My name is Nicholas Van Vliet, a recent graduate and new security professional who had the opportunity to attend the SECURITY 500 Conference in Washington, D.C. this past November.

The SECURITY 500 is an exclusive executive event meant for the top of the industry to meet and discuss ideas surrounding leadership, industry direction and strategy, with a healthy dose of networking before a number of other significant conferences that week, like the OSAC Annual Briefing. For a professional's first conference, the SECURITY 500 Conference seems a bit odd, preparing myself to sit at a table with the caliber of people like Frank Figliuzzi, retired Director of Counterintelligence at the FBI and now a familiar figure on NBC, or Mickey Winston, the Senior Global Business Protection Manager at Spotify. I had the privilege of attending the SECURITY 500 because of my professor and mentor at the college, Alan Saquella, a person of equal caliber who was invited as a keynote speaker and sought to bring me along because of my goal to one day be a professional of this level. Reflecting on everything I learned in that one day the SECURITY 500 was held, I realized the importance of networking and mentorship in the security field.

The conference itself was split into two main panel/lecture sections, with a dedicated cocktail-networking session later in the afternoon. During the first panel session, security leaders with legendary careers discussed various subjects important to any director or managerial role.

One thing that became apparent from watching each panel was that many people at the top of the security and executive world got there through many years of tough lessons and trial and error. Each person had lessons to teach and a story to tell — during a panel titled "Moving Security From Cost Center to Value Add" on how to turn security centers into profit centers, there was an underlying theme: the power of suggestion and how to sell an idea. The panelists discussed this theme more for a Chief Security Officer to sell the profit center to the Chief Financial Officer or board members, but I took it a few rungs down the ladder.

My takeaway was how to sell an idea as an employee to your manager for them to work the idea up the chain, bringing meaningful change early in your career. In many of the panels, I could apply this idea too, taking these high-level concepts and wisdom and tempering my understanding to what applies to me, someone just beginning their career. Even if I don't have the power to walk into a boardroom tomorrow and start changing policy and operations to reflect what I learned. I can instead walk to my boss's office and pitch such changes, influencing the organization at the level I occupy.

The networking aspect of the conference proved invaluable to me. During the conference, I wandered outside the presentation hall to meet the first of many professionals I would spend the afternoon socializing and learning from. I met with men and women from various industries like tech, government, defense contracting, pharmaceuticals, etc. This fact alone went to show me just how vast security is and reinforced one of the first things I learned when starting my degree three years ago — security is everywhere. Every company needs some form of a security professional to stay afloat. I was amazed by some of these people's positions and career paths and even more by the fact that some sought me out to talk and pass on their knowledge and lessons.

Before the conference, my professor told me that many people at the top of their field want nothing more than to pass on their knowledge and help mentor the next generation of professionals, whether engineers, artists or security leaders. The power of connection and mentorship was something that became more and more apparent as the afternoon rolled on.

Each person I talked with commented at some point in the conversation about how more people like me need to seek mentors so they can do what I spent the entire day doing — learning from the experiences and wisdom of others. Security is not an isolated field; everyone helps everyone else because we all have the same goal — to protect.

Armed with the support of mentors, academic knowledge and internships, and pages of notes from the SECURITY 500, I am ready to embark on my journey. One day I will stand in front of a room full of professionals at a future SECURITY 500 and tell my story and teach the lessons I learned. Maybe I’ll meet another professional ready to embark on their journey and offer my mentorship, passing them a card with the promise to call me if they need any advice or help, like what I gained at my SECURITY 500.