How I learned to be okay with bringing my full self to work in Corporate America

When young professionals enter Corporate America for the first time, especially first generation corporate workers, the transition can be somewhat overwhelming. There are so many unwritten rules, biases, perceptions, and challenges you end up facing no matter who you are or where you come from. For me, one of my biggest challenges was being able to be my true self at work.

After 8 years in corporate America, I am finally at a place in my career where I am totally comfortable being myself and have learned that the great companies actually celebrate the very qualities I was trying so hard to suppress. You see, I am a somewhat reserved Nigerian girl who will take on any challenge head on and either dominate it or fail fast and learn quickly. I am also an avid philanthropist, social butterfly, scholar, world traveler, hip-hop lover, fashionista, and diversity advocate. Yet, early in my career I didn’t really plan to bring most of these traits to work. I didn’t want them to jeopardize my career in any way. So much so, that I work very hard to separate the two. I had two very different personas both in person and online. I went to work wearing a “mask” that helped me blend in as much as possible, and I cringed at the thought of anyone I work with seeing me outside of the office. The effort that it took to be two different people at work vs beyond become exhausting. As time passed, I realized that I could not do my best work if I was trying so hard to hide who I am.

How my employer of choice made a difference

Thankfully, I work for a company that increasingly makes a conscious effort to honor and celebrate diversity. Whether it’s through business resources groups or general events where employees have an opportunity to share their cultures with others, as each day passes I feel more seen for who I am, understood, and valued by my company. For example, my employer hosted a global diversity celebration where employees were able to set up booths representing their counties of origin. From Nigeria and Ghana to Mexico and India, the festival was filled with so many vibrant colors, tantalizing scents from international dishes employees brought in, music and cultural performances, and much more. Employees even came dressed in their native traditional clothing.

Can you imagine, a young Nigerian woman who was once afraid to let people in … bolding showing up to work in corporate America looking like a extravagant queen in a traditional abuba and a head tie? It was a magnificent feeling! Even more awesome, was the fact that this was celebrated by my corporate family! The experience always makes a huge difference for me and all who attend because it creates a greater sense of belonging and understanding between us all.

It’s  also important to remember that diversity is about much more than cultural differences. For example, this year the diversity and inclusion team took the event a step further to celebrate people with disabilities. We had the pleasure of watching an interactive dance performance from a deaf dance duo, and even learned some sign language in the process. This was very informative for me to understand how deaf people can feel music even when they can’t hear it.

I would encourage all companies to continue to find ways to empower your employees to trust in you and bring their full selves to work. That is where the magic happens!

What I did personally to further evolve

My employer didn’t always have the aforementioned programs. In the beginning, I started my evolution through self discovery and trial and error. I found that the most important first step was learning who I am. You cant bring your full self to work, if you don’t even know what that means. I had to really think about my values, what was important to me, what I willing to compromise, and what I’d be willing to walk away for. This can be tough to identify, but it’s extremely important. For example, I absolutely love fashion so much so that if I worked in a place that required “boring” uniforms or limited me to casual attire I may think twice about whether it’s the place for me. On the other hand, if my companies culture didn’t condone bright green hair that’s something I am willing to live with. Some people may not be willing to compromise on green hair, and that is totally okay. It’s up to each person to know and stand by their limits.

Once I identified the things that I cared about, I thought about how they fit into the corporate culture. I looked for people in positions that I eventually want to be in and I studied how they look, behave, speak, etc. If there are people who are successful and hold the same values I do, great! That means that for the most part I could bring those to work and I had role models to learn from. I also kept in mind that everyone is not on a level playing field and the same thing that may work for some, may not work for me.  If after searching, I didn’t find any leaders with common behavior or values – all was not lost. This just meant it was trial and error time! I’d set up personal experiments to test what I could get away with.

For example, I grew up a proud tomboy and I always keep a part of that with me. When I wanted to try coming to work with Nike Jordan sneakers, a bold t-shirt that says “Young and Powerful”, and drastic changes to my hair (all of which I have done at some point) knowing that this isn’t “normal” in my workplace, I had to find creative ways to test this out. I usually take the subtle route and introduce one  abnormal element at a time. This makes it a “controlled” experiment, where I have an opportunity to notice reactions, get feedback from trusted mentors, survey how it even made me feel to show up at work with each of these traits and whether it’s what I really wanted. Having this understanding of self and boundaries, along with the bravery to explore was critical to liberating myself at work. From my experiments, I learned that drastic yet balanced hair changes didn’t have negative impact on my brand, that I didn’t really care to wear Jordans to work and actually liked being a boss girl in heels, and that my bold t-shirt paired with a bright pink blazer made a fashion statement that I cared about and was willing to stand behind.

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Throughout my journey, my biggest take away is best summed up by the quote “There is only one you and THAT is your power.” Hiding who I am is not only exhausting work, but it does a disservice to me and to my company. Instead, I’ve decided to be the realest Christine Izuakor I can be. I know that as long as I am true to that, I can operate at unimaginable levels. I couldn’t have come to this realization without the courage to experiment and the support of my company in celebrating our beautiful differences.

Mission Accomplished: 30 countries under 30 years old

Five years ago, at the age of 24 and with just two counties under my belt, I made a pact with one of my friends – we’d travel to 30 countries before we turned 30 years old. I was committed to making sure I accomplished the goal and was so thrilled about the many lessons and adventures that would result from such a journey.

My latest trip to Argentina in November 2018 became the 30th country I’ve had the pleasure of exploring with 8 months to spare before my 30th birthday I finally made it! In addition, this was my first time in South America and the first time that I can say I have been to 6 of the 7 continents in the world.

In honor of this milestone, I’m sharing my list of “bests” that I have been to thus far. Here goes!

  1. Best food: Rome, Italy

Italy is carb heaven! I usually try my best to stay away from carbs when I’m at home, but Rome is definitely my splurge destination. The various pasta dishes are irresistible and there are so many restaurants and cafes everywhere! My favorite dishes there are pesto pasta or carbonara. And, let’s not forget dessert! The gelato here is the best I’ve had and something you can also find on every corner. Be prepared to eat your way through Rome!

  1. Best beaches: Honolulu, Hawaii

One of my favorite things to do in Honolulu is rent a car and drive around the entire perimeter of the island. You find so many random beaches and spots that offer some of the most breath taking and picturesque ocean views. I love that you can stop by 7 different beaches and each looks totally different with it’s own personality, vibe, views, etc. It feels like going to a few different countries all in one place.

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  1. Best hospitality: San Blas, Panama

I wrote a separate blog on this entire experience (link here) but in summary, we met a local tribe of people known as Kunas People. They were so simple, happy, and nice. They took us around on a boat from island to island, offered us fresh food and drinks, and made it their sole mission to ensure we had a great time. And they really didn’t expect anything in return – they were just really nice people. This is another place with unbelievable beaches as well!

  1. Best big city: Hong Kong, China

Phew, talk about an overwhelmingly beautiful industrial utopia. Even descending into Hong Kong during my flight, I looked out of the window and was just floored. The mix of endless sky scrapers, bodies of water and mountains makes it one of the most scenic big cities I have ever seen. When you are landing, be sure to get a window seat and take in the view or once in the city check out Sky Terrace 428 at The Peak.

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  1. Best prices: Phuket, Thailand

Ah Thailand, home of the $9 dollar 3 course meals, reasonably priced resort style hotels, $5 massages, and shopping prices you can negotiate down to great deals! This is the place to go on a budget. While the plane fare may be high depending on where you are coming from – once I got there I didn’t spend much. Great value for an unforgettable experience!

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  1. Best lituation: Cancun, Mexico

Mexico holds the title of my favorite country right now – I’ve been at least 10 times. It’s always a celebration from landing to take-off! On a typical day, I wake up, grab my unicorn floatie and head to my favorite infinity pool at Hyatt Ziva to enjoy mimosas and trap music while admiring the gorgeous turquoise beach views. Next, I head to a boat turn up that starts with an adventurous snorkeling excursion and ends with unlimited drinks and partying! Finally, after relaxing in my room or the spa for a moment, I end the night with a club crawl through the popular club zone. So fun! I know this sounds like a tiring day, but Mexico is my favorite country for it’s balance of beach relaxation, partying, and exploration. You can always find a healthy balance between partying and relaxing. This is also the home of Tequila – my favorite drink of choice! Total win!

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  1. Best relaxation: Adelboden, Switzerland

Adelboden is a small country ski town where there aren’t any large building, lights, taxis, etc. Instead you find miles and miles of farm land, cows, greenery, and a few resorts. I love infinity pools and the one at The Cambrian overlooking the Swiss Alps is just amazing! During my trip there, I was in the pool and spa for majority of the time just taking in the view and hydrotherapy services – the most relaxing thing ever. The cell signal is horrible, so you really get a chance to unplug because you can’t use your phone much, unless you opt for Wi-Fi.

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  1. Best solo exploring: Bruge, Belgium

I love a place that I can walk around and explore with no map while still feeling safe, secure, and adventurous – especially as a solo traveler. Bruge was perfect for this! I took a quick train over from Brussels for a day and was in awe at the colorful buildings, cobblestone streets, city center activities, and picturesque boat tours (a must do!).

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  1. Best nature scene: Limerick, Ireland

During my trip to Ireland, I started in Shannon, rented a car and drove the entire coast stopping at cafes, castles, and shops along the way. The entire ride, I was in awe at how green everything was. It had a countryside, simple feel. The best nature scene though, came when we arrived at the Cliffs of Moher. This was one of my first international trips (country #3) and I had never seen anything like these majestic cliffs in my entire life.

  1. Best hidden surprise: Budapest, Hungary

I stopped in Budapest for 2 days during a quick summer adventure in Europe, thinking it’d just be a country I could add to my list. Honestly, for some reason I was a little scared to go there solo just based on what I remember hearing about the country as a kid. Once I arrived, I did not want to leave! It’s such a scenic place, with the most youthful, romantic, and adventurous vibe. The food, the views, the architecture, the people, the river and more all came as a pleasant surprise. Granted, I did very little research on what I’d do there before I arrived and had low expectations – I quickly realized I needed more than two days to take in the cities beauty and culture. That said – I’ll be back!

  1. Best shopping trip: Paris, France

Every year, I make my way to Paris for an annual shopping trip during their major sale season. You can find many items for half off and they’re usually super unique statement pieces you wont find anywhere else. Shopping there is the best! From endless shops on Champs Elysees, to taking in endless options at Galleries Lafayette, to the random boutiques you can find interwoven throughout the city – my annual shopping trip is always a hit!

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  1. Best views: Santorini, Greece

I’m a sucker for good views and Santorini takes the cake. The deep blue Aegean sea, combined with the unique white architecture and numerous blue water infinity pools scattered throughout Santorini make this one of the best spots for laying out and just taking in views that leave even the most unimpressible people awestruck.

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  1. Best wildlife adventures: Sydney, Australia

Koalas, kangaroos, and the great barrier reef! Need I say more? The aquarium in Sydney is also one of my favorites!

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  1. Best dance: Montego Bay, Jamaica

I love cultural dances. I went to a local dance club in Jamaica one night and they had groups doing impromptu dances in the middle of the floor. There is something so fascinating about the way the women whine with so much control, and how the men dance with so much swag and power – it was definitely a sight to see!

  1. Best culture: Lagos, Nigeria

This is my home so I may be a little biased lol, but in my opinion Nigeria rocks! I am so obsessed with my people and my culture. We are brave, ambitious, proud, and hilarious. The food, dances, languages, attire, traditions, etc. are just so fascinating. I always encourage people to take a moment to explore Nigerian culture.

Whether you’re a solo traveler, doing a group trip, or baecation these countries are great places to visit and explore! If you love to travel, create a list of your own and share!

Congratulations United Airlines cyber security scholarship winners!

Working in the cyber security industry, I never imagined my job would enable me to give back to causes I care so deeply about. Of course, it helps that I work for a large company and a great leadership team who values diversity and social responsibility just as much as I do. But, I also want to share this with hope that no matter how large or small your company, as you think about how you can make a difference…you remember that you don’t have to be wealthy first or do it alone! Look into the causes that your employer, family, friends, and community care about and find ways you can bring your passion and ideas to the table, and work together to make it happen. Here is one example of many where through my job and network, I was blessed with an opportunity to give back:

Recently at the International Consortium of Minority Cybersecurity Workforce Professionals (ICMCP) Third Annual National Conference in Atlanta, United awarded $10,000 in scholarships to four cyber security students. I had the extreme honor and pleasure of presenting the awards to the students at the event, and was quickly reminded of how good it feels to give back to others while also contributing to increasing diversity within the industry.

Paola Lowry, one of United’s scholarship recipients, shared how much the honor meant to her at the conference. “I want to express my sincere appreciation for being selected for this award,” said Paola. “I’m sure it was a difficult task, to choose one out of an amazing community of women and minorities who are working hard to break the status quo.”

It feels great to support the next generation of cyber security professionals. Our scholarship recipients are remarkable people. From battling life threatening illnesses, to making selfless sacrifices for their families, to taking leaps of faith to leave comfortable careers and move into the world of cyber security, their dedication to success and resilience are inspiring. It’s important to work with academic, non profit, and for profit businesses to continue closing the gap, and we look forward to continuing our growing partnership with ICMCP.

It’s no secret that diversity in tech is still a challenge today, and the cyber security sector is no exception. In addition, the general talent gap the industry is facing has left many organizations struggling to find ways to attract and retain top cyber talent. I’m proud to work for an organization that leads the pack in this arena and is dedicated to shifting the dial.

“Our journey at United Airlines over the last year has led us to tackle this issue head on,” shared Chief Information Security Officer Emily Heath, who boasts a security, risk and compliance team that as of earlier this year was 48 percent female and had representatives of 25 nationalities working side by side to battle security threats. “As we looked to significantly increase the size of our team, we knew shrinking the diversity gap was going to be a key differentiator for us and a principle that we wanted to be at the core of our team’s DNA.”

Thank you to United Airlines and ICMCP for making the scholarship giveaway possible!

Supporting the next generation of talent with Year Up!

I’ve been a huge supporter on an organization called Year Up for a while now. The organization is dedicated to closing the opportunity divide by offering a competitive program to young adults inclusive of 6 months of business and technical training, followed by a 6 month internship at some of the largest organizations in the nation. I love everything this non-profit stands for and am obsessed with the mission.

Through United Airlines, I also have the honor of serving as the Vice President of Gen Trend – our next generation business resource group. Our mission is to prepare United for the next generation of talent and vice versa. This means partnering with organizations like Year Up to support next gen growth. Recently, we hosted our 2nd annual interview success prep kit event. During this event Gen Trend members got together and built interview success prep kits for about 80 students. Prior to organizing the event, we asked students what they really needed in order to succeed and they told us! The kits include everything from a portfolio folder filled with mock resumes and tip, to Tide To Go pens in case there are any accidental coffee still on the way to an interview! Other items included hand sanitizer, pens, pencils, highlighters, sticky notes, notebooks, usb sticks, mini sewing kits, and a tote bag, and inspiring note cards. After creating the kits, we spent time networking with the students and learning more about their inspiring stories.

To any organizations supporting the many Year Up chapters around the nation, this is a great way to engage your employees and support the organization.

This is what matters. Grow, give back, and repeat!

What on earth made you decide to get a PhD?

This is actually a question I get a lot. Everyone knows pursuing a PhD is no easy journey – it really takes guts and dedication so it’s not something you just wake up and decide to do. And even if so, majority of those who start do not finish once they realize how cut throat it is. In this post I will focus on why I started. Sticking with it once you are in is another can of worms I will open later.

So, WHY? I’ll start by saying that education has always been a priority for me. I grew up in a house where going to college wasn’t optional. To my family, it was just something you did after high school. In fact, it wasn’t until my senior year when some of my friends were deciding not to go that I learned it was a choice. My parents also taught me to always strive to be the best, reach for the unthinkable, and to be better than I was yesterday. With that mentality, I already knew I was going to grad school. The shift from masters to PhD is where the insanity really lies. I had 3 specific reasons for going for it, even when I was told I shouldn’t.

Career Insurance:

My mom raised me to always have a back up plan, and so initially this was just that. I wanted to take risks in my career and knew that if I ever needed something to fall back on, I could always go back and be a professor to financially sustain myself between jobs. Interestingly enough, this has shifted SO much since graduation. I decided to become a professor right away, no longer as a back up plan, but because I want to help build the cyber security talent pipeline of the future. I am super passionate about supporting the next generation of cyber professionals and this is a perfect way to do that. So it’s no longer “career insurance”.  Teaching part-time has become a critical part of my career because it keeps me sharp on evolving industry concepts, helps me connect the private sector with academia, allows me to build an army of next gen talent, and the extra money is nice!

Challenge and Growth Addict:

I still remember a very vivid moment during my undergrad graduation ceremony. I was sitting near the stage so excited for what I had accomplished, but also smiling at all of the people graduating with their masters and thinking: “That’s going to be me soon!”. Similarly, at my masters degree graduation ceremony I remember looking at the small pool of doctoral grads and thinking: “I’m proud of how far I’ve come, but it’s time to turn it up a notch!” My addiction to continuous growth and elevation played a huge role and, while I don’t think I will be pursing any additional degrees, I still continue to experience this philosophy in so many areas of life. You can always be better and do more.

I also just wanted to test my own capacity and power. I knew this was one of the most uncomfortable goals I could possibly pursue and that excited me because discomfort equals opportunity for evolution and growth. The best life teachers to me are ones that provide a structured yet chaotic challenge – which is exactly what a PhD program is. STRUCTURED CHAOS. To master such a challenge is rewarding for any student who makes it. For me, also knowing that I was experiencing this in a newly established field was even more exciting. Unlike the medical industry, Physics, or Math for example..20 years ago formal education programs in cyber security didn’t really exist. Being on the forefront of that has inspired me, especially since you are sort of paving the way for others and contributing to shaping an industry for years to come.

Because I was told “You Cant..”:

Ever want to see my beastmode switch flipped? Tell me I can’t do or have something I truly want. In this journey, doubt became a great source of motivation. I wanted to show my critics and even myself, that this little girl from Missouri City, Texas didn’t care about ceilings, status quo, or not having role models. I was going to do this, and I did!

There are many reasons people choose to take this path, and these are just a few reasons why I decided to a pursue a PhD personally. Again, your reason for starting may not be what gets you all the way through to the finish line either. I found that as I progressed, my motivation and priorities began to shift based on the environment I was in. Learn more about how I stayed motivated and pushed through in the next post. There are also some additional cyber security specific reasons I will touch on as well.

Until then, go out and beast!

Dr. Christine Izuakor