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Q&A with the California Cybersecurity Institute’s Danielle Borrelli 

Headshot of Danielle Borrelli
Danielle Borrelli works as the
Operations Coordinator for the
California Cybersecurity Institute.

By Nicole Troy

Danielle Borrelli (Political Science ’11, Master of Public Policy ’17) is helping lead the charge to address our nation’s national cybersecurity crisis as the Operations Coordinator for the California Cybersecurity Institute (CCI). Partnering with the tech community, private corporations, public agencies, and academia, Borrelli and the CCI work to craft a novel workforce prepared to combat the ever-growing online threat landscape.  

In a seemingly technology-dominated field, Borrelli uses her expansive liberal arts background to spearhead national and international anti-human trafficking work, coordinate trainings for law enforcement officers and the public, and conduct research.  

Borrelli recently sat down with us to discuss the paths that led her to the CCI and her thoughts on some of her greatest career achievements.  


Borrelli and a classmate smiling at their graduation ceremony
Borrelli at her master's graduation
ceremony in 2017.

You earned your Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and your Master of Public Policy from Cal Poly. What were the most impactful classes you took during that time?  

The most profound undergraduate class I remember was POLS 381: Peace and War with Craig Arceneaux. It opened my eyes to the dynamics at play in the world in a way that wasn't judgmental or stereotypical. I liked having space for that dialogue and for that thought leadership, if you will, to understand the world in a new way.   

My favorite graduate class was POLS 515: Public Policy with Elizabeth Lowham, who is the most amazing person I've ever met in my entire life. The class brought a deeper understanding to not just politics, but how policies form, all the aspects around different stakeholder groups that inform policy, and different types of events that frame policy movements or policy changes.   

It was really challenging, but I loved every bit of it because it helped to lay a good foundation for the rest of my education. I still quote and use things from that class to this day, and I worked with her for a long time on projects as they related to the CCI.  


What did life look like for you during your college years?  

During my undergraduate years, I put myself through school as a computer technician, working about 25 hours per week. During my master’s program I worked 40 hours per week and then had my coursework which added another 30 hours. In my first year in the MPP program, I was also running a safe house, so it felt like I had no sleep for close to a year.   


You ran a safe house? How did that begin?  

I learned about human trafficking in an undergraduate class with Shanruo Ning Zhang and then did my senior project on it. After I graduated in 2011 and began working fulltime, all my free time was basically spent doing anti-human trafficking work. At the beginning, that involved raising funds, coordinating fundraising events for nonprofits and gathering locals in the community to start a group we called the Mountainbrook Abolitionists.   

We hosted one of the first regional anti-human trafficking conferences in the area and were part of the launch of the SLO County District Attorney’s Human Trafficking Task Force. After some time, we went to Brazil and did some anti-human trafficking work there during the World Cup. When we came back, we realized that we are seriously lacking services for survivors in the United States, so we endeavored to start a safe house.   


How did this lead into your work with the California Cybersecurity Institute?  

I did internships with both Polaris and Amazon Web Services (AWS) for my master’s program. Back then, AWS was launching what they call the Digital Transformation Hub out of the Cal Poly Technology Park. Part of my internship was to help set that up, as well as to work with Polaris to deliver a hands-on, immersive training for all their trainees across the nation. Polaris came to the Digital Transformation Hub and CCI for consulting on immersive training and I helped to organize the entire simulation.    

Four years ago, after my internship, I was offered a position as the operations coordinator at the CCI. The cool thing about my job is that I am able to marry my IT background and my passion for human trafficking. I do a lot more than just human trafficking work at the CCI, but that is the core.  


Borrelli standing with three other people in front of a promotional sign
Borrelli (right) speaking at the University
of California Cybersecurity Summit.

What does your role at the CCI entail?  

As operations coordinator, I oversee most of the things that happen at the CCI which include programs like training and certifications, awareness and education, and research and development.   

With the awareness and education part, I organize most of the competitions we put on for middle schoolers, high schoolers and a few other programs. Other job duties include financial analysis, policy analysis, research, project management, event coordination and HR analysis.  

If I’m being honest, there's absolutely no consistency to my day-to-day and it varies depending upon what the need is that day. I think of each day as, “What skill sets do I get to use today to get the job done?”  


How did your political science and liberal arts background set you up for success in a tech heavy industry?  

Political science gives you a very broad skillset that is applicable in a lot of different professions and fields. Through political science, I learned that by researching, opening up your mind to understand an issue, looking at the different angles and learning about the stakeholders, you can become almost a micro expert in any subject matter. So, I applied that idea towards technology and cybersecurity.   


How can students apply their various liberal arts backgrounds similarly to you?  

You don't need to be a genius to work in cybersecurity. Beyond the technical aspects, we need people to understand the policy and how it affects the privacy and the security of people's data. There's so much data on each human being around the globe and the technical people are not going to be as effective at making sense of that to the average layperson.   

It’s important for someone with an understanding of cybersecurity — and the technical aspects of cybersecurity — to be able to translate that information to the average person in a way that empowers them to make decisions. That is where the CLA and majors like psychology, political science and English come into play. Engineers play an important role, but so do the rest of us.  


What’s next for you?   

*laughs* Honestly, I laugh because 10 years ago I had this solid plan of what it was all going to be like, and then none of that happened. I like to dream and hope for the future, and then just be flexible about what is going to happen. I think it‘s important to have one or two ultimate goals. I know it’s super cliché, but I would love to start a family.   

As for work, at least for the CCI’s Trafficking Investigations Hub, I really want to finish the virtual reality simulation that we've been developing for the training of law enforcement and other service providers. It feels like almost a necessity to get that done in the next year or two.  


Any parting thoughts?  

I am just really thankful to Cal Poly and its Learn by Doing pedagogy because you don’t get that very many places. I am also grateful to the CLA for working as hard as they do to deliver opportunities to students. I encourage students to take every opportunity that Cal Poly offers you seriously and to apply yourself to it. If you fail at something, don't worry about it, just continue to try hard and you will get there.  


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