Back before we were work colleagues, before either of us were fathers or even husbands, Ken Hopson and I were friends more than 20 years ago. Introduced by mutual friends back in Silver Spring, Maryland, we had a lot in common — including being men of color working in tech — and even roomed together for a short time. I knew him as many things, but among them was as a great runner. Few who work with him today know that he was a Division I track star at Kansas State University, one who consistently broke records. Ken always knew at a young age that he had a God-given talent and used sports as a tool to escape poverty and pay for college.
In my experience, I’ve always particularly enjoyed working with athletes. They’re not only exceptional at time management, but they’re great problem-solvers. They love a challenge, they give 100 percent, they’re never complacent, and they don’t give up easily. They want to win, and after a loss they fight even harder to come back and win next time. This certainly describes Ken.
Early in his career, he received the same advice offered to Black men the world over: that his best wasn’t good enough. A young IT consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, fresh out of college, Ken was pulled aside one day by the company’s one and only African American partner and offered some advice. The older man, in his distinguished suit, recommended that Ken make more of an effort to “dress to impress.” When Ken asked why, the man, who became a sort of mentor to him, said, “It’s a lot harder to climb the ladder as a Black man. You’re going to have to work twice as hard as everyone else.” Ken credits this as a key turning point, realizing the harsh reality that he’d have to work twice as hard as a man of color to be considered on par with his peers. This was the experience of his mentor, and it was a reality he too had to face. But instead of letting it deter him, it gave him fuel to prove he could be successful.
Several years ago, comedian Steve Harvey coined the phrase “You have to jump” to be successful, meaning every successful person, at some point, had to jump off a cliff, so to speak, and take a leap of faith to reach his goals. This has been Ken’s mantra for his career, and he is starting to see the fruits.
His road to Palo Alto Networks was not easy. He applied not once but three times — the first two times making it through the interview process but neither time finding the right fit. I saw in him qualities valued at this company and knew he’d be a great addition; it just wasn’t his time yet. But like Ken does, he kept pushing. He regrouped, applied again several months later, and the third time was the charm. He joined Palo Alto Networks as a Services Account Manager in 2019, eventually moving into a Senior GSI Partner Services Manager role last April. He continues to impress with his talent, his drive, and his desire to keep learning and getting better at what he does every day.
As an accomplished professional who has provided a better life for his kids in terms of neighborhood, schooling, and opportunities, this past year has been very tough. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, he has had to coach his kids on the frequent double standard applied to people of color by law enforcement. While these conversations are never pleasant, it’s one that many black fathers have had with their kids.
Ken says that as he reflects on the importance of Black History Month, he thinks of it as a moment of time to ask ourselves what we’re doing each day to combat the problem of racism. He believes corporations must do the same. That’s one of the things he appreciates about the culture of Palo Alto Networks, which provides a spotlight to allow people of color to tell their stories. It’s also making very meaningful changes on hiring and promotional opportunities for underrepresented communities.
Perhaps that’s why he has been profoundly influenced by Malcolm X — for his leadership within the African American community and his personal and spiritual transformation — and modern-day civil rights activist Shaun King — who works to promote social justice causes through social media.
Though the two men are separated by decades, Ken sees in them qualities he admires and strives to have in his own life: the willingness to keep pushing against obstacles, the desire to question the status quo, and the courage to speak up even when it is difficult, all in the name of fighting for change.