March 17, 2017
Niloofar Razi Howe is a cop on the Internet. But her path to being the chief strategy officer of Washington, DC-based Internet security firm RSA started when she traveled alone to the US as an 11-year-old.
Howe remembers vividly arriving at San Francisco airport on her own.
“A tall, lanky, moustached immigration agent spends what feels like an eternity questioning me. I know the stakes are high. I know my family’s future depends on me passing this interview,” she told a Tedx event.
Her family had fled Iran shortly before the 1979 revolution. They went to the UK and a few months later put her on a flight to the US as they “calculated that an 11-year-old girl on her own will not be turned away by immigration,” she said.
Their calculation proved correct. The customs officer stamped her Iranian passport and she started her new life.
The first thing she had to do was adapt to California—a place she described as “where all-you-can eat buffets and free-thinking rebellion are the norm.”
She found her safe space in coding. “I was happy in the computer room,” she told the BBC. “I was an immigrant, trying to fit in a girls’ school and the computer room was a safe place to be.”
But at 17-years-old she took an entirely different direction. She “fudged” a few details on her resume and applied for a job as a casting assistant for moviemaker Steven Spielberg.
“My 1968 birthday changed to 1966, so I could work legally full-time in that job,” she said. “I remember trying to stay as close to the truth as possible.”
Howe was in her senior year of high school, but was also doing a course at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), so she just didn’t mention the bit about still being in high school.
She got the job and for around eight months she moonlighted between casting for a TV show and her senior year at high school.
The UCLA course gave her more freedom than in normal high school and when she needed to take an exam she told her boss that she had a doctor’s appointment.
It would be decades before she returned to the world of coding. In that time, she went from being an entertainment lawyer to a business consultant, an angel investor and a venture capitalist.
Howe was meeting with the cyber security company Endgame to talk about investing in them when she was offered a job by the chief executive.
“He said ‘raising money is not going to be a problem. What I need is a business partner’.”
She took the job of chief strategic officer and eventually moved to a bigger cyber security company, RSA.
She described the path back to the computer room as “circular” and said she had been “distracted” by “bright shiny things” in the entertainment industry.
But Howe said she was not alone, as a female, in her interest in technology not turning into a career at first. Over the nine years of investing in tech, she said she had only met a “handful” of female company founders.
Howe urges women to consider working in Internet security specifically.
She said making the Internet safer was a “mission” that “appeals to women…. Solving a problem that makes the world safer, makes our personal lives safer and makes our children online safer.”
Niloo, as she is called, graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School and holds a bachelors degree from Columbia College.