Members of the 2023–24 class of the Robert and Marion Oster National Security Affairs Fellows Program are participating in an interview series in which they discuss their career experience, how they plan to spend the academic year, and their mentoring of Stanford undergraduate students. They also reflect on leadership lessons they learned in service to the nation.
Today, we speak to Nicholas Shenkin, a special agent in the counterintelligence division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Why did you join the FBI?
I joined the FBI because I wanted to serve the country in a manner that would use my skill set and involve a degree of risk to myself. I was desirous of putting something of value on the table to substantiate my dedication to the country. The mission of the FBI is to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States. This mission is very much in line with my desire to protect the innocent and defend the institutions and traditions that form the heart of the United States.
Will you tell us about your educational background?
I completed my undergraduate education at UCLA with a major in the study of religion, which focuses on sociology, history, and philosophical and ideological migration and adaption. I earned my JD. at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, with a focus on corporate finance and property law. I’m a member of the California Bar Association.
Will you tell us about your career arc?
During undergrad studies, I founded my first company, a high security web host and consultancy. We sold that company in 2002, and I went to law school. After law school, I worked as a lawyer in mergers and acquisitions and SOX [Sarbanes-Oxley Act] compliance, eventually founding a law firm focused on those issues. Simultaneously, I founded, funded, and advised another company that created a safety and security application for physical security.
As I always had a desire to serve the country but was in my thirties and about to age out of eligibility, I stepped away from my work path and joined the FBI in 2008. I’ve been in the Counterintelligence Division for the entirety of my career and have worked in symmetric counterintelligence, intellectual property (IP) theft, CFIUS [Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States] investigations, and most recently, foreign intelligence service targeting of the venture capital and emerging technology ecosystem. As part of my emphasis, I led the team that wrote the FBI’s security protocol for IP-rich companies and spent a year as a fellow and advisor to [US Air Force innovation program] AFWERX, helping them develop their due-diligence protocols and working with their innovation teams.
Will you tell us how you heard about the Hoover National Security Affairs Fellowship and how you hope to make the most out of this academic year?
I am the second FBI special agent to sit as an NSAF [National Security Affairs Fellow]. I learned about the NSAF program from my boss, who is both the head of our Counterintelligence Task Force and the man who set up the FBI–Hoover Institution partnership. I’m hoping to work cooperatively with Hoover and Stanford to create a product that will encourage companies in emerging technologies to adopt security at the earliest point in their development. Hoover-Stanford is the epicenter of technology and policy. I’m hoping to be able to adopt that mantle of excellence and deploy a product that will act as a rear guard to protect US innovators as they push our country’s economy and capabilities forward.
Part of the National Security Affairs Fellowship has been teaching and mentoring Stanford University undergraduate students. Could you tell us about your experience mentoring them?
My mentees are about eight to ten years older than my children. It is incredibly heartening to see such capable and brilliant people so willing and eager to take their Stanford degrees and substantial talents and instead of pursuing the highest bidder, lend their gifts to the rest of us as public servants. Every young generation takes a good deal of flak from older generations, this generation probably more than most. But, sitting with my mentees, it is hard to believe the future of this country is anything other than blindingly bright. I hope my children will follow in my mentees’ footsteps. It’s been just that encouraging.
What does leadership mean to you?
A good leader is a guide and a teacher. A good leader acts as an umbrella, allowing her or his team to do their best work free from negative external influence. A good leader is a model for the team.
Leadership is a massive responsibility. A leader with experience and humility not only accomplishes the mission but teaches her or his team to accomplish the mission when they become leaders in turn.