From a young age, Jen Easterly knew she wanted to serve her country. Her father joined the U.S. Army in the early 1960s and served in Vietnam, where he ultimately saved enough money to put himself through college and raised funds to help build an orphanage in the city of Qui Nhon.
Later, he served as a senior official in the Nixon, Reagan and Obama administrations. His example left “a huge impression on me of the importance of service,” Jen says.
Jen’s mother, who was an English professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania before their family moved to Potomac, Md., also went into government, serving as an Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“Growing up, it was all about education, service and making an impact in the world,” notes Jen, who applied and was accepted early to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. She majored in international relations, minored in Russian language and was in “the first class to be issued computers,” she reflects. “Nobody was talking about cyber then!”
For women, the environment wasn’t particularly welcoming. The first woman ever accepted had graduated just six years prior. Jen learned to put on her “armor” to prevent any doubts about being “fast enough, strong enough, or smart enough” to succeed. In the end, she did well enough to be selected for a Rhodes Scholarship and attended Oxford University, where she earned a master’s degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.
Inspiring the Troops
After graduation, Jen spent the early part of her career in the tactical Army, at both the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii and the storied 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C. During this time, she was deployed to Haiti and later to Bosnia, where she served as a senior intelligence officer. “When you’re “cold, wet, tired and hungry, a leader can’t show that,” she says. “Your job is to inspire your troops and get them through the really difficult times.”
After several years of military intelligence work, Jen went back to West Point to teach economics, national security and critical thinking. She was stationed there on Sept. 11 for one of the most tragic moments in our nation’s history.
But the hardest, most unanticipated challenge of Jen’s life was losing her youngest brother, Eli, to suicide three months later. “It changed the path of my life,” she reflects. From that moment, Jen realized that, while the mission is always significant, “the people and the quality of your relationships are the most important thing.”
She left West Point and went to Washington, D.C., to be closer to her parents, landing a job at the White House as the Executive Assistant to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Deputy National Security Advisor Steve Hadley. Jen held this position from 2002 to 2004, a period that included the Afghanistan War and the beginning of the Iraq War. “It was a time of intense peril for the nation,” Jen recalls.
From the White House, Jen went to the National Security Agency (NSA), where she became immersed in the world of technology and before long was deployed to Iraq, where her teams “supported efforts to detect and disrupt terrorist attacks on our combat troops,” she explains. Following her tour in Iraq, Jen returned to the NSA to create the Army's first cyber operations battalion and to help design and create the United States Cyber Command.
Upon retiring from the Army after more than 20 years, she went back to the NSA as a civilian, serving as the deputy director for counterterrorism, then later returned to the White House, where she served as Special Assistant to President Obama and Senior Director for Counterterrorism on the National Security Council Staff.
Married with a son by then, Jen wasn’t able to see her family much during her second White House tour. As her three-plus years there came to a close, she looked for opportunities to spend a lot more time with her son “during those formative teenage years. My brother didn’t have the personal resilience to bounce back from his struggles,” she says. “I want my son to know it’s okay to have problems and to talk about them, and that we’re always going to be there to support him.”
Leaders, Jen says, must do the same. “We have to create that environment for everybody.”
Jen explored opportunities outside of government, from corporate to nonprofit to academia, joining Morgan Stanley in 2017 as the Global Head of the Cybersecurity Fusion Center, allowing her to “draw upon what I had done my whole life,” as she puts it. “Defending our financial system’s integrity is hugely important to our global security.”
Few people join a global investment bank to spend more time with family. But Jen went from working a hundred hours a week to a more reasonable work week that still had a “mission-driven purpose” and an attractive culture. “Our core values align with my own personal ethos and are not that different from the Army’s,” she points out.
Until recently, few colleagues knew about her loss or her brother’s mental-health issues. Marking 18 years since his passing, she decided to share his story last December. “Everybody has struggles,” says Jen, an active supporter of the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children's Mental Health. “Good leaders help people overcome problems so they can be maximally productive in their lives.”
This year, Jen has taken on a broader role, as Morgan Stanley’s Global Head of its new Fusion Resilience Center, coordinating the Firm response not just to cyber but all threats—from terrorism to environmental to pandemic.
Along with Dr. David Stark, Morgan Stanley’s Chief Medical Officer, Jen is navigating the Firm through the Covid-19 crisis.
For her leadership, Jen was named a Morgan Stanley MAKER, joining a group of trailblazing women of accomplishment nominated by their peers. She’s proud to join this group of “superheroes” who demonstrate remarkable resiliency and empathy. “Leaders learn how to manage through adversity and adapt,” she says. “The Army taught me the power of resilience. Understanding yourself, and others, makes you a stronger person.”