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Advice / Career Paths / Career Stories

Meet a Tech Leader Who Is an Inspiration to Girls in STEM

Edilsa LeGrier, the Director of Systems Engineering Education at Palo Alto Networks
Edilsa LeGrier, the Director of Systems Engineering Education at Palo Alto Networks.
| Courtesy of Palo Alto Networks

Growing up, Edilsa LaGrier was not one to play make-believe with her dolls. Instead, she was fascinated with how they—and all of her other toys—worked. “I had to see what gears and circuits made her mouth move up and down to swallow fake food,” she recalls. “And if something at home was broken, I wanted to fix it.”

LeGrier initially believed she was destined to be a surgeon, but after passing out during a high school internship from the sight of blood, she made other plans. “I loved math, science, and computing, and took that fascination to college,” says LeGrier, who graduated with a degree in computer science.

After graduating, she found her footing as a sales engineer, and today is the Director of Systems Engineering for the Education team at the cybersecurity company Palo Alto Networks—a competitor of her previous employer. A friend and former colleague had made the jump to Palo Alto Networks, and encouraged LeGrier to do the same. At around that time, a dream role opened up.

“Education was a vertical I’ve always been passionate about because it is through my education that I gained tremendous opportunities,” says LeGrier, who is based in Atlanta. “And this was the No. 1 cybersecurity company in the world! It was kismet.”

Here, she shares what she is responsible for in her role, how the company supports women in tech, and why she is passionate about inspiring young girls in STEM.

What are you responsible for as the Director of Systems Engineering Education? One year into the role, what are your short- and long-term goals?

My role is to develop and evolve the SLED Education Systems Engineering Sales organization by providing my team of leaders and sales engineers with the tools, resources, and support required to be the top sales engineering organization at Palo Alto Networks. My short-term goal is to continue to grow the education business. We are currently growing by 26% year over year. Long term, we want to expand the business to other states, and then maybe a global education focus.

What is your proudest achievement since joining Palo Alto Networks, and why?

My proudest achievement is making it to the Palo Alto Networks Presidents Club, which honors top sales performers at the company. This is impactful because the Education vertical is just one year old and is already standing on its own, with new leaders, new teams, and new challenges. We are here to show that this team is delivering impact to the company.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a woman—particularly a woman of color—in a male-dominated industry, and how have you overcome it?

As a woman of color in engineering, I’ve faced several challenges. In college, I was one of two women of color in the engineering school. During computer labs, you had to partner with a peer, but no one wanted to work with the Black girls. I then transferred and earned my degree from another school.

I’ve also dealt with several objections from people who were not willing to even engage with me because of my color or gender. I’ve had someone question my credentials and ask, “Are you a real engineer?” I’ve faced discrimination in every facet you can imagine—race, gender, and age. I’ve overcome because I don’t have a choice. I have to press forward. I have a daughter and a son I hope can look up to me—they are my why and how!

What advice do you have for other women who want to earn a leadership role in tech?

I would tell them that the keyword is ‘earned’! You cannot expect anything to be given to you. If you want to be a leader, take control of your career. When there are opportunities to show up, make sure you are prepared and confident. Pay attention to the thought leaders in the room and be ready to have an opinion. Never be afraid to use your voice. Formulate a team of supporters to help. Be courageous, and take risks that make you a little uncomfortable. It takes courage to grow and pursue a career in leadership.

How does Palo Alto Networks help and support women who work in tech roles?

There are a lot of opportunities to grow and learn from one another. For example, we have a community called Ladies in Field Technology (LiFT), which connects the best and brightest women cybersecurity field sales technologists and their allies. I’m an advisor to the group, and together, we’re working to double the percentage of women in our systems engineering org so that we make up 15% of systems engineering leadership. It’s so important that women join and build communities like this and have the company’s support to do so. In this way, we can help women develop and advance their careers in systems engineering.

Palo Alto Networks also offers an employee network group for all women at the company, plus additional specialized groups for employees such as Women in Public Sector (of which I’m also a member) and Women in Product Community. We also have access to mentoring programs and Coursera.

You’ve earned several licenses and certifications since starting your career. Why is it so important to continuously develop your skill set?

If you aren’t learning, you are not growing. Continual development and investing in yourself are critical to growth. It also keeps you aware of market trends. You have to stay abreast of what direction the company is going in and whether you align with that direction.

You are an active volunteer in a variety of organizations dedicated to educating young people. Tell us about this work and why it’s a passion of yours.

Volunteering with STEM-related organizations and events is a passion because I need to give back to the communities and organizations investing in young girls. Organizations like Girls Inc. and Every Girl Shines are committed to providing girls with mentors, scholarships, exposure, and networking opportunities they wouldn’t normally have.

It’s critical to spark interest in STEM at a young age, and provide girls with the chance to meet someone who makes you want to learn more. I was first exposed through my middle school computer science teacher; it was her passion for computing that helped me love it.

What are you currently reading, watching, or listening to?

I’m reading Fish: A Proven Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results by Stephen C. Lundin, John Christensen, and Harry Paul because I’m always curious about what it takes to run a productive and empowered sales team. 

For pleasure, I’m reading Thicker Than Water, Kerry Washington’s autobiography. I’ve developed a love for autobiographies because they not only allow you to learn and grow from others’ experiences, but they also help you realize that you are not alone on an island. There are people with similar struggles.