Conversation with Theresa Payton, President, and CEO, Fortalice Solutions
Creating a Business to Fight Evil in the World
April 18, 2018
1. What is your business?
I’m the chief executive officer and co-founder of Fortalice Solutions. We are a cybersecurity and intelligence firm that protects people, businesses, and nations from the world’s greatest adversaries.
We work with both the government on classified contracts and with private companies. With private sector businesses, our relationship can be proactive, where the company wants to get ahead of a cyber incident, or reactive, if a company needs incident response and forensics work relating to a data breach or investigate a potential breach.
We work with everyone from big Fortune 500 companies to small and mid-size companies. For the small to medium-sized businesses, we’ve created a framework where they can afford our advice and services. Many times these smaller businesses don’t get access to the cutting edge technology due to cost. But this is something that we feel passionately about, so we work within their budget to provide solutions.
We also help individuals, whether it’s proactively making sure they’ve got a healthy and safe digital life because they’re getting ready to run for political office, they won the lottery or they’re in the public eye for some reason. In addition, we help victims of human trafficking, cyberstalking, and revenge porn.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
I started my career in the financial services industry and was fortunate enough to be involved in the creation of cutting-edge technology to fight fraud and cybercrime. Oftentimes if you’re on the leading edge of creating these alternative service deliveries, whether it is the internet, web-enabled ATM or the phone channel, you end up being on the leading edge of preventing new fraud schemes, money laundering, and terrorist financing. That experience led to my appointment as the first female Chief Information Officer at the White House under President George W. Bush.
As a faith-based person, I wanted to take what I had learned in the financial services industry and at the White House and create a security and intelligence company that offered cutting-edge technology and innovative intelligence operations. I wanted to create the kind of company that I always wished was out there supporting me, and I could never find: the best technology but with a white glove approach. It’s resonating with our clients because we hear all the time, “We’ve hired other well-known names, but we haven’t been taken care of in this way before.”
3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?
It’s interesting because I was pregnant with my third child, my little girl, when I was leaving the Bush administration and starting to think about it. Without the support of my family, I wouldn’t have even considered taking a leap to start my own business. My family is a long line of US military and law enforcement, but we don’t have entrepreneurs in our family. But they all encouraged me to create the business that I thought needed to be created to fight the evil in the world. I sat down with my business partner, Vince Crisler, who was my CISO (Chief Information Security Officer) at the White House, to map it out. We knew that together we could create a unique company.
4. What obstacles did you face in getting started and thinking of yourself as an expert in a new setting?
Candidly, the hard part is asking for money for the work. I know that sounds really strange, but I’ve been used to being focused on doing the right thing and not asking people to pay me. I never had to put a price tag on my time before. I would encourage anybody reading this interview to find people you trust and run ideas by them and don’t be afraid to tell people, “I don’t know what I don’t know.”
I actually had a client say to me very early on, “You don’t charge nearly enough for your services.” After the first project was done he said, “Next time, what I’d like you to do is add a percent X on top of the price. You’ll be getting closer to what you’re really worth.” I have also found that asking for feedback about my weak spots or blind spots in invaluable. People want to help you be successful.
5. Was there ever a particularly tough time that in retrospect was a priceless learning moment?
Yes, understanding – really understanding– how to value my time is important for me. I have made an effort to really analyze travel. If someone is asking me to go on the road and spend time away from my family, do I really need to go? Could I send somebody else? Could I do this via video conference? And what are the tradeoffs? What am I giving up for going on the road and what’s the return on investment?
And it’s not just a money thing. When I first started at the White House, I had a mentor say to me, “Theresa, I know you’re going to go all-in in serving the country, and I couldn’t be more proud of you. However, what gets measured gets done, and you’ve got to make sure you have a compass to hold yourself accountable to how you spend your time.” And so, I actually created a system that I still use today called my five Fs.
My five Fs are Faith, Family, Friends, Fellowship and then your fifth one is what are you fighting for. And so, for me, I’m fighting to protect people, businesses, our country and our allies. And I color code my calendar based on those five Fs. And then at the end of the month and the end of the quarter, I look at the calendar, and I can see which color is dominating and whether I need to course correct. I’m a better CEO, I’m a better mother, I’m a better wife, I’m better at the roles that the world needs me to play when I hold myself accountable to the five Fs.
6. Were your family and friends helpful or obstacles in launching your business? How so?
My parents really impressed upon me the call to serve. My great-grandparents, my grandparents, my uncles, my father, even my husband, they were all in the US military, and so that call to serve for others is pretty strong. My parents would say, “To those who have much, much is required.” They’ve really been my role models. I would say candidly they’re my inspiration, and they’re my true heroes. I’m just trying to live up to the lessons that they’ve taught me and pay that forward to others.
7. Were there any partnerships or advice that were particularly helpful?
I would say my husband and my business partner and his wife. We have a family cabinet meeting where we get our two families together twice a year and talk about where we’re headed, where we’re going, lessons learned, what does the family like, what does the family not like? Everyone is all in on this. We also do a Fortalice offsite with all of our employees and their loved ones. These have been particularly helpful and insightful.
8. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?
I’m really proud of my marriage and my kids. Marriage is an incredibly rewarding experience but it is work, it takes work from both sides, and I married absolutely the right person for me. I am really proud of my kids and how they’re thinking about life, what they believe God’s calling them to do, and what their contributions to the world will be.
And then at work, I am proud that in the past couple of years, we’ve doubled in size every year. I am proud to be a part of CBS’ non-scripted reality show, Hunted. Fortalice donates significant time to pro-bono work to combat human trafficking and online childhood sexual exploitation. There are so many victims that I can’t name because they’re all confidential cases, but I am proud that we helped them.
I was honored to receive the FBI’s 2018 Director’s Community Leadership Award (DCLA) for my community service – we work a lot with law enforcement to fight cybercrime. I found out recently that IFSEC puts out a global top cybersecurity professionals and they named me number four.
And the other thing I’m really proud about is in a male-dominated workforce, Fortalice has 44% females. The industry average is 11%. Google and Facebook work really hard on this, and I beat their average. We believe that diversity is a key component to innovative thinking and problem-solving skills so we work really hard to make sure candidates of all backgrounds and personalities are recruited – veterans, minorities, different educational backgrounds etc.
9. What are some of your current challenges?
We can’t hire fast enough! There is a huge demand for cybersecurity professionals, so if you know of anyone looking for a job have them reach out to me on social media – I’m serious! We need EVERYONE to join the fight but we especially need more women and minorities to consider this as a career.
10. What would be your biggest piece of advice you would give to yourself ten years ago?
The first year into growing the business was also my first year as a brand new entrepreneur. If I had to do it over again, I would have taken more risks that first year. I never want to fail anyone counting on me which meant in that first year I often held back on growth to make sure I could fund the company. Additionally, I would have been bolder when communicating our vision.
11. Are you willing to serve as a mentor to others interested in your sector?
Absolutely! I always respond to people who reach out to me on social media for advice and strongly encourage everyone to join Help a Sister Up – HASU. It is a great resource for mentorship in our community not just by me, but by so many other outstanding women in cybersecurity. And their male advocates!
Date of conversation: March 1, 2018
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