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Meet the women who are making sure blockchain is inclusive

When you have a technology that’s only 10 years old, women and underrepresented minorities have the chance to change this corner of the tech industry.

Meet the women who are making sure blockchain is inclusive
[Photo: Adrian Trinkaus/Unsplash; Wavebreakmedia/iStock]

Yael Rozencwajg recently had an experience that was unusual for a woman in tech. Speaking at a conference for executives in the blockchain and Internet of Things (IoT) space, Rozencwajg found herself explaining the digital ledger system that forms the basis of blockchain technology to about 200 people, most of whom were white, male CEOs. “There was a lot they didn’t know,” the founder of startup Blockchain Israel tells Fast Company.

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The difference was that the audience was respectful and deferential, despite the prevailing reality that when women are outnumbered in a work setting like this, several studies show that they are talked over, interrupted, or simply ignored.

Rozencwajg chalks it up to the relative newness of the blockchain space. The technology is only 10 years old and was initially used to record bitcoin transactions. But its applications have since moved from solely recording bitcoin and other digital currency transfers to smart contracts and other transactions that need the security that an immutable record can provide. These applications are so new, in fact, that at another event, Rozencwajg spotted an error on a fellow presenter’s slide deck about smart contracts and was able to help him correct it before he delivered it to the group.

Although Rozencwajg admits she’s not afraid to speak up, even when she’s the only woman in the group, she’s gotten plenty of pushback over the years that she’s worked in technology. Not this time. “There’s an acceptance that women know their stuff,” she asserts. The newness, she explains, “puts all of us on the same level.”

The related world of cryptocurrency roils with tales of “blockchain bros.” A recent Bitcoin Conference featured just three women out of 88 speakers. Another held official conference parties at strip clubs. Yet despite the overall lopsided gender balance in crypto, according to some measures, blockchain itself–while it also tilts toward being dominated by men– events like those at SXSW this year show that it’s emerging as a space where women can get in early and change the ratio.

Not as risky as it seems

The barriers to entry are mostly about perception, according to Emilie Choi. The former vice president and head of corporate development at LinkedIn joined Coinbase in March 2018, moving from the professional networking platform’s staff of over 13,000 to a startup with less than 500. “It is intimidating for outsiders to think about the crypto world,” she says. Not only that it’s a man’s world, Choi explains, but that media coverage around price volatility of virtual currency, “and the antics of certain personalities,” reinforce the crypto/blockchain bro myth versus reality. This Choi states, is “erroneous.”

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At Coinbase, she says there’s a more inclusive culture than other places she’s worked. Although Choi admits the learning curve was steep early on, there was no shortage of experienced people on staff to help her get up to speed. Additionally, she notes, the executive team at Coinbase is 1/3 female. On making the leap from the more established LinkedIn, Choi maintains, “I wanted another once-in-a-lifetime experience at a tech company.” That said, she admits, “The whole goal is to serve a diverse base. If I’d known [how inclusive Coinbase was inside and out], I would have jumped in faster.”


Related: Erika Alexander is using the blockchain to make journalism more inclusive


Potential in democratization

That’s precisely what drew attorney Paroma Indilo to work with blockchain companies. A lawyer specializing in advising companies on initial coin offerings (ICO), she started getting involved two years ago after attending a conference and dipping a toe into investing in bitcoin and ethereum. “As a lawyer, I am a bit risk-averse,” she admits. But she said she spent a lot of time reading about it and learned that the blockchain technology underpinning cryptocurrencies “had the potential to change the world economy for the better.”

The way Indilo sees it, it’s similar to the promise of the internet where everyone with access had the chance to be a participant. However, that democratization wasn’t totally realized as areas with limited access prohibited participation and the growth of large tech companies. The data created on the internet is a “huge asset essentially owned by few companies use for their own benefit,” she says. “We don’t even understand why they are doing certain things, and in many cases they hugely undermine privacy.”

But blockchain can deliver on that promise. Simply being able to send and receive money in a secure, transparent way has huge implications for both the banked and unbanked populations of the world. And it’s not just about money, Indilo contends. Opu Labs is a skincare web application built on the blockchain. It allows users to scan their faces and get analysis on skin conditions. Not only is this very personal information secure and unable to be tampered with, Indilo points out that people are getting paid to get something valuable. The platform pays you if they are sending your data to a dermatologist, but the choice is yours to share your data.

Emmanuelle Collet, cofounder and chief marketing officer of Arianee, a French blockchain project aimed at eliminating fraud and counterfeiting in the luxury market had a similar revelation. She read about cryptocurrency and blockchain while she was still working at the Swiss luxury watch brand Omega and completing an MBA. Collet could see how this had the potential to change the customer experience, especially in the Asian market. “Everything I was doing was to make the bridge between my studies and the luxury market, even if I had no tech background at all,” Collet says. “I wanted to give back control of the data to the people.”

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Related: Diversity in business really does boost innovation, according to a new study


How to bring in more women?

Coming from a career culture steeped in the traditional bureaucracy and hierarchy, this approach was refreshing to Indilo. “For too long I felt like I wasn’t doing anything meaningful,” she confesses. Now, she says, she’s a passionate advocate to get more women into the mix. She’s tried to educate friends and family as well as her professional networks on the opportunities in blockchain, but Indilo says that sometimes all it takes is pointing out that she’s often the only woman in a group of men at startups. “Their consideration was on more important things like funding and skills, they aren’t thinking about gender discrepancy,” Indilo says. “But it just needs to go hand and in hand with educating the industry.”

Education is the primary challenge according to Susan Joseph, a cofounder and the executive director of Diversity in Blockchain. She believes the blockchain space is a reflection of the larger tech industry when it comes to gender imbalance, and that is because of lack of knowledge.

“People think they can’t do it,” Joseph contends, because it is considered a “tech” job. “You don’t need a university program in computer science,” she says. “What you need is curiosity and the ability to sift through public information.” There is plenty to do beyond coding, says Joseph, who is an attorney by trade. She says those currently in the industry are willing to educate others and share their knowledge as long as someone asks. To encourage more women and underrepresented minorities to hop aboard the blockchain wagon, the organization is also hosting events like the one in which they partnered with the U.N.

For the more technical part, Rozencwajg organized a hackathon for Blockchain Israel that encouraged female participants to solve challenges that ranged from healthcare and public infrastructure to tackling discrimination and harassment.

“Hackathons are very healthy for interpersonal developments. They help boost morale and encourage focus in a different work environment especially in a nascent market,” she says. Additionally, Rozencwajg noticed emerging behaviors through the conversations she overheard. “The focus points for men are mostly about platforms and integration, women were focused on the processes and the usability,” she notes.

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The result was quite unexpected, Rozencwajg says, but it underscored just how anyone can participate. Four female students who had no previous experience with blockchain, won the first prize. Their solution will help Rozencwajg build out a full methodology for Blockchain Israel’s education plan.

Choi at Coinbase says she’s observed that blockchain tends to attract very intellectually curious people. “The more you learn the more you’ll succeed,” she says. And this, like Rozencwajg says, tends to level the playing field.

“The difference is when you are at the very beginning of the innovation period,” says Joseph. “Nothing is embedded and there are no clear winners. You can set the industry up in a different way.” That means that the face of blockchain has the clear potential to be quite diverse as it’s built, in a way that tech could not.

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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