Claudette McGowan has worn several hats over the years: banking executive, community advocate, mentor and business owner. Her latest venture, a cybersecurity startup called Protexxa, puts her at the forefront of the effort to tackle an explosion of cybercrime targeted at organizations across the country.
It’s all made her something of a power broker in Canada’s tech ecosystem, while she’s promoted women and diversity along the way.
Ms. McGowan is also one of the partners behind Cyber Nations Training, based just north of Toronto, an initiative that will train 100,000 people in the Caribbean and Africa to work in cybersecurity and support companies in Canada and other countries with their knowledge.
Her advocacy for women and diverse leaders started long before the #MeToo movement and the killing of George Floyd.
“I remember sitting in meeting rooms and there were people who would say there’s no diverse talent. And, I would look at them and say, ‘No, it’s out there,’ ” she explains. “I would be with family members and friends and they would say, ‘No one wants to hire us.’ ”
So, Ms. McGowan came up with her own solutions.
In 2014, she set up the Black Arts & Innovation Expo, an event that gave BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) entrepreneurs a chance to hobnob with one another and pitch industry leaders. She followed that up by co-creating an investment fund for women entrepreneurs called Firehood that brings together innovators and investors, and that has invested more than $2-million in women-led companies.
After the global reckoning on race and gender in 2020, corporations across the country began investing heavily in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. And, while some companies have since walked back their commitments – and laid off DEI executives and staff in recent years – the very public push has resulted in new laws, such as gender requirements for corporate boards, and federal funding for BIPOC.
That doesn’t mean everyone was supportive from the beginning, she explains. Some people saw her passion as a passing fad, unimportant to the bottom line. Not Ms. McGowan. Her perspective is the result of a lifetime of thinking outside the bubble and being an outlier – the only Black woman in most rooms. She’s held executive roles in technology at two Big Five banks – Bank of Montreal and Toronto-Dominion Bank – and other local companies.
Her perspective goes beyond fairness. Diverse teams are more likely to meet or even exceed their financial targets and “eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes” than teams that aren’t, according to a Deloitte report titled Belonging.
Extensive networking has helped. Ms. McGowan has graced the stage at the world’s most popular tech conferences – Elevate, Collision and Afrotech – and made influential friends along the way.
In 2019, when Ms. McGowan was chief information officer at BMO, she interviewed Michelle Obama on stage at Elevate in Toronto. Ms. Obama was on a tour promoting her book about her life, and it was an opportunity usually reserved for celebrities or journalists, not banking executives.
The interview ended with a compliment from Ms. Obama, one of the most recognized women in the world. Since then, Ms. McGowan has been invited to oversee technology training opportunities and shared the stage with many government officials and tech celebrities.
Ms. McGowan’s cybersecurity firm, Protexxa, has raised $5-million and has clients that range from nation states to health care giants.
Protexxa personalizes online protection for organizations and their employees. Using artificial intelligence, the company predicts, identifies and resolves common cyber issues by searching the dark web and online sites for information, photos and data that ordinary workers might not know is lurking online. It then generates a personal report for each user and suggests next steps.
On top of this, Protexxa has a marketplace where it can connect users and companies with market services and products – which helps address poor online hygiene that has become an important gateway to corporate espionage. For example, LastPass, a popular password management site, had customer data illegally accessed through an employee’s home computer.
Over the years, she’s balanced meetings with millionaires and executives, and school.
The Lakehead University grad (a BA) and mother has gone back to school several times – to the University of Toronto (to study AI), the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (IT) and Athabasca University (for an MBA in business) – in between working for the tech divisions of two of Canada’s biggest banks.
It’s a holdover from lessons learned from a mom who worked as a nurse, and a father who was an athlete turned entrepreneur, who insisted on education above all else. “I know some people that studied 20 years ago and they’re like, ‘Okay. We’re done,’ ” Ms. McGowan explains. “Not me.”
Despite her recent success, her career has often been an uphill battle. She remembers being up for a competitive and high-profile management job, which at the time seemed like a sure thing.
“I was even told – not by the people who make the decisions, but by everybody else – like, ‘You’re, like, the de facto one’ and, of course, ‘best for the role,’ ” she explains with a laugh.
She didn’t get the role. But the co-worker who got the position decided to leave a year later. And the biggest surprise was that the co-worker championed Ms. McGowan as her replacement. It was a role she “should have had in the first place,” the co-worker confided before departing.
Some of Ms. McGowan’s work experiences aren’t unique, unfortunately.
A report from the Colorado-based National Center for Women and Information Technology found that only 27 per cent of computing roles in the tech sector were fulfilled by women. A closer look shows that Black women comprised only 3 per cent of those roles and just 7 per cent were Asian women.
Even when women do make it in tech, they’re not guaranteed the same pay as men. The Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship at Toronto Metropolitan University says women, Indigenous people and minorities are likely to be paid less, on average, than their male counterparts.
But as the COVID-19 pandemic has eased, the 2023 State of Women’s Entrepreneurship report issued by Toronto’s Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub found the number of women-owned businesses is on the rise and the gap between female and male entrepreneurs is narrowing.
Is it any surprise, then, that Ms. McGowan ended up being her own boss? “I always believed I would be leading my own company full time,” she explains. It wasn’t about the money, but about taking her future into her own hands.
Even in today’s digitally connected world, the people who may need help the most can sometimes be the most vulnerable, and that impacts them and the companies they work for.
“Technology is a key empowerer and enabler, when you think about all the things that are connected in the world,” she says, “but you can’t just connect things without thinking about how to protect them.”
If Ms. McGowan’s life has shown anything, it’s that she’s a connector and that while she’s creating the change she wants to see in the tech world, it’s important that anyone pursuing an unconventional path should do it with confidence.
“I used to run and win,” she says with a laugh. “One of the things that the coach told me is that it’s only when you look back that you lose momentum and you might not win the race.”