Maas details her startup’s ambitions to “put safety in every hand,” her experience as a minority in the industry and more in this month’s SECURE Perspectives.
SECURE Perspectives is a monthly column by the Security Industry Association (SIA) profiling women in the security industry. This column is part of SIA’s Women in Security Forum (WISF), an initiative to support the participation of women in the security field through programs, networking and professional growth events and thought leadership opportunities.
For this edition of SECURE Perspectives, SIA spoke with Sheryl Maas, founder and CEO of Guardian Zone.
SIA: How did you get into the security industry?
Sheryl Maas: I spent 25 years as a foreign service officer — U.S. diplomat with the U.S. Department of Commerce, helping U.S. companies export to international markets. I lived in high-crime and threat posts all over the world working in U.S. embassies and consulates in China, South Africa, Mexico, the Netherlands, Jordan and Peru. I lived in Jordan during the height of the Iraq War. I was at the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, Mexico, on 9/11 when we were receiving bomb threats while the U.S. was being attacked.
Safety and security became a focal point of living abroad while representing my country. As my career progressed, I was part of the ambassador’s country team and the Embassy’s Emergency Action Committee. I was also the local Department of Commerce representative with the Overseas Security Advisory Council, and therefore I was intimately aware of the embassies’ security initiatives.
When I moved back to the U.S., active shooter events were more and more in the news and growing in number. It was clear that people in the public often did not know what to do in these emergency situations beyond calling 911 and panicking. I thought of the training I received overseas by our regional security officers regarding personal safety, which taught me about options in sensitive situations. However, it was a specific terrorist attack in 2015 in Paris which caused me to take action and to create Guardian Zone, officially entering the security field.
How does your organization serve the industry?
Guardian Zone is a security software solution which allows security officers to engage with the public during an emergency on a “one to one” or “one to many” message platform with instructions on how to find safety. Some might think about Guardian Zone as crowdsourcing security, which we think is a powerful force multiplier. We create a temporary community in which the public can send messages to and receive messages from security officers. In short, we put safety in every hand.
What types of job functions do women fill in your company?
As a startup, we have a very lean staff at this time. Our developer is a woman-owned business, and we support many other women-owned businesses and entrepreneurs. I’m currently mentoring another female founder and chief operating officer who is part of SIA’s Talent Inclusion Mentorship Education (TIME) program. There are very few female CEOs in the security industry and even fewer African American CEOs.
My vision for Guardian Zone is that as we move forward and grow our company, we hire the best candidates, and that clearly means significant numbers of both females and minority staff members in key leadership roles. After living more than 18 years outside the U.S., I understand and value diversity. In fact, it will be a priority for our company, and we will make sure our recruiting efforts are proactive to reach these communities since diverse experiences and opinions are key to most thriving companies.
With more and more data that shows diversity makes a better workforce, what opportunities do you see for women in the security industry?
I feel fortunate that while the security industry might not have many female CEOs, I’ve felt welcome in nearly every industry event and meeting. As a member of the SIA Women in Security Forum, I’ve found the support of other women in the industry to be invaluable. As an organization, we actively recruit young women into the industry and mentor them as they advance. Let’s be clear that not everyone has been welcoming of women in the industry, but we have many male champions that understand the value of women and minorities in this industry, and I must applaud them for their support. Our industry is filled with opportunities for everyone, and that clearly includes women and minorities. We just need to open the door a little wider and let them in. There are no limits on the possibilities.
Statistics show women receive more college degrees than men, which demonstrates our ambition to achieve knowledge and success. We can now bring that knowledge to the security industry in various ways, from marketing executives to security technology entrepreneurs.
What impediments do you see for achieving this? What could remedy some of these impediments?
As I travel to industry events and have meetings with clients, I notice many leadership teams do not include women or significant numbers of them — this means experience might be an impediment in some security functions. We see more female police officers than ever, however, and those heroic contributors play a key role in inspiring young women to enter the industry. Additionally, the skill sets necessary in our industry can be obtained from other business segments, since intelligence and organization are a must in nearly every employment category. In my role as a female security CEO, it is my job to be a mentor to women as well. Since we are a software company, we are innovators and expect to be within security staffing as well.
What do you see as important trends in the industry?
We see many people — civilians, so to speak — who want to be part of the solution and take proactive control of their safety. Crowdsourcing is a key trend across many different industries, and this is especially true within software. Unfortunately, mistrust has become part of the police narrative, and we think solutions such as Guardian Zone have a chance to bridge that divide. Everyone has a smartphone with them, so why not make that device a force multiplier to spread information and save lives in emergency situations?
More specifically, what trends are you seeing in Guardian Zone’s space of crowdsourced venue and corporate security?
The trend that I am currently seeing in venue security is still the use of security guards and cameras by only security officers. I don’t see a true crowdsourced solution at venues. In corporate security, I see technologies that allow for closed communities such as staff or students being able to convey or receive information; however, they do not allow for information from visitors or the general public.
As our nation has begun to try and resume a somewhat “normal” life during COVID, I have seen that people are a little bit more aggressive and short-tempered, and this has led to more altercations, be it a fight at a stadium, on an airplane or in other public places. Those events are being videotaped and spread around the Internet. There has also been an increase in active shooter events in schools, workplace violence and other soft targets.
Additionally, there has been an increase in general criminal activities. It seems as if the lockdown, the economic crisis, racial tensions from 2020 and the subsequent consequences have created an anxiety in society that is manifesting itself with increased aggression. As one industry example, the ability for fans, students or the general public to alert security before a disagreement turns into a brawl is a real opportunity to save teams from injured fans and bad publicity. Similar opportunities exist across countless other public and private entities, and we can help avoid larger situations through proactive sharing by the public.
What are the top challenges your company has faced in the last year?
For a startup, resources are always challenging. The biggest challenges I faced last year during COVID, however, was that many of the potential clients or industries I saw as natural partners were closed down and not operational — therefore, they were not really interested in talking or doing business because they were busy saving their own resources.
A challenge that I have experienced since entering the security industry has been that generating result-driven meetings with few industry contacts can also be difficult. Ninety-nine percent of my meetings have been with men, with 2% of those meetings being with men of color. Recently, I’ve had one meeting with a Black female executive in the security industry at a large Fortune 500 company, and she has championed Guardian Zone. She is pushing us through their process and not allowing others to shut us down. We are working closely together, and she supports our vision for the future.
We have begun to form partnerships with industry leaders and companies who are focused on business solutions. For instance, we are working in a partnership with Orion Entrance Control because our software is a complimentary offering to their products such as turnstiles, tailgating solution, DoorGuard, and their presence detection — people-counting solution Constellation. We are also a part of the Microsoft for Startups program, which helps new companies such as ours. Finally, there are many companies which range from Fortune 500 to small companies who are focused on doing business with female and/or minority-owned businesses because of various economic incentives. We are grateful for every opportunity to share our story.
What are the biggest opportunities your company — and the industry — are seeing?
If you search “crowdsource security” today, the search engine results are exclusively about software bugs and how to fix them. We intend to change that in a big way because we can, and should, play a proactive role in our own security. We see every day active shooters or criminal activities at soft targets such as shopping malls, indoor and outdoor concerts, stadiums, churches, office buildings and schools. We have the technology available, but we have not been able to eradicate or decrease these types of activities. I believe that is because we have not engaged the public. We need to create a temporary community when people are in your venue or facility where everyone has the opportunity to send or receive information from security officers. We never tell people not to call 911.
However, sometimes valuable time is lost and misinformation is conveyed when on-site security is unaware of an incident. Guardian Zone strives to bridge that gap. Let the people in your facility or venue be your eyes and ears. People see or sense when something is not right. We know humans make mistakes or misread events; however, we can give them a technology to use to provide real-time information directly to the experts, and this allows security officers to follow their protocols to respond to that incident.
In today’s world, when an incident occurs, people on site are sharing information with each other and sometimes streaming information online. I believe a technology like Guardian Zone can help security officers control the information and narrative that people are sharing on site. All information flows into security and flows out of security. Therefore, I see Guardian Zone as one of the biggest opportunities in the industry to address a specific problem. If Guardian Zone is layered with your other security technologies, your staff and visitors are that much safer.
In terms of our company, we are a startup, which means every single contributor is vital to our success. Contributors can be employees, partnership companies or potential clients who are focused on providing female-owned companies an opportunity. This is not just because of gender but more because we have a great solution to a vexing challenge of keeping people safe.
The recent, heartbreaking, Houston concert tragedy has been completely devastating and is creating change within the security industry. It has renewed some previous conversations with venues and entertainment companies, while others have reached out to us for the first time. Industry leaders are looking for better methods to directly open communication between the general public and security agencies managing events. In some news stories, there were people who alerted concert staff about issues, but those people were not within security, and this gap potentially created a delayed response. As strategic conversations happen within that segment, we would appreciate a role in how the industry reorganizes standard operating procedures.
What do you hope the SIA Women in Security Forum can achieve for the security industry?
WISF is an organization of educated, knowledgeable and forward-thinking women looking to increase our numbers in a very male-dominated industry. We believe the more women are in security industry, especially in leadership roles, the better the industry will be all around. WISF is recruiting young women at universities into the industry and mentoring young women already in the industry. We support each other and help to build our networks.
As an industry, we are seeing more and more entrepreneurs enter our industry from other business segments, and some of these entrepreneurs are women. The WISF and SIA’s TIME mentoring program will be invaluable to these women entrepreneurs, just like they have been invaluable to me. I am honored to be among the women pioneers creating the modern security industry. I look forward to contributing more to WISF, being inspired by other SIA women leaders and becoming a role model to those who choose to follow in our footsteps.
What is your best advice for women in the industry?
My advice to women and minorities in the industry is build your network and take control of your own success. This means pursuing more education and as many life experiences as you can because those traits, along with drive, will take anyone to success. Interpersonal skills are important. I’m amazed at how many people have never had a conversation with a woman of color; therefore, I find myself trying to make them comfortable just to begin a dialogue. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, and I suggest women ask for what they need or want. Set goals and develop skills that are needed to achieve your goal. Talk to as many people in the industry as possible. Have a mentor and become a mentor.
Who or what was the strongest influence in your career?
The event that inspired my career change was the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. I watched in horror, just like the rest of the world, as terrorist attacked restaurants and the Bataclan Theater. These criminals tried unsuccessfully to send a bomb into the soccer game being played between France and Germany. I was impacted by the multiple terrorist attacks in Paris because my family and I had been to that area of Paris the year before, and I thought that could have been us. I was angry that an organization felt they had a right to steal our personal safety and security and create fear because of their beliefs. I saw how an innocent day out could turn into terror. So I set out to create a technology that could mitigate that terror. It’s all about communication before, during and after. If Guardian Zone can help minimize the impact of people out to do harm, we have done our job.
How do you define success?
Success is a very situational and personal thing to define. We developed Guardian Zone because we believe that everyone who would like to play a role in making their environment a safer place should have that opportunity. I’ve invested time and resources to make a positive change in the world because I have the ability and opportunity to do so. I have a vision for how security can evolve, and I will do everything possible to make that happen.
My mission is to put safety in every hand. In the process, I intend to provide meaningful opportunities to fellow women and minorities. I believe most of my success to date has come through my belief in God and my perseverance even when things seemed impossible. I am living the life I want. I think that is success.
What would you say to new upcoming women in the industry?
I would tell upcoming women in the industry to develop your skills, build your network and believe in yourself. While the security industry might not have a high percentage of women in leadership roles today, I feel the industry is becoming more welcoming to women, and we have momentum on our side. I’m grateful for opportunities, like this one, to show examples of success.