As the daughter of a Vietnam veteran and a college literature professor – both of whom later served in senior positions in government – Jen Easterly was taught the importance of public service at an early age. She knew she wanted to become an officer in the U.S. Army, but when she arrived at West Point for summer training, she wasn’t quite prepared for everything in store.
“West Point was an intense, and at times, very difficult experience, particularly as a woman; we were only about 10% of the total population,” Jen explained. Nevertheless, she found her experience at West Point to be invaluable. “It taught me a huge amount about myself and how to deal with adversity: the importance of believing in yourself; of facing up to and overcoming your fears.” After successfully becoming a U.S. Army officer, Jen later discovered a new challenge to take on: how to use technology to serve and protect her country.
Fighting Terrorism with Tech
Jen was assigned as an Army officer to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, where she surrounded by a lot of sophisticated technology. “NSA has a long and legendary history of making and breaking codes, and is home to some of the most brilliant technologists in the world,” she said. “Working with many of them was an incredible hands-on education in the world of tech and its power to do good.”
In 2007, the NSA deployed Jen to Iraq to support the war, where she was able to put her new knowledge of tech to use. She and her team operationalized the Real Time Regional Gateway (RTRG), a new system which analyzed large amounts of cyber-related data. The RTRG used data such as satellite imagery and information gathered from raids to detect and disrupt terrorist networks. Although it was certainly challenging to implement this new system (particularly in the middle of a combat zone), the RTRG successfully helped take thousands of insurgents off the battlefield and saved many lives.
“The experience reinforced my own belief in the fundamental power of imagination in leveraging technology to solve some of our toughest problems, particularly in the security realm,” Jen stated. “It sparked my great passion for technology and cybersecurity.”
Helping Hostages and Combating Cyber Threats
In 2014, Jen got the chance to use her experience in the Army to help save even more lives. “Following the brutal murders of courageous journalists and humanitarian aid workers by ISIS,” she explained, “President Obama asked us to take a hard look at our hostage policy.” Working with the U.S. government, foreign partners, families of hostages, and former hostages themselves, Jen was able to help create new structures such as the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell and the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.
“It has made a tangible difference in the ability to better coordinate U.S. hostage recovery efforts,” Jen said. “And, most importantly, it contributed significantly to the safe return home of dozens of American hostages.” For her work, Jen was recently awarded the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation’s American Hostage Freedom Award.
It was Jen’s interest in cybersecurity, however, that led her to join Morgan Stanley in 2017. “I believe,” she stated, “that ensuring the security and resilience of our nation’s critical infrastructure is a hugely important challenge in this increasingly dynamic cyber threat environment.” As Managing Director of Morgan Stanley and Global Head of its Cybersecurity Fusion Center, Jen is responsible for assessing, detecting, and responding to cyber threats, vulnerabilities, and incidents that threaten Morgan Stanley and its clients. “Put simply,” she explained, “we protect and defend the firm from a range of cyber-threat actors, from nation-states to cybercriminals, from hacktivists to insiders. Every day in this field is incredibly interesting, and not a day goes by when I don’t learn something new.”
“One Wild and Precious Life”
2019 will mark Jen’s first time attending Grace Hopper Celebration, where she will be a featured speaker. Not only is she excited to be a part of this event, but she also recognizes how important this opportunity is.
“Having spent a significant portion of my career in a field where women were a distinct minority,” she said, “I believe strongly in doing everything I can as a senior leader to help widen the path for women to succeed in this field, and frankly in any field they choose.”
When asked what advice she had for other women, she provided a line from the poem The Summer Day, by the award-winning poet Mary Oliver:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
“The poem and the question in particular remind me of the importance of living life with intention and purpose,” Jen said, “and making the most of every single day to positively impact the world and the lives of others.
“After all,” she added, “in the words of the great Mae West, ‘You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.’”
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