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Three Ways to Leave a Legacy

Mentoring is one good way to leave a legacy: the case of Becky Bace.

What Does a Legacy Look Like?

The word legacy gets thrown around so much that the meaning has become diluted, an abstract good idea to think about in the future. However, there isn’t much mystery involved in this concept. A legacy is quite literally something handed down from one person to another. After interviewing over 100 people who have left legacies, I’ve learned that legacies come in many different forms. Erik Erikson’s theory of Generativity posits that we are built to give back to others without expecting anything in return. It is not a transactional relationship. In doing so, we are passing on our expertise, knowledge, and values to someone else: we are leaving a legacy. There are three ways we can be Generative, and all three can lead to a legacy:




We often engage in generative behaviors but don’t even realize it. This is a massive loss for us. We risk going through life without a clear intention and understanding of the legacy we are likely leaving behind. Most people I speak with don’t realize they pass on their knowledge, skills, and values to others; they feel they are simply living and doing what they are expected to do. Our inherent good nature may get in the way of realizing the lasting impact we make through legacies.

Many people believe a legacy is a planned interaction or philanthropic endeavor. Many are, but much of our legacy building is done daily without much pre-planning. We get called to advise someone starting in our field or someone in need of our expertise, so we say “sure” and guide them. Most people don’t rush home, patting themselves on the back for their mentoring. Similarly, every time we volunteer to do something for a cause or something we believe in, we don’t rush home and say, “wow, I was generative today and engaged in creating a legacy for myself.” And finally, most people who write checks for charity don’t think to themselves, “I’m leaving my legacy today.” But, in all three cases, we are. And we benefit so much from acknowledging our fruitful interactions because it helps drive our generative decisions in meaningful directions. We can choose who we want to leave our legacy to and how we want to leave our legacy. Legacy becomes an action we can take control of.

An example of a prolific mentor who left a legacy is Becky Bace.

Some less apparent legacies that seem to come through a natural form of giving are the most impactful and long-lasting. The legacy I’m sharing is about a woman who probably never would have thought she’d leave a legacy, but hers is deep, meaningful, and has changed our world and many people.

Becky Bace

Becky wasn’t born with a silver spoon anywhere near her mouth. She was one of seven children born and raised in the deep South to a long-haul trucker and his Japanese war bride. Her family was loving, but it wasn’t an easy life. Becky never really felt like she belonged. Becky told me when she met someone new; they thought she was “the help” and should be speaking Pigeon English. It was implied that they thought she wasn’t bright even before she opened her mouth to speak. This bothered Becky. A lot.

Partly because she was brilliant and took pride in this aspect of herself that was often overlooked or undervalued, complicating matters, she had epilepsy, and her neurologists suggested she stay home and collect disability after high school. This wasn’t something she looked forward to but wasn’t unexpected during the 1970s either. Women who wanted a career and lived in her town went to school to become nurses and teachers and then returned home to work. Her natural affinity for math and science didn’t fit with societal expectations. She told me it was nearly unthinkable for her even to consider leaving town to pursue a degree in engineering. Without the additional roadblocks, her disability and lack of finances added to any plan for education. Fortunately, a close friend of the family noticed Becky’s intelligence and academic potential and stepped in as her first mentor. Her mentor guided her, helped her fill out forms, flooded her with enthusiasm, and let her believe the impossible was possible. With newfound confidence, Becky disregarded the advice of her physicians to collect disability, defied societal norms, left home with a scholarship, and entered the Engineering department (the only woman) at the University of Alabama. This was a good beginning, but it wasn’t a happy ending. It wasn’t easy being the only woman in the department. It was lonely and frustrating, and she didn’t have a mentor or guide to help her through the process.

It wasn’t until she got hired by the National Security Agency (NSA) a few years after graduation that she felt someone appreciated her. She was again the only woman, but this time her boss believed in her, mentored her, and allowed her to exercise her mind and ideas. Becky took off. She was a pioneer in intrusion detection, and while tenured at the NSA, she created the Computer Misuse and Anomaly Detection program. Her crucial work with the Department of Defense led to the arrest of the 1990s high-profile hacker, Kevin Mitnick.

Becky was at the top of her field, but her personal life was tragic. She suffered the devastating loss of her only son to cancer. The loss was profound. He was her only child, and he was her legacy. She couldn’t get far enough away from her life and her loss. Without knowing anyone on the country’s opposite coast, she left the NSA and set up shop in an entirely new field of work: Venture Consulting. She had no idea at the time that she was actually using this time to set the foundation for a long-lasting legacy: this time not with her child but through mentorship.

If you talk to her mentees or google her name, she is known as the “mama bear.” Her mentoring style is that of a loving maternal figure, like the one she had as a child and the one she had with her child. She guided by helping break down walls and barriers that seemed impossible to her mentees, just like her first mentor did when she told Becky she could pursue an education, leave town, and be the person she wanted to be.

Everyone has said she was generous with her time, skills, contacts, and knowledge. And this was my experience when I interviewed her. It was like no one else existed. She was entirely focused on our conversation. If I emailed her, she would respond almost immediately, regardless of the day. This is how she was with everyone. She told me her mentees were like her children, and she thought of them in a parental way: she took pride in seeing them succeed and was there to help them along the way. Her mentees were her family and her legacy. She gushed when she talked about their achievements – the same way a parent gushes about their child getting into a good college or landing a dream job. She fretted over complications they faced and thought about ways to help improve their chances of success.

One mentee, David Melnick, said, “Over the years, I have watched as Becky mentored many emerging security leaders in our developing profession. She invested generously and selflessly not only in developing others but in connecting these folks together. Whether she’s working with a startup or advising VCs/executives on security strategy, her experience and vast network continues to inspire me…I owe my involvement and leadership in the security profession to Becky, as do countless other current leaders in the profession today.” David aspires to mentor and continue Becky’s legacy.

Becky thought of mentoring as something natural she should do. It wasn’t something she planned, but something she learned from others and felt like a natural fit for her life. Mentoring provided a feeling of family and meaning to her life at the moment while she was mentoring. But it also gave her a lasting legacy and one that remains now that she is gone. Her story is one example of a legacy being left through mentoring. There are millions more legacies being passed on every day. Look to your left. Look to your right. Whether volunteering, mentoring, or philanthropy, we are built to leave a legacy. Being aware of our innate need to do so helps us get more gratification from the generative action as well as helps us to be more likely to engage in this behavior more often.

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