Women driving Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Innovation in New Zealand

Over the past 4 months, I have engaged my curiosity about blockchain and the implications for life as we know it, in New Zealand by putting together the first-of-its-kind, Blockchain-Healthcare Symposium. Through the numerous conversations that were borne out of this organization process, arose the unwitting lack of women among the speaker panel. I pondered over how a potential ‘manel’ might appear when viewed through objective lenses. The cliche Freudian slip moment made an appearance as well.

In the current global blockchain ecosystem, men overwhelmingly dominate the development of the technology and are the gatekeepers to the subsequent wealth that is created. It is no surprise that Forbes’ list of the wealthiest individuals within the cryptocurrency space includes 19 men and no women.

Based on findings from an international Quartz survey of 378 venture-backed cryptocurrency and blockchain companies founded between January 2012 and January 2018, roughly 8.5 percent had a woman on the founding team, compared to 17.7 percent in the broader tech industry.

The lack of a concentrated effort to inspire and engage the future working generations, might lead to deeper embedding of the existing gender gap that exists in the technology sector. The nature of blockchain lends itself to further scrutiny. A lack of diversity among the creators of new blockchain led systems will lead to products and services that are fundamentally skewed and biased.

This article is not a marginalization piece. Instead, it is my attempt to shine a light on the amazing work being done by hard working, aspiration and intensely passionate individuals, who also happen to be women!

Emily Fry

With a background in law and accounting, Emily has been involved within the blockchain space for a fair few years, having started with an academic project in 2017. Her thesis dissertation looked into ICOs and Securities Regulation. Focused primarily on the New Zealand utility token market, she found that utility token regulations needed a re-think, weighing it up against consumer risk and protection. This led to a stint with BlockChainLabs and currently, she leads the Crypto Advisory team at PWC in Auckland, which incidentally was founded by her as well.

While risk taking personalities exist within all walks of life, Emily believes that the New Zealand blockchain sector is male dominated because of a series of past events which resulted in men having more cumulative technology industry experience. “Often women don’t have this sort of past industry experience and hence lack the confidence to leap into blockchain, but I am confident that it is changing”. New Zealand’s blockchain environment is still fairly small, but it is growing, she says.

Emily hopes to see a maturing regulatory environment in the years to come coupled with infrastructure that allows robust security token exchanges, improved cybersecurity and a push towards improving the digital identity space.

Janine Grainger

“We had a lot of family and friends coming to us wanting to buy cryptocurrencies, but it was a complex process, and they just didn’t know how to”.

Janine and her brother Alan started their company Easy Crypto in early 2018 off the back of a Slack conversation. Having grown up in a household that encouraged technology driven education, the siblings were ready to take the next step.

“It is a really interesting space to be involved in”. Their modus operandi is led by the belief that crypto should be easy and accessible for anyone who wants to get into it. Janine believes that the crypto and blockchain world is changing every day, and is proud to be part of the crypto revolution.

There are three main ways to buy crypto in New Zealand: exchanges, brokers and retailers. The unique selling proposition for Easy Crypto according to Janine is the “ease with which you can buy crypto and get started, if you have never bought any before”. The platform allows across the board services including creating wallets, a 24/7 service brought together by a user-friendly interface and competitive pricing. “Our youngest customer is 18 (given legal restrictions) and our oldest customer is 76; we have customers right across New Zealand – from Kaitaia to Invercargill”, says Janine.

Alan and Janine’s work with Easy Crypto is also deeply entrenched within a positive personalised customer experience and to this end, she organises webinars around New Zealand to educate people about cryptocurrencies.

Wendy Kemp

“Without a diverse group of people, you get less creativity”. Wendy is a lawyer by training. Her Honors thesis was centered around blockchain technology and law reform. This was to be a fork in the road for Wendy. “As soon as I read that blockchain was about helping others, I was excited about the technology”, she says. This nascent interest in the emerging field of blockchain led Wendy to pursue her law career with Wakefields Lawyers, who supported her with her blockchain aspirations. Since then, she has taken over as Secretary at the Blockchain Association of New Zealand. Her role sees her involved in a number of projects within the blockchain space.

Wendy has also put her law and blockchain passions together to provide a packaged service through the law firm which allows customers to leave cryptocurrency assets in their will. “If people pass away, it’s really complicated for family members or friends to access crypto assets, we provide an easy way to help with this problem”.

Within the New Zealand blockchain space, Wendy observed that while the representation in numbers is low, the women are involved in the industry have taken on strong positions. The Blockchain Association of New Zealand’s committee has 8 members, 3 of whom are women. This is not proportional to the general split between genders across other industries.

Wendy believes that getting young girls into technology as a mandatory learning process is an important step towards leveling out the gender disparity in the blockchain space.

Amrita Makhni

“I’ve always been focused on and immensely excited about the coming together of minds, this is something that is exemplified by blockchain”. Amrita has built her career solving recruitment woes for companies. Her career spans more than 15 years in IT recruitment across a number of corporate organisations. She is also an early adopter of the blockchain wave and currently runs New Zealand’s first specialist blockchain recruitment consultancy, Blockchain Talent Limited.

Amrita observes that companies are dipping their toes and experimenting at this stage with blockchain. She believes that as the industry matures, this scenario will change, opening up viable opportunities for skilled individuals.

The dearth of a specialised workforce to draw from in the blockchain arena is being tackled by Universities across the country, says Amrita. Offerings of additional technology centric subjects that students can opt into, are beginning to take shape.

Amrita cites that awareness of blockchain in New Zealand is critical to the industry becoming mainstream in New Zealand. She hopes to be a part of this change and notes “Why are we limiting involvement in blockchain from only those with technical skills? There is huge scope for people to contribute from a subject matter perspective, whether it be healthcare, supply chain management or complex business processes as well.”

Katherine Noall

Katherine NoallHaving entered the blockchain space in 2013, Katherine has over the years worked with a number of start-up companies, as well being involved with spreading awareness about blockchain technology through lectures and coaching sessions. She moved to New Zealand late 2017.

Katherine currently leads Sphere Identity, a global blockchain identity provider, part of the Techemy Group of companies. They are headquartered in Auckland, New Zealand, but their vision spans the entire globe. The main problem Sphere Identity tackles is customer on-boarding. “We’ve developed a new way of doing this for customers, a new secure way to hold their identity in a self-sovereign manner and choose who they share it with”, says Katherine. The company finds tremendous use potential in cross-border commerce.

With regard to all the hype and curiosity behind blockchain in today’s landscape, Katherine says “If we look at older technologies, people have used them and never explored how they worked, however in the case of blockchain, a lot of the technology is in the back end. While education about the technology is essential, there is no particular need to explore how it works among the broader public, unless they are involved in development.

Blockchain is a global technology and according to Katherine, there is a tremendous amount of work that is being done around financial inclusiveness to empower those around the world who do not currently enjoy such freedoms. Katherine considers that the challenge within the blockchain space isn’t so much the technology, but the actual implementation of blockchain enabled services.

Rachel Strevens

Rachel Strevens“Blockchain has a thriving ecosystem” Rachel comes from a background of working in financial markets and being associated with investor access, helping mass markets get access to investment opportunities. Her mission is to be able to create an environment conducive for anyone to come in and invest in the blockchain ecosystem.

In early 2016, she put out a call to collaborate and build a new platform within the fintech space. Since then, Rachel and co-founder Abhy Singla have grown from strength to strength.

In early 2018, Invsta, an online cryptocurrency platform was born. “what clicked for us is the number of customers who to us asking for the product, so there is a whole lot of demand and we wanted to add value to it and make it easier for people”, says Rachel.

She continues, “There are so many barriers for people from outside the tech sector who want to get involved, this puts off a majority of the population”. Invsta looks to help anybody invest and benefit from blockchain. Opportunities that Invsta believes in are pre-screened and put in front of people. This allows customers to choose those that are of interest to them. Invsta currently helps with around 20 currency investments, but Rachel sees immense potential going forward. New Zealand currently has a rising demand for cryptocurrency, but it is still a small market relative to the rest of the world. Invsta is pursuing partnership opportunities with existing financial service providers in Asia who are looking to bring cryptocurrencies to their customers. “There is a lot of interest in creating white-label API access through the Invsta platform”, notes Rachel.

The questions behind regulation is a key aspect of this sector. Rachel and her legal team have worked closely with the regulators along their journey. One of the first steps that Invsta takes when approaching overseas markets is to meet with lawyers and regulators. “We cannot be a trusted partner for customers, if they find that we are operating outside the established regulatory framework”, says Rachel.

Given that women are under-represented when it comes to investing, Rachel and her team want to enable upskilling for women, given the immense importance of having oversight and knowledge about financial literacy.

Alex Sims

“Every year in blockchain evolution, equals roughly four years in internet evolution, that’s how quickly we are moving today”.

Associate Professor Alex Sims teaches at the University of Auckland on a wide range of commercial law subjects and is one the few academics in New Zealand who is actively engaged in speaking with people and educating them through her lectures, workshops and written pieces on blockchain. She is an information specialist, someone who people rely upon to inform them, to reference Malcolm Gladwell, a maven. “The hardest thing is getting people to think differently”, says Alex.

Adoption of blockchain suffers for other reasons. First, as described in a recent book, “Radical technologies”, blockchain and cryptocurrencies is the first technology that is just fundamentally difficult for otherwise intelligent and highly capable people to comprehend. In contrast, the Internet was relatively simple; it was simply connecting computers so they can talk to each other. Second, most people understandably resist change. The problem is not, therefore, with the technology, rather it is with peoples’ ability to understand and change their behavior. Bridging this chasm, is one of the missions that Alex is working on.

In addition, Alex cites that blockchain, as a disruptive technology, is a classic example of Schumpeter’s creative destruction and some existing industries are attempting to preserve their business models. Regulation may be to prevent incumbents from stifling the growth of innovative competitors. A level playing field is required.

Finally, three things are needed for the success of decentralized systems, says Alex. First, governance. It is easy to say “decentralization”, but actually designing truly decentralized decision-making systems is a different matter. Second, there is the need for digital identity of people, organisations and things, which is ironic given that Bitcoin was designed to be pseudonymous, but if the ownership of cars is recorded on a blockchain, you want to be able to prove that you are the owner of your car. Third, low cost and quick dispute resolution is required because not everything can be coded.

“Numerous projects are working on all three issues, but again the uptake of successful solutions will depend on the attitudes of others. Will national courts accept the decisions of a dispute resolution scheme when one party is not happy with the outcome of a decision?”, questions Alex.

Jevon Wright

Jevon’s interest and subsequent association with blockchain and cryptocurrency started in 2013. At the time, Jevon was at University pursuing her PhD in Computer Science. “Back then, you couldn’t purchase bitcoin anywhere in New Zealand. You had buy it from foreign exchanges”, says Jevon. She eventually built a software application to help her keep track of her cryptocurrency. This sent Jevon down a rabbit hole eventually leading to her current project, a cryptocurrency-blockchain start-up called CryptFolio, which came into existence in May 2013.

By late 2017, Jevon had decided to work full time on CryptFolio. The mission of the company is to provide platforms for people, businesses and governments to safely understand, manage and make informed decisions on finance. They provide information, guidance and resources to those who want to get started. “everyone should be able to be their own bank, without having to invest millions of dollars”, says Jevon.

A big challenge over the past year has been around a user friendly, value based user experience. Currently, Jevon solves this problem via CryptFolio’s website. However, in the future, it will be through mobile apps, training and via published articles. With users from all over the world using the platform, providing services over the long period, unhindered by market movement is one of the big challenges of working in the cryptocurrency space. The other challenge is regulatory framework around how to operate with cryptocurrency. At present, the iOS versions of the mobile apps are awaiting approval and Jevon is having conversations with potential co-founders to come on board and take the platform to the next level.

“A big part of where I want to take CryptFolio in the long term is to be a bridge between cryptocurrency and fiat currency, including integrating with accounting tools”, says Jevon. The infrastructure is in place, the challenge ahead is to change the mindset. Jevon also writes a blog at https://medium.com/cryptfolio.

There is no question that decentralized, open source blockchain environments are here to stay. Perhaps the true enigma revolves around how it can help humankind survive and thrive going forward. So, is Satoshi female? Your guess is as good as mine.