Cracking the Crypto Ceiling
Bay Area women are helping to build the crypto industry from the ground up, while using the technology to reshape systems and structures
SF Business Times
In 2013, Kerby Lynch sat in a full classroom at UC Berkeley, the only person in the auditorium not laughing.
It was a freshman architecture class, and the students were watching a film about poor Black people living in the Mississippi Delta. Others in her class, she recalled, were “laughing at their poverty” — namely that the subjects of the film lived close together in what were once slave quarters. Lynch, who is Black and has familial ties to Mississippi, didn’t see what was so funny.
Eight years later, Lynch is working to earn her doctorate in geography at the same university. She never did finish her undergraduate studies in architecture, pivoting instead toward a degree in African-American studies.
It was that experience as a first year student that also sparked her initial interest in blockchain technology, the decentralized, computer-coded database system best known for being the technical skeleton behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum.
“I got into blockchain because of my long-standing interest in that moment as a college freshman, where everyone was laughing and normalizing Black exclusion in the economy,” said Lynch, who is an adviser to blockchain startups on their social impact strategy and helps build antiracist curriculum for computer science students interested in blockchain.
“I think blockchain, as an industry, needs to put that aspect of financial inclusion first.”
Those outside the blockchain world are likely familiar with two main narratives about the nascent industry. One touts it as the ultimate vehicle for systemic economic change. The other revolves around the “crypto bro” stereotype – heavy with condescension and an unwillingness to share information in a particularly nerdy iteration of the “old boys club.”
As women leaders in the industry tell it, however, crypto culture is much more complicated. Like in any industry, women aren’t only concerned with politics — as a popular saying in the space goes, they’re also “in it for the tech.”
Women who spoke with the Business Times describe philosophical divides in the industry as much more noticeable than those based on gender: divides between more practically-minded engineers and those enthralled with the big picture, for example, or between those who build the technology and those who trade it as an asset. What they hold in common, and what drives them to persevere in a space that is divided by a plethora of philosophies (and is still overwhelmingly white and male) is true passion about the potential for blockchain technology: whether that be for building out a decentralized web, creating a system of data autonomy or lowering barriers of entry to financial systems.
Part of why the world of crypto has such distinct niche communities is because industry discourse is mostly online and anonymous. Everyone from amateur day traders to high-level executives are engaged in constant online dialogue about their warring philosophies, often under pseudonyms. It makes sense. A large part of the appeal of the technology stems from the fact that transactions on the blockchain are also online and anonymous.
For Lynch, this allows her to more easily interact with her peers, unburdened by concern that they be more focused on her identity than what she has to say.
“When you’re in the blockchain space, on different forums and social media platforms, you’re actually really able to connect with people based on ideas and conversation,” she said.
But Abbey Titcomb, community lead at the recently launched decentralized shared coding platform Radicle, said this heavily online culture has as many drawbacks as it does advantages.
She agreed that anonymity can be freeing, though she also admits that the lack of accountability means sexist trolls are often free to roam the online blockchain space. For her online persona, Titcomb uses an avatar instead of a standard profile photo, rarely posts photos of herself, and often tweets in memes with a deliberately gender-neutral tone to avoid getting flack.
The anonymity of blockchain “creates a different set of rules,” she said. “It’s interesting to see how people harness that and run with it, but also how exclusionary that online space can be for underrepresented parties.”
What research is available about gender equity in the industry skews heavily in one direction. According to a widely-referenced and regularly-updated database by Coin Dance, 15% of people working in, trading in and casually interested in cryptocurrency are women. That’s up by approximately 10% since 2018.
Though more current data is scarce, a 2018 survey from LongHash found that 14.5% of employees at cryptocurrency startups were women at that time, and only 7% of managers were women. Another reference point? Only 26 out of the 200 speakers at the Bitcoin 2021 convention, attended by 12,000 people, were female.
For comparison, major tech companies like Facebook, Apple and Google have a workforce that’s 33% to 37% women, while women make up 30% of entry-level roles and around 17% of C-suite positions in finance.
Tegan Kline, co-founder of blockchain software development company Edge and Node, founded by the initial team for buzzy indexing protocol The Graph (though the companies aren’t tied to a specific geo, they started in San Francisco), said she’s never experienced the gender-based bias those statistics may lead one to believe. “My experience in crypto is not so much that people are bro-y, but that you’re more likely to encounter someone who hasn’t had a lot of experience with women,” she said.
In fact, Kline said she’s really found her “tribe” in the crypto community, surrounded by like-minded, aspirational people.
Kline was enthusiastic from the moment of her crypto initiation, when her friend and crypto day trader, Alan Aronoff, transferred one quarter of an Ethereum coin to her wallet over dinner four-and-a-half years ago.
Having spent the previous six years in investment banking, Kline was captivated by how much more efficient a blockchain-based financial system could be than traditional finance.
“Crypto allows for people to become compensated commensurate with the value they bring, because there’s nobody in the middle,” she explained.
Blockchain startups are less hierarchical and have less need for administrators since governance measures can be built directly into the code. This works out well for traders, who don’t actually need to pay fees to middlemen, and blockchain builders, who don’t see layers of bureaucracy pocketing high salaries.
“In banking – as an example – you have an analyst at the lowest level, working 100 hours a week, working the most out of anyone at the bank, getting paid the least. That’s backwards in crypto,” Kline said.
Most people currently working in cryptocurrencies and blockchain got their start in either finance or tech. For instance, both Karin Bauer, who leads the Berkeley Haas Blockchain Initiative, and Jocelyn Weber Phipps, who directs the Berkeley social science X-Labs and the Berkeley Blockchain Xcelerator, started in Silicon Valley. Bauer is a former manager at eBay and Phipps worked for nearly 15 years at HP.
Now, they’re helping to foster the next generation of crypto entrepreneurs. As educators, they’re seeing more women coming up through the ranks as the industry grows, in line with the increase in women studying for STEM degrees. Phipps said between one-fifth and one-third of the startups she works with are women-led, she and lists multiple UC Berkeley programs and professors with expertise who help ensure women and BIPOC are trained in this emerging field. Both women have a litany of women-led startups that they’re excited about, several of which are being incubated at Cal. “The women are taking no prisoners,” said Bauer. Bauer said she took on the job at Cal not only because she was eager to nurture bright minds, but also to get a birds-eye view on the budding industry.
“Rather than working in one industry in one company ... working on a university research initiative like this one gives me the opportunity to kind of look across the field and say, ‘Oh, yeah, here is where all of these pockets of inquiry are going,’” she said.
Phipps added she is also driven by the thrill of meeting students who are also enthralled with the tech.
“Personally, I am excited to see our students learn about blockchain and concepts about decentralization, have a front-row seat to the innovation taking place, and create opportunity for them and the blockchain teams and partners that join us,” Phipps said.
The prototypical “crypto bro” isn’t characteristic of the young blockchain professionals Phipps mentors.
Rather, she sees some of the startups incubated at Cal as more representative of the industry, many of which are led by women, including a decentralized ticketing platform called eluv.io or the ecommerce payment platform Utrust. Online trolls “may not be the people who are truly innovating,” she said. Bauer described the aspiring blockchain professionals she sees as “curious,” “creative,” “self-motivated” and “explorers.”
Lynch, who met Phipps and Bauer when she was a student in one of the Blockchain classes they oversee, sees her position in the blossoming industry as that of an economist that can zoom out on finance issues, while homing in on inclusivity and equity. “You have to find a role,” she said.
She’s advising multiple startups that utilize those talents, like the cooperative publishing platform Understory — imagine Wordpress, but creator-owned. There, she works with the founders to make sure the product is accessible to all users, and doesn’t systematically exclude groups in any unforeseen ways.
The project is built with Solid, a set of conventions for building a decentralized web, that Lynch says emphasizes having personal control over one’s own data. Lynch thus exemplifies the experience of many women in tech: attuned to systemic prejudices, while knee deep in the technical challenges of developing a new decentralized paradigm, just like her male colleagues.
She’s a builder: someone invested in making sustainable, inclusive and secure financial structures that really live up to all blockchain can be. In blockchain, “you can’t be an innocent bystander, just getting your salary and being content,” Lynch said. “You have to really build this space up.”
SF Business Times Link: https://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/news/2021/07/23/women-in-crypto-blockchain.html