Women in Digital: Elisabetta Zaccaria

We chat to Elisabetta Zaccaria, founder of Secure Chorus, a not-for-profit membership organisation for digital security by design, through the development of common standards. We talk discrimination, diversity and how to build resilience into a business.

Posted 22 October 2020 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school? 

I started my education in Italy where I attended bilingual schools in Italian and Slovenian for 13 years. I then pursued further studies in Germany, Netherlands and the UK. Studying abroad has provided me with the unique opportunity to immerse myself in the different cultures, which was a hugely enriching educational experience in itself.

What qualifications do you have?

I have a Diploma of Higher Education in Mathematics and Physics, both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Law (LL.B and LL.M) and also a MA in International Relations. I later completed executive education programmes in Corporate Finance, Strategy and Private Equity.

Has your career path been a smooth transition, a rocky road or combination of both?

My career path has been neither; upon reflection I believe the leitmotif of my career to date has been my willingness to step outside my comfort zone and embrace all the challenges that brings. This has resulted in some bold career moves, working in different countries, changing industries and sectors, leading very different types of organisations spanning from start-ups and mid-cap businesses to a not-for-profit institution.

The hardest part throughout my career has been having to break through the barriers of prejudice on many different levels. The number of ‘hardened barnacles that need to be scraped off the ship’ increase as you rise through organisations – especially when applying for top leadership roles.

Perhaps due to the widespread expressions of support for gender diversity over the past years, I have experienced less prejudice due to my gender than my nationality – even though I have dual citizenship. Other examples of prejudices that I have encountered have been where my experience and expertise were deemed more than adequate but the centres of academic excellence I graduated from abroad have not been seen as comparable to the elite schools and universities of the country in which I have applied to work. 

What’s the best career advice you can give to others?

In my opinion the deciding factor in being successful is the ability to adapt and cope with the setbacks and challenges that will inevitably come our way.  As much as we all crave security and predictability, life always throws up unforeseen challenges. The winning strategy, for me, has always been to look at these as learning experiences. We have to review what happened and take responsibility for our actions then simply consider how best to get back on our feet. When we are able to do this consistently, when that habit becomes second nature, then the foundations are there to make the impossible become the possible.

If you had to pick one mentor who has had the biggest influence on you, who would it be?

The mentor that had the biggest influence on me, was my father. He taught me to believe in myself and never give up. He would always say to me, “There will be many people who will try to put you down but there is no need for you to be one of them”.

From where do you draw inspiration?

I find inspiration in people who are committed to building extraordinary relationships. These are the people that have the courage to be open and honest about their own thoughts and feelings and make a tangible effort not to mislead others through either action or omission.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced to date?

The biggest challenge I faced to date was losing my father. I still remember when I received the call from the doctor who told me my father had been hospitalised and suggested that I should take the first flight home, as my father’s days were numbered. I couldn’t believe what I was being told, but when I got to the hospital the reality hit me hard. I am someone who never gives up. I am a fighter and for the first time in my life I was bewildered by the unexpected strength and intensity of the feeling of being so powerless.

What qualities do you feel makes a good leader?

In my experience, leadership demands the expression of an authentic self. You have to ensure that your words are consistent with your actions. To be authentic, you need to communicate your core values clearly, what you stand for, what you can and cannot compromise on and ultimately where you will draw the line.

From a work viewpoint what has 2020 been like for you so far?

Perhaps, because I am a risk manager at heart, I have always led businesses with resilience in mind. Building a resilient business doesn’t happen overnight, and if a business only starts thinking about resilience when the storm hits, then It is often too late.

Resilience needs to be built into the DNA of the business; it doesn’t involve just putting in place best practices, it requires a resilient company culture. This enables the company to better anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to negative events.

The result of this is that, since COVID-19 hit the fan, we have been able to navigate the troubled waters caused by the economic recession.

What would you say are the biggest cybersecurity challenges we face today?

A true appreciation of the scale of the threat. The majority of cyber-attacks we face are effective simply because technology is still being deployed, operated, and maintained without cybersecurity in mind.

Give us a fact about you that most other people wouldn’t know. 

It is a known fact that I love painting and that my favourite colour is blue. However, what most don’t know is that when my mother bought me non-toxic digital colours for toddlers my first reaction was to paint my whole belly in blue!

Elisabetta Zaccaria is founder of Secure Chorus.