How Avast's CISO got to know the tech ecosystem from the bottom up

Emma McGowan 29 Mar 2021

Baloo is committed to showing other women how they can be their best advocates

Jaya Baloo, Avast’s Chief Information Security Officer, never meant to work in tech. Born in India on International Women’s Day, Baloo moved to the US at age four when her parents started working for the United Nations in New York City. That’s where she had her first exposure to computers.

“When I was really young, I was the only girl in my class who was really interested in computers and getting one and playing with them,” Baloo says. “I just thought it was a hobby. I suppose that came from the fact that I was the only girl. I never considered it as a potential for a professional choice, because there were no female examples. I got used to the idea that this was a quirky, weird thing about me — that I liked technologies.”

Baloo’s interest in tech popped up again while she was in college at Harvard and looking for a way to make some money. She got a job in Cambridge at a “very early cyber cafe” called CyberSmith, showing people how to use virtual reality (VR) stations and training them on how the internet worked and “how computers connect to each other and what you can do,” she says.

But even though she was getting paid, tech was still a hobby — Baloo wasn’t studying anything technical in school. Instead, she’d followed in parents’ footsteps and studied political science at Harvard. 

“I did my internship at Freedom House because I felt law and politics was more female-friendly and a more conventional pattern of something I could pursue,” Baloo says. “There were plenty of examples of women in diplomacy, so it was easier to imagine doing that than it was to imagine going into tech, which was completely male-dominated. I cannot think of a single female role model at the time.”

So she studied political science during the day and worked at the computer shop in her free time. Then a customer who was in town from New York took note of her skills — and offered her a job at a major bank, Bankers Trust. 

“That was my first job job,” Baloo says. “And I thought, ‘Why continue with political science if I’m already doing something I really like?’”

And so Baloo’s quirky hobby that led to her standing out in rooms full of boys became a job. And then that job became a career as she took job after job in tech, getting to know the ecosystem from the bottom up. Now, as an executive, Baloo is now surrounded primarily by the men those boys became. And it’s not always easy. She feels a constant pressure to prove herself all the time; to justify not only each spot she earns but even to occupy the space she’s currently in.

“I know men that have this, to be honest, but I never have men that are so continuously saying, ‘Okay, I've got to do twice as much. Okay, I've got to do more. I've got to do more to be better,’” Baloo says.  “And I have I have that really strongly, which is not always healthy in terms of the level of obsessiveness that I have over perfection, you know?”

Further reading:
Showing up for women in business during Covid-19
Educating women in tech: Q&A with Anna Brailsford
What it’s like to completely change careers midway
Women of Avast talk about Women in Tech 2020

As a very early woman in tech who had “not a single female role model” growing up, Baloo is committed to helping other women pursue their interests and careers in technical fields. To that end, she’s currently mentoring five women. The first advice she gives them? Be your best advocate.

“Create your own brand, understand what you're capable of, and be able to explain that to somebody else,” Baloo says. “What is the one thing that you can do to do that? And then, you dare to do that.”

And speaking of daring, Baloo is all about jumping in head first — even if you get hit on the head sometimes. 

“If something really scares me I'm like, okay, you know, just jump,” Baloo says. “And that's part of my impulsive nature. I just jump, even when maybe I shouldn't have always jumped. Sometimes it hurts. And you fall. But I have to say that that is my one thing. Just jump.”

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