Meet Zinet Kemal: an Ethiopian Muslim American Lawyer, Published Author and Cybersecurity Professional

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By Lolla Nur, Freelance Journalist

Note: This interview took place in late November. Quotes have been lightly edited for readability and brevity. 

Selam Zinet! Can you share more about who you are and what you do? 

My name is Zinet Kemal. I’m a mom of four. I moved from Ethiopia eight years ago with my husband. I’m also a career changer.

I studied law back home. When I moved to the U.S., I became fascinated by technology so I thought it’d be a good idea to switch. I was eight months pregnant with my second child. After I had her, I started studying at a community college and did my associate’s degree in computer programming and then transitioned to computer science. I completed my bachelor’s degree while I had my third child.

I did that despite not initially having the math and tech background. In law school you don’t learn about math and back home (in Ethiopia) you don’t always have easy access to computers. In my final years of undergrad I discovered the field of cybersecurity. I worked in the state government as an information security engineer. I’m now working at Best Buy as a cloud security engineer. I’m currently studying at Georgia Institute of Technology doing my master’s in cybersecurity.

And you’re an author!

Yes, I’m also a children’s book author of “Proud in Her Hijab” and my latest book, “Oh, No…Hacked Again!” The second one will be released in early  February 2022. An advanced copy is  available from my site and the ebook is available for pre-order from Amazon.

What’s it like being a Black woman and African Muslim woman in cybersecurity?

Cybersecurity and tech is a huge and lucrative industry and it’s growing. But there’s a huge racial and gender gap. White men make up 71% of the industry, and women until recently were only 11% but it’s grown up to 24%. Nine percent of cybersecurity workers are Black. It goes lower if you’re talking about Black women.

The industry isn’t diverse. That’s why I wanted to encourage young girls with my second children’s book — so that they could see cybersecurity as a future career option.

You have an incredible range of interests and career paths. What pushed you to law school at first? 

Back home, I thought I wasn’t good at math. In Ethiopia, there’s two routes: the route of going to natural sciences or going to social sciences. I was good at social sciences. I did great in law school, but after graduation I didn’t find the right climate as I expected in Ethiopia to practice law in the ways I wanted.

Why did you come to Minnesota?

I wasn’t a refugee or fleeing, I was just looking for a better opportunity for my growing family. We applied for the U.S. Diversity Immigrant Visa (DV) and we forgot that we had applied. I checked one day and we happened to win it! The process for DV is a lot: interviews, paying the U.S. embassy, preparing documentation, background check, health checks… We finally moved to Minnesota in 2013.

Can you tell me more about your cultural identity? 

I was born and raised in Addis Ababa (the capital of Ethiopia). I identify as multi-ethnic. My mom and dad came from different parts of Ethiopia. My dad is of Gurage ethnicity, my mom is from Harar, which is eastern Ethiopia. I speak Harari language and Amharic fluently.

I’ve noticed Harari culture seems to have similarities to Middle Eastern cultures. 

Yes! Even the language is close to Arabic. The Harari population is small. There are a lot of Harari people living in Canada and overseas. It’s a rich culture. The historic town Jegol is an old town and holds a lot of cultural meaning; it’s a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Axum (in Tigray, northern Ethiopia). They have internationally known historical monuments there.

You know what’s funny, I would’ve never assumed you were Harari or Gurage. I totally assumed you were Oromo. Isn’t it interesting how even as Ethiopians, we can make wrongful assumptions about each other? 

With your headscarf in Minnesota, people say ‘Are you Somali?’ Even Somalis say that. I say, ‘No I’m from Ethiopia’ and they automatically say, ’Oh then you’re Oromo’ because a lot of the Ethiopian population in Minnesota is Oromo. But I’m not. My husband is Oromo.

I like to use that moment to teach people that there are over 80 ethnic groups and different religious groups in Ethiopia. So they joke and say, ‘So you’re not the majority, you’re not from the three fighting ones,’ and I say I’m from the minority, and one of the peaceful ones, and we laugh. But I’d love to learn the Oromo language. My husband and I talk to each other in Amharic. My kids understand Amharic. I speak Harari with my mom.

As a fellow writer, I’m dying to hear more about your journey as a children’s books author. Why children’s books? And what caused you to transition from law and technology to writing? 

I get inspired by my kids. I write those books based on their questions. They ask me about their hair types, styles of hair, braids, and my girls ask about hijab. They also get asked questions at school. So answering them, I thought, if I’m getting these questions then other families might be as well.

And there’s not enough literature representing them (Black/Muslim girls). There are books on hijab but not a lot, so I thought, why not write our own story and present it to the world?

Tell me more about your books. 

My first book is “Proud in Her Hijab,” a story about family strength, empowerment and identity. A lot of people who read it are children of other faiths. The book has two messages. The main messages are to empower and uplift girls who wear hijab so they can be proud of who they are. And to create awareness for people to appreciate cultural and faith differences.

When I get invited to media interviews, [journalists] buy the book and say, “This isn’t only a children’s book. We’ve learned so much from this.” They may not have had that exposure to Muslims at school or work.

Stereotypically, girls aren’t considered gamers. “Oh, No…Hacked Again!” is written to spark interest in kids (especially girls) to explore cybersecurity as a future career option, just like being a doctor and engineer. It’s also a story about teaching kids the importance of  online safety while navigating the digital world.

Why did you decide to self-publish and what was that process like? 

When I had the idea during the pandemic, I didn’t know there are different routes to publishing. I taught myself the whole journey by joining different writing groups on Clubhouse and watching Youtube videos. After work, I’d just be tuning into different author rooms where people shared about the process of writing a book.

I had to look for an editor, designer and illustrator. I literally learned from zero to publishing. But I wrote the first  book in one day, just sitting down.

Both traditional publishing and self-publishing have their pros and cons. I just wanted to get the message out. That’s why I self-published. I would self publish again. It took four  months to get it out versus waiting a year or so for traditional publishing.

How are you engaging East African audiences? 

My books weren’t initially targeted towards the East African community, it wasn’t targeted to any specific group. But the Ethiopian community is picking up on it. Helen (a famous Ethiopian media personality) did a recent segment on me and my books.

“Proud In Her Hijab” is available everywhere, and it’s everybody who’s purchasing and supporting. It became #1 on Amazon’s bestsellers list and also won the 2021 Distinguished Authors Guild Award under the children’s books category. The feedback has been amazing.

You’re an inspiration mashaAllah! What are your goals moving forward, either in cybersecurity or in writing? What is your vision for yourself/your work? 

I’m still building my career, my personal brand and I’m learning more about being a leader in the cybersecurity space.

With writing I just want to reach more people with the new book and get it in more schools and libraries. Selling the book is one thing, but to have it in libraries and schools is more important. Students seeing my books with other kinds of diverse books and making them available to reach more people is my goal. I want to impact students and empower girls.