In Memory of Alan Paller, An Unparalleled Advocate For Educational Opportunity

By Sarah Sandelius 

It is with a heavy heart that I report the passing of one of The Ability Challenge’s most generous and long-term donors and supporters. 

As founder of SANS, the world’s largest cybersecurity research, and training organization, Alan Paller established himself as one of the earliest and most influential cybersecurity advocates and worked to foster a diverse cyber workforce

Alan was a man of immense community vision and impact.

He strove to inspire a love of all things cyber in young gamers and students from a variety of backgrounds and educate them to become “cyber practitioners” who could help protect their communities in digital spaces. As President of the National Cyber Security Foundation, Alan provided over 1,000 high school and college students with scholarships and free cybersecurity training. 

I was fortunate to know Alan all of my life. My father and Alan were the closest of friends for decades.  In the 70s, my grandmother made one of the initial investments in his early companies, and when my father passed away, Alan established a scholarship and summer grant program in his name at Cornell. I always felt like that was Alan’s way of paying it forward and helping young people get their start and begin their journey of impacting the community.

When I moved to DC and was thinking about how to help schools in the city better serve their students, Alan offered me financial support to get a project started. I had this idea in my head that entrepreneurialism wasn’t my thing, so I declined his offer. But he told me something I’ve never forgotten: He said, “We need creative people thinking about solutions. Just do it.” So I did.

Alan, at The Ability Challenge’s first major convening in November 2018.

With the support of both Alan and his incredible wife, Marsha – both financial and personal – I formed The Ability Challenge. Alan became a mentor to me and the organization. He guided my vision, helped me take more risks, and helped me think more like a business owner. Even though I had decided The Ability Challenge would be a nonprofit, there was always an intention to run it as a business with an earned revenue strategy at the center of the work. Alan was instrumental in developing that strategy. When I was tempted to spend my time on thought leadership, he refocused me and insisted that I dedicate myself to boots-on-the-ground change. He offered support and facilitated connections in the same way that my own father would have, and that meant everything to me. 

Alan and Marsha’s support has also meant a lot to our success as an organization. Much of our impact stands on the shoulders of Alan’s influence and belief in our mission. The Pallers were also consistently generous donors, and these gifts realized the tangible change in the schools we support and the lives of the students we serve

Alan’s pragmatism was a necessary counterbalance to my analytical tendencies. He believed that anything was possible if you had a good plan, and helped me push myself and The Ability Challenge to further our mission reach and impact. I miss the guidance and support, and the matter-of-fact way in which he saw growth trajectory. But his impact in the cybersecurity world, the educational institution, and the community will be felt for decades to come. And here at The Ability Challenge, we are continuing to build upon the foundation Alan helped us lay, and take inspiration from his dedication to building the best educational opportunities possible for our communities.

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