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Katie Moussouris likes to hack things. Last year, she was able to hack Clubhouse, a social audio app launched in 2020, and was surprised at both how easy it was.
“I’ve been retired from professional hacking since 2007. Why should a hacker that retired that long ago still be able to hack things?” she told Motherboard. “The shortcomings for the security industry are really that we see the same cyclical bugs coming in over and over again.”
Moussouris is the founding CEO of Luta Security, a cybersecurity company that helps protect businesses and governments. In the second episode of a new documentary series by Motherboard called “Silicon Ceiling,” we spoke with Moussouris about her career in cybersecurity, her journey in founding Luta Security, and her work advocating for equal pay between genders.
At a young age, Moussouris became curious about computers and computer systems. She credits her mom, who was a biochemist and a single mother, in cultivating this interest. Her mom bought her her first computer when she was eight years old and gave her the basic programming manual that came with it.
Moussouris began working for Microsoft in 2007 as a security strategist. At Microsoft, she made transformative changes to the company’s cybersecurity. “Immediately, I saw a need to create a vulnerability research program inside of Microsoft,” Moussouris said. “I started Microsoft Security Vulnerability Research back in 2008, progressed to end up creating their bug bounty programs,” which offer rewards to independent researchers who find and report vulnerabilities to the company. Bug bounties are now standard across many tech companies.
Despite the impact she made, Moussouris saw her career stalling at Microsoft. She began seeing gender-based discrepancies in the way she was being treated versus her male colleagues.
“I saw male colleagues getting promoted for things that were way less significant than what I had contributed to the company and to the industry,” Moussouris said. “What was ironic was my bosses were putting me up for promotion and it was getting shot down for various reasons. When I get feedback, it was super gendered feedback.”
Moussouris would be told that she was too pushy, and then that she was not pushy enough. In 2015, Moussouris filed a discrimination class-action lawsuit against Microsoft, which claimed that Microsoft hiring practices upheld a practice of sex discrimination against women in technical and engineering roles.
“What led to my lawsuit was effectively that I was there for seven years and I was underpaid, under promoted, getting lower bonuses than I should have,” she said. “What I wanted was change, that’s why I sued Microsoft. That’s also why I ended up starting the Pay Equity Now Foundation when the class action lawsuit failed.”
The Pay Equity Now Foundation works to close the gender and racial pay gaps. The first donation the organization made was a $1 million gift to establish a law clinic at Penn State University named after Moussouris’s late mother.
“We’re not set to even see white women achieve pay equity with white men for another fifty years. The pandemic has set that clock way back,” Moussouris said.
Moussouris said that founding Luta Security was the only way she could truly be valued for her work.
“By the time I decided to start Luta Security, I had had a very long career and I’d had a ton of experiences. It wasn’t like suddenly now I’m ready to start a company—I certainly didn’t feel ready,” she said. “I felt like it was my only choice. It was my only choice to be paid what I was worth, it was my only choice to set my own rules.”
Around 2018, Moussouris started raising venture capital (VC) and went to various VC meetings with her COO, who is a white man. The VCs kept looking to him to answer questions as if he were the founder and CEO.
“I think the worst one was a guy who listened to our pitch and then just looked at the COO and said I just have one question, why aren’t you the CEO and she the CTO? And when my COO answered again that this is all Katie’s intellectual property and I am not technical, the guy said ‘doesn’t matter,’” Moussouris said.
Moussouris is ultimately grateful that she didn’t receive funding from any VCs because she can now pave her own path where she has the control. “It’s better that none of those VCs invested because then I’d be stuck on their hamster wheel, their schedule, their incentives, their goals,” she said. “Instead, I had to forge my own way and it’s made all the difference.”
She encourages other female founders to follow a similar path: “My advice for other female founders would be to try and build as much without outside investors as possible. Women entrepreneurs, if you can do it bootstraped, stay bootstraped. Let those VC hounds starve on the bones of the patriarchy.”