The Aviator

Val Rahmani
Val Rahmani

After steering start-ups and multibillion dollar tech businesses to success, Val Rahmani tells Lynne Nolan about her time at the helm of Damballa and the wealth of opportunities cloud has opened up.

A real worry to me is that so few women want to take Science and Math at college. If they’re not there at that stage, they have less chance of getting to the top.

Read the feature in Silicon Valley Global.

After 28 years at IBM, Val Rahmani left her role as as General Manager of its Internet Security Systems in 2009, conveying again her courage to face risks when she joined advanced threat protection experts Damballa as CEO.

Since her departure from Damballa in December last year, spurred by her desire to get involved in earlier stage businesses, Rahmani is still flying high and currently working with three start-ups at fairly early stages, she reveals.

“They’re all in technology, and all looking to change the way people do things.  They’re based on new concepts; involving machine learning, big data, augmented reality. I think the main trend is how fast businesses are launching, succeeding and scaling today.  There is no longer a need for offices of equipment,” comments Val Rahmani, Entrepreneur.

The companies are all using the cloud, and producing a SaaS platform that is easy for their customers to use, she explains. “The investment they need is comparatively small, as they can start by using systems like Amazon, rather than buying their own hardware.”

The good news is that they can move quickly, she says, however the downside is their competitors can also move very fast, and each week brings a new company, “so you need to have very strong ideas and very smart execution.”

Reflecting on her decision to leave IBM, Rahmani confides that she “made the move in two steps really. As part of my role in IBM, I led the acquisition of an Internet Security Company, Internet Security Systems (ISS).  When the founder and CEO of that company decided to move on, I took over running the business.  It was wonderful, and I realized that I really wanted to run a business myself, and that I was capable.”

When approached by a headhunter the same year to helm Damballa, the company was the perfect fit, as although it was still in internet security, a space she knew, it was an earlier stage business.

“It’s interesting. Although some things are of course different in a small company, other things are the same, it’s still about creating a great product, working with customers, and helping every member of the team be the best they can (and having fun along the way).  I love the speed and energy of a small business!” she enthuses.

While at the helm of Damballa, “it was very exciting to bring a product to market, and see customers’ positive reactions to it. In fact, that has been a highlight of many of my roles.  The other key one is developing an awesome team, and showing them that they can achieve things way beyond their previous thinking.  And, of course, ringing the bell for big customer wins will always be a joy,” she says.

Damballa boasts patent-pending technology enabling it to determine whether a customer’s network is communicating with a criminal, even if that criminal is previously unknown, and even if the breach is very well hidden, using a set of advanced algorithmic techniques to do this.

“I really enjoyed having the best technology in the market, and seeing it succeed where other systems had failed,” she says.

“Damballa is in great hands – I had raised a new round of funding, and put together a truly great executive team.  I still have equity in the company, and am sure it will be very successful.  I keep in touch, and love seeing them continuing to win in the market.   And I’m really enjoying working with several different companies, helping them get started and then get successful,” she comments.

Currently a Board member of Teradici, which designs advanced image processing algorithms, enables the physical separation of the computer and the user, and ultimately will change the way enterprises compute. Rahmani is also a mentor to the Flashpoint accelerator program and the Advanced Technology Development Center in Atlanta (ATDC).

She is also on the board of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a member of the Executive Advisory Board of Atlanta Telecom Professionals (ATP) and a member of the Industry Advisory Board of the Georgia Tech Information Security Center.

Growing up in the UK, Rahmani attended the Lycée Français de Londres, a French school in London, as it was close to where her parents worked, investing long hours getting a small printing company up and running, so they could see their two children every day.

“I enjoyed Science and Math, and specifically loved the fact that you didn’t have to learn facts or do lots of reading as you did in other subjects. I was lucky that my Physics teacher, a wonderful lady, suggested that I should try to get a place at Oxford; I had never thought an ordinary person (no one in our family had ever been to college) could do that.  So I applied.  But, to her huge dismay, I chose Chemistry over Physics,” she reveals.

After graduating from Oxford University with a Doctor of Philosophy in Chemistry in 1981, she assumed the next step would be working at a big pharmaceutical company, “but when I met the team at IBM I thought that sounded like a great place to be,” joining as a systems engineer in South London.

“In school, I had been working on quantum pharmacology, modeling electronic structures of drug molecules, and I assumed IBM would give me a job in research. Instead, I was assigned a small territory in south London with retail and manufacturing clients,” she recalls.

Of the roles she was to take on during her 18-year tenure with IBM, starting the global wireless business for IBM in 2000 as its General Manager of Wireless Solutions was a career highlight, as wireless technology was just beginning to emerge in Europe.

Rahmani suggested to her bosses that the company became involved in mobile technology and was allocated a budget to work on the project at night and at weekends. After proving to her bosses how profitable the idea could be, she was asked the run the business globally, likening the experience now to leading a start-up within IBM. The company developed software allowing companies to offer data access on mobile devices, with one of the first applications for maintenance engineers taking off quickly.

A year later, Rahmani was asked to lead IBM’s entire Unix business, later becoming vice president for corporate strategy. After expressing to her bosses that IBM’s services should be based on software, she was given a new job overseeing a business that included computer security services.

Making the decision to purchase some companies rather than develop certain services, one of her first acquisitions was Internet Security Systems. When its CEO moved on, IBM asked her to run the division, and although she loved the work she realised she would rather run it as a standalone company, leading to her decision to leave the company in 2009 to pursue such a challenge, which presented itself in the opportunity to head up Damballa.

Throughout her career, Rahmani has been “pitching to women, hoping to encourage them to get into Tech.  In fact, we’re just about to have a STEM day here in Georgia, and many of us will be presenting to and meeting young women, and showing them how exciting and diverse a career in tech can be.  I’m on the Board of the Partnership for Excellence in Education here in Georgia, and getting more women into Tech is a key focus for us.”

Having women at the helm at major firms including IBM and HP has signalled that it possible for women to be represented in senior management positions at leading companies, she says.

“I think women can achieve any position, but they have to want to.  A real worry to me is that so few women want to take Science and Math at college. If they’re not there at that stage, they have less chance of getting to the top. In start-ups, women CEOs are so few in number in Tech. There are just not enough women wanting to do this.  I think it’s improving, but nowhere near enough,” she says.

To encourage more women to consider careers in the technology sector, “we have to stop Tech being presented as difficult, academic and geeky; then I think more young men and women will be interested.”

A member of the British Aerobatic Association, which competes in European and world championships, Rahmani started flying planes about 19 years ago. She met her husband Nick Onn, when he invited her to fly in a two-seater plane with him.

Asked whether women bring different styles of leadership to companies, Rahmani responds “sometimes. I do think women are more likely to shape and guide a team rather than manage it through brute force.  But, of course, there are all types of leaders, male and female.  The best adapt their style to the type of business and find a way of optimizing each aspect of the business.”

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