The virtual financial world of Cryptocurrency started out a lot like the old financial worls did: dominated by software engineers/entrepreneurs who are male and white. In the early days of Bitcoin, for example, miners were disproportionately men who racked up much of the wealth. When it came time for these lucky few to reinvest in cryptocurrency development, the teams they built reflected the original gender disparity. Stories of sudden wealth followed, solidifying a stereotype of what leaders in cryptocurrency looked like.
“A lot of people say to me, ‘Why do you think there’s not a lot of women in Bitcoin, in blockchain?’” says Connie Gallippi, the founder of BitGive, the first nonprofit in Bitcoin. “I say, ‘Actually, there are. They’re just not given the same level of exposure or recognition.’ That’s the problem.”
Tavonia Evans, who worked in the tech industry for nearly 20 years before launching her own cryptocurrency, called $Guap, sees those women too and says they’re raising the bar because of how they’ve been held back in the past. “The crypto market is highly competitive at the moment with people fighting for influence,” she says. “The men I’ve observed vying for influence are not very tech-savvy at all. Women in tech, however, tend to overachieve, study more, and expand their expertise legitimately just so they can get in this space.”
Perhaps that’s why they’re filling some of the top posts in cryptocurrency: Amber Baldet helped lead the Blockchain Center of Excellence at J.P. Morgan for more than two years; Elizabeth Rossiello founded a foreign exchange and payment platform in Africa called BitPesa; Galia Benartzi cofounded Bancor, a liquidity protocol that makes it easier to convert cryptocurrencies. And you can expect to hear more from these leaders, in part because they want women to get credit for the work they’re doing, which, Gallippi points out, can motivate more women to get involved.
Baldet, who has spent a lot of her time in tech working with at-risk populations, stresses how having someone at the design table who represents the people who are going to use the technology can sometimes even be a matter of life or death. “Women, I’ve found, are quick to postulate scenarios that unfortunately often hit close to home, like how GPS location sharing or an emailed receipt might disclose sensitive activity to an abusive partner,” she says. “Later those same privacy features might make someone love your app because you kept them from accidentally ruining a surprise party. Diversity in development isn’t about a numbers game. It’s about filling in each other’s blind spots to build a safer, more useful product for everybody.”
Designing these applications to be attractive to women is also just good business, says Meltem Demirors, who recently left her post as a vice president at Digital Currency Group, a cryptocurrency- and blockchain-focused investment firm that she helped launch in 2015. She notes that 80 percent of consumer spending in the U.S. is influenced by women. Not making these currencies work for women would mean “missing out on the biggest concentration of wealth,” she says. “It’s women who control money in this world.”
A New Cryptocurrency Club
This generation of female entrepreneurs, having watched men own the tech space, is intent on keeping the playing field level. They insist that closing the gender gap will result in a more inclusive technology.
Gallippi, of BitGive, immediately noticed that cryptocurrency conferences had almost exclusively all-male speaker lineups. “It just drove me insane,” she says. So she began to compile a list of women in the space that she sent to conference organizers, urging them to draw more heavily from female talent. Even today when she attends panels, “very often I’m the only woman or one of the very few women speaking,” she says. Women, Gallippi says, should have a seat at the table. “They should be up in front of people, and that would draw more women in.”
Other powerful women in the field have used their influence to pull women up the ranks. “I just brought on a female board member. I specifically went out there and said, ‘I’m looking for a female,’” says Rossiello, of BitPesa, a service that has operations across Africa, as well as in the U.K. and Europe, that allows users to make business payments and buy and sell Bitcoins from their mobile phones. “I think being that bold is important to change the cycle.”
A new network is forming among these women, all of whom talk of the others in glowing, supportive terms. “Wealth in our world is unfortunately still synonymous with power,” says Demirors. “So if we want to see women in power, let’s help each other create wealth and let’s redeploy that wealth into helping other women grow amazing businesses. It’s not hard to foster more diversity. Empower women, hire them, give them capital. We are in the middle of one of the largest wealth-creation cycles of this decade, if not this century.” And she wants to make sure women don’t miss out.
As Stark sees it, blockchain technologies today are analogous to the early days of the Internet. “Women need to be building this new frontier,” she says. “There’s way too much of the prior generation of the Internet that was not built by a diverse group of people.” Recently we’ve seen how a diet of all-white-male test data can lead to bias in artificial intelligence, overlooking people of color, for example. “I want to see broader participation,” says Stark, “broader perspectives contributing to better problem-solving.”
Thanks to the women on the front lines, the industry may just have a shot at getting things right this time.