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Theresa Payton: From IU to the White House to Crusader of the Year

Theresa Payton

Congratulations to Theresa Major Payton ’89 for being named Cybersecurity Crusader of the Year.

If you were to conduct a master class on how to position yourself as an expert within your industry, Theresa Major Payton ’89 would be your woman. In the male-dominated field of cybersecurity, she has had to fight for recognition of her accomplishments. However, when she feels underestimated by her peers, she remembers her father’s encouraging words: “Being underestimated is a secret weapon. You get to work in stealth mode, and they’ll never see you coming.”

Her father was right. Payton’s ascension to the top of her profession was something that even she could not have imagined as a student at Immaculata in the late 1980s. While pursuing a double major in economics and business, Payton completed a computer certification program that helped her recognize that technology is built for a process rather than for the people who use it. She has since determined that complex systems that rely on extensive training may make a non-techie person shy away from complicated security measures that companies spend big money to implement.

“I wanted to leverage my passion for the business world while also creating system designs that were simple and elegant to use,” says Payton. She would have an opportunity to test her assumptions on one of the biggest stages in the world: the White House.

As the first woman to serve as White House Chief Information Officer, Payton oversaw IT operations for President George W. Bush from 2006 to 2008, supporting the 3,000 staff members that served the Executive Office of the President. During her tenure, cyber security threats grew in volume and complexity so she and her team improved the data center operations and implemented an enhanced information assurance and secu­rity plan.

Payton’s invitation to apply for the prestigious CIO position at the White House was a direct result of her successful career implementing innovative technology solutions while mitigating cyber security risks and measures within the financial services industry, notably at Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

You may be wondering how someone from Immaculata, a small Catholic university in suburban Pennsylvania, became a leading technology expert. Payton explains that Immaculata reinforced everything she needed to become successful: practice your faith, ethical, follow through on promises and don’t let others speak for you or over you!

“Immaculata is the perfect place to grow academically and personally. It gave me a sound foundation for intellectual growth, the beginning of lifelong adult learning, a firmer grounding in my faith and a set of lifelong friends,” Payton comments.

Gaining a solid foundation in liberal arts and exposure to leadership roles at Immaculata, Payton thrived at the University of Virginia, where she earned a M.S. in management information systems. Payton continued her education, receiving a graduate certificate in banking from The Graduate Banking School of the South at Louisiana State University.

With this core foundation and a desire to help people secure their private information and identity, Payton founded Fortalice Solutions, LLC, in North Carolina. As president and CEO, she has led the company to become a leading national security company, employing 30, including a small team in Europe. For Payton, no matter how large or complex a problem seems, at the crux of every solution is the end-user.

“Our focus is on human-centered design,” she explains. “For every solution we work on, we first ask, ‘What does the human need in this scenario?’ before we move to a technical design.”

With this in mind, Payton recently gained approval for a new patent for a system that anonymously detects and blocks threats within a telecommunications network. Her goal for the new system is to provide people intelligence in real time that blocks threats, but is very easy for users to share. Throughout Payton’s career, she witnesses that information sharing typically only happens if there is trust. With her patent, she will be able to document how to design a system that can be fed information and intelligence from any source, and not put the onus on the person or organization sharing the information to anonymize their inputted data.

As you can see, Payton is passionate about her career. She regularly conducts media interviews for TV, radio and print regarding cybersecurity issues. In addition, she is the co-author of two books on how to protect privacy online. Her third book, Manipulated: Inside the Cyberwar to Hijack Elections and Distort the Truth, recently hit the #1 Hottest New Book listing on Amazon’s elections and politics category.

No matter how much notoriety Payton earns, she will always empathize with people and companies who are victims of hackers. “When you stop a hacker from stealing someone’s identity, you’ve made a difference in someone’s life or business,” she says. “At the end of the day, victims of hackers are people.”

Recently, Payton has noticed an increase in female cybersecurity professionals. At Fortalice, the ratio of men to women employees is nearly equal. Although Payton is an advocate for women in STEM fields, she acknowledges that the technology industries, especially cybersecurity, need to do a better job of attracting women to the profession.

There is no doubt that Payton had plenty of female role models as a student at Immaculata University. She is now dedicated to supporting others who wish to pursue cybersecurity as a career, including her son who is a freshman at Immaculata – majoring in cybersecurity!

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