Sherifat Akinwonmi is the Cybersecurity Specialist, Governance, at United Farmers of Alberta Co-operative and she was recently appointed to the Advisory Board for Canadian Women in Cybersecurity by SiberX. A pretty impressive feat on its own, never mind that she just came to Canada in June of 2020.
The sixth child of ten, Sherifat learned early to use her voice and to stand up for herself. But she also credits special people throughout her life for where she is today, starting with her dad. “My father, Alhaji Y.K Ojo, was my biggest role model. He raised me to chase my dreams and I never had the impression that I couldn’t do anything because I was a girl,” she says. “I was always interested in technology and was quite good with numbers. My father was the Executive Director of the United Bank of Africa (UBA), not only did he encourage me, but he gave me my first internship while I was still in school,” says Sherifat. “He was the only child in his family to go to University, my grandmother worked very hard, she sold her wrappers (traditional Nigerian clothing) to afford his education, and his success was largely because of her. In her honour, he made it a priority for his children to get good educations.”
Schooling in Nigeria is different than in Canada. There are three streams of education. When you are in junior secondary school, your path is chosen based on your grades. If you make very good grades, you go into the Science stream; decent grades go into the Commercial stream; and average grades go into the Arts stream. Your fate is often determined for you early on. “I made very good grades, and thankfully I went into the Science stream which is where I wanted to be. This was the path to be an engineer, a doctor, or in my case a computer scientist,” says Sherifat. “I was one of the few lucky ones who loved the path that was determined for me. It’s a bit sad, there are plenty of Arts students who would be great doctors and vice versa. I went to University and then finished my master’s degree in Manchester, UK, before returning to Nigeria.”
Nigeria has the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) which is a program set up by the Nigerian government to involve graduates in nation building and the development of the country. Since 1973 university graduates have been required to take part in the NYSC for one year. “You get a certificate when you are done and without the certificate, employers can’t hire you. I was very excited to get placed with Stanbic IBTC Bank to do my service year,” she says. “I was fresh from my master’s program at the time, but even though I had the Information Security education, and desire to work in Information Security, they placed me on the IT service desk within the IT department.”
“I wanted to join the IT Security unit of the bank so badly that I approached the head of the unit with confidence and introduced myself. I told him, this is who I am, and this is what I love. I want to join the IT Security unit and I’m qualified,” says Sherifat. “His response was, no, because you are not a full-time employee of the bank and IT security is a sensitive unit. He also indicated that the unit was highly demanding, and he feared I may not be able to cope. I was sad because I was eager to gain the work experience in Information Security that I had studied for but was not given the opportunity. I later looked at the unit and realized that all the members of the team were male at the time, and I felt that maybe the reason I wasn’t considered was because I was a woman. This motivated me to always be the best in what I do so that my gender isn’t considered when being assessed for opportunities, rather my abilities or expertise.”
Following her service year, Sherifat received a permanent placement at the bank, now she was working full-time at the IT service desk. This is where the next person she credits, comes in. “My first real boss was Ofuchi Rich-Olieh, and she began to take notice of me. She knew I wanted more responsibility and she supported me, she said she was impressed with my work ethic and wanted my voice to be heard, she started giving me more visibility and before long, I was promoted to IT change management lead. In this position, I had to use my voice, and people listened. I was working with department heads, networking, and making decisions, all because she believed in me. It was a great example of women lifting up women, and I learned that valuable lesson from her.”
Sherifat’s career was stable, her manager gave her more responsibilities, and she spent the next three years working in IT as service desk/change management, but she still wasn’t in the Cybersecurity role of her dreams. “It was my passion. I think my interest in Cybersecurity dates to when I was about 5 or 6 years old and I wanted to be a police officer, catching bad guys. Cybersecurity combines security and information technology, my two favourite things.” So, she approached the Information security unit head again, this time it was now being led by a woman, Grema Ogboru. She told her about her interest in working in the Information Security unit and that she was qualified. Grema pushed it forward to the CIO, who welcomed the idea and she was given the position as a Risk and Information Security Analyst, which she did for a couple more years.
One day, through LinkedIn, Sherifat was contacted about an opportunity. It was with a start up that had taken off and grown to a billion-dollar company. Interswitch, the equivalent of Interac in Canada, is Nigeria’s leading technology-driven digital payments company, and they were looking for a new head of Information Security. “I didn’t feel like I was ready, and I thought, why are they reaching out to me, but my husband said, apply and at least give them the opportunity to say meet you. So I did,” she says. “I ended up getting the job.”
Sherifat says the next couple years were amazing. As the female head of information security, the spotlight was on her. She had many speaking opportunities and she was able to influence other women both in and out of the IT world. The job was exciting, but it was also very demanding, and the commute was long, and although Sherifat and her husband who were both career driven, it wasn’t until something happened driving home one night that would spark her next career move.
“I was coming home after picking up my children from the daycare. We were sitting in traffic, and a man attacked the car. He smashed the glass and I was terrified, screaming to leave my children alone! My children were crying,” she remembers. “It was a life-changing moment. It was then we decided we either had to move closer to work or change jobs.”
Sherifat got a job with GSK which was closer to her home, she says the company had a great culture and work life balance. “I was Head of Technology for Nigeria and West Africa. I worked in several countries, and at that time, there were only two women in our leadership team. The general manager, Bhushan Akshikar, was new and was very deliberate about having a diverse leadership team, he championed women and made sure women had a voice around the table, and he instilled confidence. Leadership truly makes all the difference. When I left, there were many more women and the workforce was very diverse.”
“In 2019 my husband and I wanted better education for our children, more security, and a better quality of life,” says Sherifat. “We had been toying with the idea of moving to Canada, but the timing was never quite right,” she says. “We applied with immigration and eventually got our VISAs. Then came the global pandemic,” she laughs, “another setback to moving to Canada.” When the opportunity came and flight restrictions slightly lifted, they came to Canada. She approached GSK, who were extremely supportive of her working remotely for a time. “In particular, my manager, Cigdem Cirik, and the Nigerian General Manager, Kunle Oyelana, were supportive.”
Not long after, she saw the posting for UFA. She says her first thought was, “How much do farmers need Cybersecurity? But it turns out, UFA is one of Canada’s largest and most dynamic co-operatives with a business network that provides products, services and solutions to farmers, ranchers, members, consumers and commercial customers in western Canada and of course, cybersecurity is a necessity for its operations.”
Before coming to Canada, Sherifat was part of a global forum with other women in Cybersecurity. They talked online about challenges, reviewed ideas, promoted each other, mentored, and lifted one another; it was a powerful network. “Upon coming to Canada, I was introduced to a few women and one of them, Aarti Gadhia with Bugcrowd. She asked if I would be part of a panel for a conference, of course I said yes. I’m always honoured to share my knowledge, my passion for Cybersecurity, and my journey to where I am today,” she says. This panel discussion led to her recent nomination as an Advisory Member for the Canadian Women in Cybersecurity.
“My experience so far with UFA has been wonderful. I’ve been greeted with ‘virtual’ open arms. I am still getting used to Canada and I’m excited to get back into the office to meet people face to face. I like technology but even I’m a bit tired of virtual meetings.”
Sherifat credits her husband Rahman, most of all, for being her biggest champion. “He pushed me to apply for roles that I doubted I was ready for,” she says, “and he always leaves his work to come and watch me at speaking engagements and I’m thankful that he’s encouraged me to take risks.”
Reflecting on International Women’s Day, Sherifat says, “I recollect attending an interview for a job and while the first two interviews went well, in the third interview the hiring manager of the role said, 'I like you, but the only problem is that you will get the job now and then get pregnant. Then what?’ I was shocked. I thought, you can’t say that! And I was pretty sure it was against human resource guidelines,” she laughs. “In no uncertain terms, I let him know what I thought about that question and I firmly told him I was done having kids, not that it was any of his business. But it made me think about how many other women have experienced gender discrimination.”
When asked about what else motivates her, Sherifat answered without hesitation.
“Much like my grandmother selling wrappers, in the end, I do it all for my children. It’s ironic, that what kept me from getting some positions, motivated me to where I am today. My hope is that my 8-year-old twin boys, Khalid and Fareed, and my 11-year-old daughter, Nadia, see that you can do anything you put your mind to, regardless of gender. I hope they follow their dreams, whatever they may be.”
Congratulations Sherifat on your recent appointment to the Canadian Women in Cybersecurity Advisory Board and Happy International Women’s Day!