarding.”