Kunal Agarwal is on the top of his game. As CEO of dope.security, he led his company out of stealth mode in September 2022 to his latest funding round led by Google Ventures.
But there was a time when it seemed he wouldn’t even graduate from high school, much less college. He was handcuffed, expelled from school, and faced the possibility of being sent to a juvenile detention facility for hacking into his high school’s grade management system.
Agarwal attributes his early miscreant hacking deeds to wanting to be one of the cool kids. His family came from very humble beginnings and indulgences like seeing the latest Harry Potter movie when it first came out, or playing the latest Nintendo Game Boy games, were out of financial reach. Motivated by a desire to keep up with his classmates any way he could, Agarwal began modifying games to give him an advantage, and moved on to pirating games and movies. Fueled by curiosity and the thrill of a challenge, this eventually led to him hack into his high school’s grade and assignment software, which he detailed in a blog post some time afterward.
“This was just one of hundreds of things that I’d done,” Agarwal said. “This is the one I got caught for.” The irony was that he was largely an A student and had no need to hack the system to alter his grades. But by hacking the system, experienced a high that made him feel closer to becoming one of the cool kids.
The aftermath impacted his relationship with his teachers and counselors – “when a teacher, someone you have this insane amount of appreciation for, comes to you and says, ‘hey, I just don’t want you in my class,’ it’s really hard,” Agarwal said. “But, then there were the kind ones, like my physics teacher Mr. Lubbs, who taught me, ‘It’s tough, but it could always be worse. Now, how are you going beat it?’ And, to this day, that’s how I just get through things.’”
It also impacted his relationship with his strict parents, who were scared that he’d end up in juvenile detention and miss out on an opportunity for higher education. He didn’t, and credits the criminal justice diversion program offered by the District Attorney with getting him on his current path of preventing hackers rather than being one. To gain acceptance to the program, he presented his history of community service – which included high grades, creating the computer club and founding a volunteer organization to teach computer skills to the elderly – to make his case that he’d be better off in school than in juvenile jail. Years later, leading a cybersecurity company that prevents hackers, he has made his case.
Much of what motivated young Agarwal was curiosity, however he also hacked into the grade management system to prove a point – the system’s security was lacking and concerns about the potential release and misuse of students’ personal data are still making headlines today. Education software company Illuminate Education, which tracks student information as personal as disabilities, disciplinary action, and citizen status, suffered a cyberattack last year and thousands of student accounts were compromised when education software company Pearson was hacked in 2018.
Education is hardly the only industry struggling to protect sensitive data. Many companies regardless of sector still rely on legacy vendors with an archaic architecture that is so difficult to deploy and use that it does little to deter determined hackers. This is much of what led Agarwal to found dope.security.
Agarwal describes dope.security’s mission as “parental controls for companies, using a ‘fly direct’ process to enhance performance, decrease lag time, improve reliability, and increase privacy.” The fly direct process eliminates the need for internet traffic to travel through an on-premises server or offsite data center, which has become even more important with so many more employees working from home.
Agarwal also runs a music producing business, which he attributes to influencing and improving his technical business with a creative flair. He describes dope.security’s logo and overall design as striving to look like “Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton had a baby.” He shoots cybersecurity videos on his Red Epic cinema camera, which adds an element of art to what can typically be considered a dry, technical field. But most importantly, he notes “the passion, love, and pride we put into what we’ve built,” which is at the intersection of his music and his cybersecurity interests. That passion is what inspired him to strive to make cybersecurity “dope,” as evidenced in dope.security’s name.
His advice to other founders looking to gain support from Google Ventures and other high-profile backers is to view it like dating, or even arranged marriages – it takes a lot of relationship building to determine whether you want to work together. “I met with [Google Ventures General Partner] Sangeen Zeb 20 to 30 times before we actually inked the deal, and it is now such a great relationship because we were able to get him comfortable with our mission.”
Agarwal also credits his over eight years in product management at Symantec & Forcepoint for preparing him as a founder. “So much of what I did at Symantec was basically a rehash of what happened in high school,” he says. “I had people I had to prove something to. At Symantec, there’s so many different product groups and obviously the ones that make the most money always have the most attention. I learned to build something that can be successful, that can make money, that can hold its own weight as being cool, or different, or being really dope.”
Hacking into his school’s grade and assignment software was an unconventional route to cybersecurity but for this founder, it helped him become one of the “cool kids” of tech.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Check out my other columns here.