Alumni, Personal Journey

Mind over matter

uG38z5r8T72ehoH4urpH_Marilise_maskOn the 26th of June this year, I did a TED-style talk at PwC’s inaugural Alumni Live event. My talk was titled: “Completing the human firewall”. This was the toughest public speech I’ve done to date. To have 10 minutes to get your key idea(s) across, ideally with no notes and minimal slides, while being live streamed, is no small feat.

[See YouTube link to my talk further below] 

Minutes before my talk I panicked and had to leave the room to get some fresh air, at which point the organisers also panicked. Andy Woodfield, the PwC partner sponsor, told me afterwards that when I left the room, he thought I wasn’t going to come back. And I very almost didn’t. I was seconds away from allowing my emotions to get the better of me. Fortunately, I managed to replace the emotions of fear and anxiety with feeling calm and excited to share my story.

[During the early mornings of the weeks running up to the event, I visualised myself on that stage and rehearsed my presentation over and over and over again. Stella, my black Lab accompanied me to the park and patiently listened to me rehearsing every time. I practised feeling calm and excited to share my story and when I found myself spiralling out of control I took myself back to those moments with Stella]

I walked back into the room feeling calm and knowing that all I had to do was try my best and that it would be good enough. But as soon as I walked onto the stage, my heart started racing again. I had to dig deep to calm the nerves. I realised that I had to do my breathing exercises again, that it would be the only thing that would calm me down again. A classic Marilise moment of “here I go again”. I had a split second to decide whether or not to tell the audience how nervous I felt and asking them to help me out.

The next thing I knew, I asked everyone to stand up (which they did) and take three deep breaths with me (which most people did). This could have backfired big-time. But it didn’t. The risk paid off. Oh, and if you are reading this and you are one of those people that got up and did the breathing exercises with me, I want to say thank you very much. I don’t think you realise how much you helped me pull through. Some people even asked me afterwards if it was staged. I just smiled and said: “I wish” 😉

When I got home later that evening, the boys – who watched me live online – commented on the breathing exercises (of all things!) – Heinrich couldn’t believe that the audience actually listened to me when I asked them to get up (“me neither”, I told him). Andreas thought it was very funny and giggled about it, probably because the two us do a lot of breathing exercises together.

That evening I did myself proud. I spoke from the heart and felt a strong connection with my audience. I learned how sometimes the emotions of fear, anxiety and insecurity can overwhelm us, but we can control how we want to feel.

This is why the saying “mind over matter” has such significance for me. I recently read a story about an elite athlete who was asked whether he still experienced performance anxiety after a yearlong winning streak. His response was that there is always some fear no matter what, but that he doesn’t feel anxious. He defines the feeling he wants and tells himself that what he is sensing is a feeling of readiness, excitement.

It just shows how powerful our minds are. If like me, you depend on breathing exercises to cope with life’s challenges, I hope I’ve reassured you that you are not alone and ultimately we can control how we want to feel.

Completing the human firewall, my talk, is available on YouTube here:

Or you can read it below.

“My late grandfather was my hero. He fascinated me. He was also a brilliant mathematician and always telling me stories about him solving complex maths problems with his students.

This picture was taken 11 years ago, where he was 90, approximately 18 months before he died.


I look at the guys solving these complex maths problems with computers today, and I can’t help to think that my grandfather would’ve been one of them. He would’ve loved it! What these guys can do with computers is mind-blowing and sometimes scares me, to be frank. And what I admired the most about them is their persistence, curiosity and ingenuity at keeping the ‘bad guys’ or ‘hackers’ out.

7 years ago, a whole new world opened for me, when a conversation with a colleague sparked my interests in the human aspects of Cyber Security. That colleague was William Beer and he said: “Marilise, we need you, with your people & change management skills to work us, the security experts, to solve what is ultimately a people problem.” So, William was the catalyst for me starting. Even though at the time, I had no idea what Cyber Security was, I was super excited!

I passionately believe that people are the solution. But it is going to be critically important to attract people from all walks of life. And William agrees:


Shortly after my conversation with William, I collaborated with the Cyber Security team to develop a unique people proposition. This experience has taught me that the more diverse the skills and the more diverse the roles, the more complimentary, coordinated and valuable the collaboration.

Unfortunately, we have work to do if we want to strengthen and complete the human firewall.

A 2017 GISWS study by Frost & Sullivan shows that women are globally underrepresented in the cybersecurity profession at only 11%. But most worryingly is that more women are leaving the industry than entering it.

This is such a complex problem and there is no silver bullet, so I’ve decided to touch on two pertinent themes close to my heart:

  1. Failure to attract women into the industry in the first place
  2. Failure to retain them.

1. Failure to attract

We have an image problem: perceived to be an industry for geeks

What is more, we are looking for ready-made experts only. I was told; “Marilise, you are not technical and therefore will never be taken seriously”. Groovy…you see, usually, when someone tells me I can’t do something, I make it my business to prove them wrong. Yes, I am not techy, but I have excellent communication and creative thinking skills to help our industry find innovative people solutions I no longer feel inadequate because I am not technical. Imagine the problems we could solve if we embraced this idea that people all walks of life can bring innovative solutions which will help us outsmart the bad guys.

Women tend to be overly cautious. We are less likely to take risks. An HP report found that men will apply for a job if they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women, women will apply only if they meet 100% of the qualifications. 100 percent.

2. Failure to retain

So why are women leaving? Have you ever:

  • been too scared to raise your hand and ask a question?
  • felt ignored or sidelined?
  • had your ideas stolen?
  • been overlooked for a promotion?
  • felt belittled by a colleague?

Here is my view: Women leave because they are alienated by the work environment, not because we’ve lost interest in the work. We feel unwelcome and undervalued. Like we don’t belong.

Guys, let’s for a moment, imagine the roles being reversed. Imagine you being the only man in a boardroom with 9 other women. How might you feel?

It always serves me well if I put myself in the other person’s shoes and if I try to see the world through their eyes. For me, it all starts with self-awareness, how I communicate and the impact I have on others.

Call to arms


It starts at home and at schools.  Let’s raise our girls to believe they can be anything they want to be. If you are sat there silently thinking, but I don’t want my daughter to be a scientist, engineer or mathematician, please open up your mind to the possibilities. Imagine the problems we would solve.


I want to help women – young and old – to become warrior princesses. To become strong, stand firm. To stand up for themselves and call out unacceptable behaviour. That is why I am going to start running boot camps for women. Picture a lioness, nobody is going to mess with a lioness. I want women to become this incredible force of nature.



You hold the key that can open doors for women. And by unlocking doors and breaking down barriers, you will progress your business, progress your Code, be more effective and become inspirational leaders. So let’s step-up, be inclusive and make this industry the amazing place it has the potential to be. We need men and women. Together we are stronger.

Here is one of my favourite quotes from a phenomenal woman, Maya Angelou.


I want all of you to feel inspired, to become great leaders.

Please join me in completing the human firewall.”

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