January 1, 2021

Thrive Global: “Be a person of integrity” with Ellison Anne Williams

Enveil CEO Ellison Anne Williams is profiled as a part of a series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry.

Excerpt from Thrive Global: As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ellison Anne Williams. Dr. Ellison Anne Williams is the Founder and CEO of Enveil, the pioneering data security company protecting Data in Use. Building on more than a decade of experience leading avant-garde efforts in the areas of large-scale analytics, information security, computer network exploitation, and network modeling. Ellison Anne founded the startup in 2016 to protect sensitive data while it’s being used or processed — the ‘holy grail’ of data encryption. Ellison Anne leverages her deep technical background and a passion for evangelizing the impact of disruptive technologies to cultivate Enveil’s capabilities into category-defining solutions that enable secure search, analytics, sharing, and collaboration.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Istarted Enveil four years ago, and while I have always been an entrepreneur at heart, I arrived in this field rather unexpectedly. I pursued math in college because it was interesting, and I graduated with a PhD in pure mathematics, along with Master’s degrees in math, computer science, and machine learning before it was ever the cool thing to do. I was hired by the U.S. National Security Agency, which happens to be the nation’s largest employer of mathematicians. I spent about 12 and a half years at the National Security Agency and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, which is where I encountered homomorphic encryption (HE), the technology at the core of Enveil’s solution. There are business-enabling capabilities that HE facilitates that are not otherwise possible, and I knew I wanted to start a company that would help finally move the technology from the realm of the theoretical to the commercially practical. And that’s what we’ve been building at Enveil ever since.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

We are fundamentally changing the paradigm of secure data usage by protecting data while it’s being used or processed — the ‘holy grail’ of data encryption. The technology that makes this possible, homomorphic encryption (HE), has been a topic of academic research for decades, but had long been considered too computationally impractical for commercial use. And in its initial form, it was painfully slow, bulky, and expensive to implement. But we’ve had made breakthroughs in the past several years that have allowed us to build market-ready solution to address a number of business use cases, especially in industries that are dealing with highly sensitive and/or regulated assets. This is significant because HE is not making something better; it’s making something entirely new possible. The business-enabling and privacy-preserving capabilities it enables are allowing organizations to securely search, share, analyze, and collaborate using sensitive data. And the fact that a category — Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs) — has formed around the utilization of HE further affirms that it has shifted into the mainstream.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I think it’s easy to forget that disruption — even when it ultimately delivers a better outcome — can be painful. It’s not easy for organizations to re-think the way things have always been done or to disrupt a process that is the result of years of time and effort. It’s also not easy to have to reconsider your position on a topic more broadly, which is what we’re seeing in the privacy arena right now. Despite the accelerating regulatory environment that has been taking place over the past several years, we are now just seeing the tip of the privacy iceberg, both from a regulatory and consumer standpoint. As awareness continues to grow, companies are being pushed by both consumers and regulators to prioritize data privacy and security. Will this mean overhauling industry standards and practices? In some cases, yes. But will we collectively be better prepared to deal with the next challenges on the horizon? I think the answer to that is also yes.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Be a person of integrity — do the right thing.

Be a person of substance.

Ignore people whose opinions you can’t change.

Read the full article at Thrive Global.

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Enveil is a pioneering Privacy Enhancing Technology company protecting Data in Use. Enveil’s business-enabling and privacy-preserving capabilities change the paradigm of how and where organizations can leverage data to unlock value. Defining the transformative category of Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs), Enveil’s award-winning ZeroReveal® solutions for secure data usage, sharing, collaboration, and monetization protect data while it's being used or processed. Customers can extract insights, cross-match, search, and analyze data assets at scale without ever revealing the content of the search itself, compromising the security or ownership of the underlying data, or exposing their interests and intent.
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