Advice / Career Paths / Career Stories

Being a Black Woman in Tech Can Feel Isolating. This Marketer Is Changing That.

Samantha Pierre, a senior content marketing manager at Palo Alto Networks.
Samantha Pierre, a senior content marketing manager at Palo Alto Networks.
| Courtesy of Samantha Pierre

Like many first-generation children of immigrants, Samantha Pierre felt pressure to pursue certain career paths that her parents felt would guarantee success. “My Jamaican mother and Haitian father would have been thrilled if I had become a doctor, lawyer, or teacher,” she says.

But her curiosity and multicultural background actually inspired her to go in a different direction, and she studied anthropology at Harvard University and later got an MBA in marketing.

“I’ve always been interested in other people’s values, how they think, feel, and make decisions. These traits made social anthropology a great choice for me as an undergraduate, and it’s why marketing strategy in the technology industry is a solid fit for me today,” says Pierre, a senior content marketing manager at cybersecurity company Palo Alto Networks.

Here, Pierre shares why she made the jump from nonprofits to cybersecurity, how she’s made a difference for Black employees at Palo Alto Networks, and what a difference a little exercise can make.

Tell us about your career journey, and what inspired you to pursue a career in marketing.

After college, I was looking for an opportunity to use the multidimensional understanding of people and cultures that I gained from studying anthropology, and I found it in the edtech and nonprofit organizations that primarily served Black and low-income communities. I analyzed target markets of young donors and helped nonprofit clients reach them using new marketing channels; I integrated social media into the traditional communications plans to increase online donations; and I drove traffic to a cloud-based software platform that would be adopted by school communities around the world.

These experiences also inspired me to get my MBA with a focus on tech marketing from the University of Austin McCombs School of Business. After graduating, I experienced firsthand how marketing is a growth engine for business. I appreciate that great marketing is about creating authentic emotional connections and communicating with creative stories and through data.

What initially attracted you to work at Palo Alto Networks?

I felt like working here would be consistent with my values and past career choices. Palo Alto Networks was much smaller at the time, but it was clearly a rocketship of a company in an important industry. I was attracted to cybersecurity’s big purpose of keeping people, businesses, and governments safe online, as well as the company’s focus on solving one of the most pressing problems of the next 50 to 100 years. I also saw the chance to work with incredibly smart people on projects that have a real impact. I was impressed by the collective commitment to innovation, doing things differently, and making a lasting, positive impact on customers and the industry.

How has the company supported your growth?

Palo Alto Networks has supported my career growth through its investments in employee education. Our FLEXLearn portal has hours of online courses on a variety of topics that can be used to build your professional skills and capabilities. I’ve used our learning budget to fund a digital marketing course and I’ve taken advantage of public speaking workshops and DEI leadership coaching to support my work as global co-lead of Ujima, our Black Employee Network Group (ENG).

Earlier this year, I was promoted to senior content marketing manager and I’m currently completing a leadership development program for underrepresented talent. I appreciate the support and resources as I further develop my personal leadership style and step into the next phase of my career.

Most people wouldn’t connect cybersecurity with roles in content marketing. How would you respond to that? What other non-tech departments would candidates be surprised to learn about?

Content marketing is a key part of any business’ marketing strategy because it answers customer and prospects’ questions and helps us build trust, develop relationships, and generate quality marketing leads, which sustains growth and improves sales conversions.

Palo Alto Networks, like any other business, relies on a host of skill sets, abilities, and functions to be successful. There are many exciting non-technical roles and departments here that would surprise candidates. I’m always impressed by the work that comes out of our global policy, customer success, and corporate social responsibility teams. Our security education and awareness and our education services teams are also doing interesting things by providing unique learning opportunities to employees and corporate training to customers who need the knowledge and skills to fully leverage their cybersecurity solutions.

What are you responsible for as a senior content marketing manager?

I’m responsible for increasing the company’s brand awareness and building trust through storytelling. I do this by developing content that’s interesting, valuable, and relevant to security audiences and empowers them to make the best security buying decision for their organizations. Content may be the first interaction point with a prospective customer, so it’s crucial we quickly make an impression that communicates excellence and expertise. The whitepapers, ebooks, videos, and web pages I build help prospects understand the cybersecurity market and landscape and how their peers are tackling enterprise security challenges and managing risk.

I partner with various internal teams—including our sales, campaigns, and SEO teams—to make sure customers can find high-value content at each stage of their buying journey. I enjoy this role because I use my anthropologist training to understand how people think, feel, make decisions, live their values, and relate to the world and each other when using technology.

Tell us about your involvement in launching Ujima. In what ways does it support employees? What impact has this network had on the company and your experience there?

A coworker and I came up with the idea to start a Black Employee Network Group after a panel discussion at a National Society for Black Engineers (NSBE) convention. One of the attendees asked about diversity at Palo Alto Networks and the Black experience there. I was honest that we were very much meeting the Silicon Valley status quo and not doing much better than any other tech company. At the time, I was living in San Francisco and painfully aware of the lack of diversity, equity, or inclusion. It didn’t seem right to advocate for others to join the company without the proper support to keep them here. That’s why I started Ujima: I didn’t just want to invite more Black people into tech—I wanted to make sure when they got here, they felt safe, seen, and supported. Ujima supports Black employees and the larger Palo Alto Networks community in four main areas: recruitment, professional development, social impact, and belonging.

I wanted to build safe spaces for Black people to support each other professionally, but Ujima has become a source of support that goes beyond work. I saw this in 2020 when our community was contending with George Floyd’s murder, systemic racism, and police brutality, as well as pandemic isolation and COVID’s disproportionate impact on Black communities. During that time, we met over Zoom to hold space for employees who needed to process the events, and a small group of Ujima members partnered with our corporate social responsibility team on a COVID relief fund to donate $1 million to organizations serving the Black communities most impacted by COVID.

Thanks to Ujima, there’s greater awareness and acknowledgement of the unique systemic issues that prevent Black employees from entering the tech industry and thriving when we get here, and the company is making an effort to address them. It’s really humbling to see how the group has grown and evolved, and to continue my personal commitment to uplifting and centering Black people.

What are some lessons or skills you learned while getting your MBA that you still apply in your current role and career?

One of my marketing professors would say “Everyone is tuned into the station WIFM (‘What’s in it for me?’), and you need to answer the question repeatedly if you want to win a customer.” I believe the best marketing campaigns answer this question at every stage of the buying journey. When you’re in a deeply technical space like cybersecurity, asking this question has really helped me lead with empathy and advance marketing conversations beyond promoting product features to tell stories about the real people who are impacted by cyber threats.

My business education also emphasized teamwork and collaboration, which are skills I use every day. Almost every MBA assignment was a group project. It was frustrating at times, but we learned how to negotiate, build a consensus, and communication skills. I recently won the Collaboration Award at a quarterly marketing all-hands meeting, so what I learned in school is still paying off!

How do you practice work-life balance? Are there any related benefits or perks that you take advantage of at Palo Alto Networks?

Achieving work-life balance is a journey that I’m forever on! I try to be intentional about how I start and end my day. I like to start my day with something that contributes to my mental, physical, or spiritual health, such as going to the gym, practicing yoga, journaling, or meditating. Movement has become a form of meditation for me, and I find myself even more productive and focused thanks to it. 

I use our FLEXBenefits wellness program to pay for my gym membership, workout equipment, gym shoes, smartwatch, and fitness classes. Before Palo Alto Networks, I’d never experienced a program that’s this comprehensive and covers so many different aspects of what contributes to employee health and wellness.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve experienced in your career, especially as a woman of color, and how did you overcome it?

One of the hardest parts about being a woman in this industry is the biases and microaggressions that happen every day. I’ve been singled out as “different” in customer meetings, and well-meaning colleagues have tried to tokenize me. I’ve also been consistently mistaken for other Black women at work. Earlier in my career, I was often the only woman in meetings, and definitely the only Black woman in the room. Being “the only one” was especially isolating because I didn’t have great support systems at work.

I’m fortunate that I now work at a company that is making an effort to grow our representation of women in leadership and management positions. There are more women to approach for support and advice and our Women’s ENG is a resource as well. Outside of work, my family and friends are supportive of my ambitions at work and hype me up whenever I need it.

What advice do you have for someone who’s trying to break into the tech industry in a non-tech role such as marketing?

Take time to develop your skills in your particular business function—they’re often transferable from other industries. For example, if you’re interested in marketing, learn the products you want to market and understand which customers you want to sell to intimately. It might be helpful to go to grad school or get a professional certification to grow your skills, too.

Spend time networking with people in the industry, especially if you’re trying to go into a niche sector of technology like cybersecurity. Join in-person and online communities and don’t be afraid to reach out to members for help. I’m always in awe of the advice, mentorship, support, and connections offered on Sista Circle: Black Women in Tech and Black tech Twitter. If you’re interested in security, join professional organizations like Women in Security and Privacy (WISP) or Cyversity.

What’s your go-to activity to unwind after work these days?

I’m really passionate about food, so I like trying new recipes during the week. Now that I’m back in Flatbush, Brooklyn, I can find what I need to make Caribbean dishes much more easily than I could when I lived in San Francisco. I recently made some curry squash tacos that were out of this world!

Updated 10/14/2022