Nov 15 2023

Q&A: Kyla Guru Brings Gen Z into the Cybersecurity Conversation

Stanford University student Kyla Guru shares her passion for cybersecurity education and gender equity in technology fields.

While most of her peers were preparing for their driving tests, Kyla Guru was making cybersecurity training available to vulnerable groups and partnering with a high school classmate to create a tech conference for girls. Now a senior at Stanford University studying computer science and international security while also completing her master’s degree, Guru, one of 30 Higher Ed IT Influencers to Follow, spoke to EdTech about her inspirations, how her education has refined her views on cybersecurity and what Generation Z brings to the tech conversation.

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EDTECH: You founded the nonprofit organization Bits N’ Bytes Cybersecurity Education in 2016. What was your inspiration?

GURU: The motivation for it came when I went to a National Security Agency GenCyber camp. I was 14 at the time. It was a one-week immersion in all things cyber that really opened my eyes to the fact that cyber is not just the traditional mental image of a person in a basement wearing a hoodie, hacking away at a laptop. Cyber is also for people interested in psychology, design or products.

We talked a lot about how these vulnerabilities really root down at the fundamental level to human error. It could be that a human feels vulnerable, and they give away a password or address or bank information over the phone; likewise, on email or text messages, clicking the link when you’re scared. That part really alarmed me — 90 percent of cyberattacks boil down to human error.

I talked with my local community, and the verdict really was that a lot of the action taken in cybersecurity is reactive rather than proactive. I started by just pushing out five-minute animated videos for school districts across my community. That’s when I realized that students were growing up and weren’t really being taught what cybersecurity was until they explicitly chose to pursue that as a career path. And by that time, it might be too late.

Then I started doing it on more of a national scale. Along the way, I realized that I was one of the only women in the room having this conversation. I would find myself in rooms of congressmen or boardrooms of C-level folks talking about the importance of involving students in cybersecurity, but I was the only student in the room, and the only first-generation American female daughter of immigrants.

EDTECH: And that was the genesis of GirlCon?

GURU: I partnered with another friend of mine in school, and we came together and asked: What can we do? We had a bunch of ideas but eventually landed on what excited us most — bringing everyone in one room together. So, we started an annual conference that really engages with students.

Every year, about 900 students come to our conference to talk about bridging the gender gap, connect with each other, go to sessions and have their first foray into the professional tech world, greeted with open arms by this community of other young women who are just as excited as them.

Kyla Guru
I’m excited to get Gen Z on that stage of sharing our thoughts on what we value in the workforce, in cyber roles when we’re looking for jobs in our future, and what our workplace expectations are.”

Kyla Guru Student, Stanford University

EDTECH: You’ve been at Stanford since 2020. How have your studies helped you to pursue your interests?

GURU: My college journey has validated a lot of the concerns that I had and has given me a more nuanced way of thinking about solutions to address them.

Fundamentally, security remains a space where sometimes we forget the human element; the fact that these problems, regardless of how deeply integrated into the operating system, are fundamentally human problems. It has also given me the chance to connect with the educator community more broadly.

For example, I took a class last quarter where we’re solving for ed tech issues. I talked to 10 or 15 educators across different countries, and the verdict was that when we’re trying to teach these emerging technology concepts, teachers are already very overburdened with having to learn new things for core teaching standards every year. So, how can ed tech ease that burden?

There’s also a general fear that students might know more about these concepts than teachers do at the end of the day. Students are using technologies like social media and ChatGPT actively, so there was a general understanding with teachers of, “Oh, they already know this stuff” or “What can we teach them that they don’t already know about safety on these platforms?” I’m just trying to shift the conversation to how we can take creative approaches; for example, peer-centered learning and reframing the traditional picture of a teacher, because teachers already have a lot to juggle. It has gotten me to think about cyber and ed tech in a very different way.

EDTECH: Looking forward, what are you excited about when it comes to cybersecurity and gender equity in tech?

GURU: I’m really excited about getting Gen Z more involved in this conversation. Now that the White House is talking about it and we have these microphones to get up and speak, if we’re talking about the next generation of cybersecurity, how do we build reinforcing pipelines that don’t have leaks, and that are representative of where we want to go and where we’re headed?

I’m excited to get Gen Z on that stage of sharing our thoughts on what we value in the workforce, in cyber roles when we’re looking for jobs in our future, and what our workplace expectations are. I think there’s a conversation starting around that. I’m really excited about the emergence of artificial intelligence and the potential for it to augment the work of cyber defenders. That’s what my thesis is going to be about this year, looking at artificial intelligence from the lens of how we can build in safeguards when we’re designing these AI systems. How can we use it as a tool rather than something to be scared of?

UP NEXT: How CISOs can protect against threats from generative AI models.

Photography by Robert Houser

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