lavern rhaburn sula (b.s. ’88) is the president of the north american division of argus cyber security, ltd. as the largest, independent automotive cybersecurity company in the world, argus provides the automotive industry with comprehensive solutions and services to protect vehicles from cyberattacks, but defending against these attacks is an ever-shifting battle.
“so many vehicles are connecting to the internet that in just two years there will be hundreds of millions of them on the road.” explains sula, “modern cars and trucks are computers on wheels, and they’re just as vulnerable to cyberattacks…we’ve already seen all the major automakers make public disclosures about hacking incidents affecting their products. but this is only the beginning, securing connected vehicles is a growing challenge as they continually make up a larger and larger part of the world fleet. argus is helping manufacturers, tier 1 suppliers, and vehicle fleets get ahead of malicious hackers and minimize the risk to modern vehicles.”
sula herself has experienced quite a journey to her current role. when she speaks at events and to women’s networking groups, she often emphasizes that “you don’t have to follow a textbook career.” sula certainly did not. she was born in belize and grew up in new york city. her single mother worked as a cleaning lady and then drove ambulances. “none of these are high-paying jobs,” says sula. “my mom was an immigrant who did everything to get by and to support her daughter,” which included enrolling sula in piano lessons in harlem, where sula learned to read, to write, and to play classical music. each year, as a prize for doing well, the music school invited their top students to give a concert at carnegie hall—sula performed there annually until she graduated from high school.
sula knew she was going to college but didn’t know how to pay for it. that’s when nyit stepped in. she received a call from a staff member in nyit’s heop program who told sula that based on her grades, she could get a free ride at nyit. “it was like hitting lotto. i will always be grateful for that phone call—it was a life-changing moment.”
photo: (left to right) pauline white (aunt), lavern sula, jean giddens (mother)
after her freshman year at nyit, sula chose a mechanical engineering major, but also worked in the computer science lab. at a summer internship fair, she interviewed with general motors (gm) and was hired on the spot. sula worked as a paid intern at gm every other semester and went to nyit in between. it pushed off her graduation date, but sula says the experience was “invaluable.”
it also gave her a sense of what she could accomplish professionally. after graduation, she turned down gm’s first two offers, and held out for a better position as a quality control engineer at their packard electric plant in warren, ohio.
sula’s career at gm evolved quickly. over the next 30 years, she would climb the corporate ladder, eventually becoming vice president of engineering, overseeing 2,200 employees at gm’s technical center in bangalore, india. along the way, she moved to detroit where she found ways to combine her love of computer science and mechanical engineering, was tapped for gm’s executive technical assistance program, was made the executive in charge of the electrical development group, and ran the canadian regional engineering center.
in the early 2010s, research began to show how easy it was to hack cars, and gm “wised up quickly.” in 2012, sula received one of the most important phone calls of her life: gm wanted her to run their newly created cybersecurity team. she moved her family back to detroit from india and started work as global engineering director for vehicle cybersecurity. “our team started small, with ambitious growth plans,” says sula. cybersecurity has an impact on almost every part of the vehicle, and sula and gm understood this.
by 2014, she was ready for a change. sula decided that after 30 years and “once the cybersecurity team got up and going,” it was time to close that chapter of her life. “i wanted to do something different,” she says. she had already started a web development company on the side that was making money, so she retired from gm to pursue web design and consulting.
sula left the car industry behind—or so she thought. the founders of argus cyber security, ltd., a tel-aviv-based automotive cybersecurity company, asked her to become president of their north american operations. joining the argus team was a decision she says she will never regret. “the company had been up and running since 2013,” says sula. “when i started in 2015, there was already a wealth of automotive cybersecurity knowledge within the company headquarters in tel aviv. today, we have an entire floor with 75 people and additional offices in detroit, silicon valley, stuttgart, and tokyo.”
still, no matter how her career has grown, early lessons stay with her. thinking back to her first job at gm, in ohio, she says, “i was a wide-eyed black woman in my 20s from new york city—i became the first female maintenance supervisor. i worked with cigar-smoking middle-aged white men and had replaced a guy everyone loved.” was it a challenge? yes, says sula, but there were benefits too. “you have to pay your dues, roll up your sleeves, embrace what the other workers are going through. it was trial by fire.” five years later, when sula was transferred to detroit, they threw her a big party. “i have a special place in my heart for that plant. i learned a lot of life lessons. i’m still in touch with people i worked with there.”
read more about how engineers keep your ride “cyber secure” in nyit magazine.