Sandra Ro (YC 96), CEO of the Global Blockchain Business Council
Sandra Ro is CEO of the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC), Co-founder & Board Chair at Proof of Art, Founder & Managing Director of Vector Crypto Capital LLC, Board Treasurer of BitGive Foundation, Board Director of SendFriend, Inc., and Co-founder of UWINCorp Ltd. Prior to joining CME Group where she previously served as Head of Digitization and Global Head of FX & Metals Research and Product Development, Ms. Ro led the EMEA M&A FX and interest rates derivatives advisory group at Morgan Stanley, London and worked at Deutsche Bank as an FX structurer on the London trading floor.
Ms. Ro also serves on the NYS Digital Currency and Blockchain Taskforce and the EU Blockchain Observatory & Forum. She will begin her term as a non-executive board director of Global Digital Finance (GDF) in September, focusing on growth initiatives that include acquisition and retention of industry members and association partners in North America to increase the adoption of the global GDF Code of Conduct. Ms. Ro holds an MBA in Finance from London Business School and a BA in History and Environmental Studies from Yale University.
The Politic: I’ve found that a lot of the alumni in this space–like you–have a background in investment banking. In many cases, they say, “I thought this was BS, and then my friend convinced me to invest $20 dollars. I was sold and switched my career.” Were you a believer all along?
Sandra Ro: As you mentioned, I also came to blockchain from the banking space. But I was in London during the 2008-2009 financial crisis, and although I heard about Bitcoin from my FX trading community around 2010, I semi-ignored it until 2011. Then, I read the whitepaper and thought to myself, “Wow. This is kind of interesting.” I held off on Bitcoin until 2012 when I first went and bought some. At that point, I started thinking of the potential implications of the tech for FX markets, the biggest and deepest markets in the world. When I realized its potential to improve the FX markets and potentially displace intermediaries– that was the real game changer. Once that happened, I devoted a lot of my time to understanding the tech.
At that point, I was CME Group’s Global Head of R&D and Product Development for FX. I organized a small group of people under my R&D arm to focus on cryptocurrencies. Quietly, the CME Group started doing a lot of work around crypto as early as 2012, 2013, and 2014. By the time we started launching products in the public domain, we had already filed multiple patents, we had met with over 200 startups in the space, and we were going to crypto meetups. That was unique for a corporate team. We were going to meetups in the Bitcoin community and speaking with the Ethereum developers well before their network even launched in July of 2015. I was traveling to places like Berlin, where I was hanging around with crypto enthusiasts in their underground crypto bars. There was a whole undercurrent of innovation and community building.
When Bitcoin finally entered mainstream media, that’s when our board members and C-level executives started asking us, “Who knows about blockchain/crypto?” The funny part is that we’d been sending research papers up to senior management all along. We already had a brain trust of knowledge– at least enough to be dangerous at the time, and certainly enough to say, “Look– it’s high risk, it’s new, and it’s small, but it’s growing and really interesting from both a tech and financial services standpoint.”
That’s exactly the angle we took at CME Group: “Let’s devote a small amount of resources to the space.” But, our involvement actually grew rapidly. After we launched CME CF Bitcoin Reference Rate (BRR) and CME CF Real-Time Index (BRTI), the Bitcoin pricing index products which served as precursors to the now-trading Bitcoin Futures, there were a lot of internal discussions and hard questions around, “Why should we even look at this space?” These products were a big deal, and a lot of contention followed.
It’s difficult to change large organizations, and we saw first-hand that many people didn’t want to change, but we were lucky enough to actually create a whole separate department within the firm that was willing to look at digitization. We convinced enough people of this space’s significance.
In January 2016, we launched something called Digitization. I served as Head of Digitization for a good year and a half before I ended up leaving the CME Group to focus on blockchain for social impact. We did a lot of cool projects with Digitization, everything from post-trade solutions with banks, clearing houses, and market exchanges to looking at digital gold products and Bitcoin and Ether futures.
Most of that work was mainly from a financial services standpoint, but now there’s an entirely new set of use cases, and I think one of the most important ones is a digital identity gateway. Your phone is your medium of digital identity. Now, the big question is who will create the most pervasive, secure user interface? Will it be government, or will it be some sort of other institution or network? We don’t know the answer yet. There are a lot of different groups working on the technology, but ultimately your phone will hold your digital identity. That includes your financial persona, your academic persona, your career persona, your healthcare persona, and more. There will be a wide variety of identities you hold and plenty of security challenges to overcome.
Everyone’s hoping that this new digital identity framework will herald a world where individuals control their data and can choose to release it accordingly. Of course, your identity will be verified by independent third parties to make sure that the data is accurate, but the idea is to create a world in which individuals–rather than companies–own their data. We’re still far from that today.
New digital identity framework – is that “Web 3.0”?
Yes. Web 3.0 basically refers to technologies which turn those traditional models upside down. Instead of corporations owning your data, you own your data. Instead of corporations, governments, or any other centralized entities controlling specific pools of information, why not a network that acts more like a utility/social good? In the latter world, the pools of information would be open and accessible to everyone, but the difference is that these data utility lakes (also “rivers” or “oceans”) become a common good. The data can then be utilized to build a variety of applications, but the network maintains the integrity of the dataset, it keeps itself functioning, and in this case, nobody really owns the data.
To be clear, you can make two arguments: either everyone owns the data or no one owns the data– but the point is that the network and the utility manage the data. You’re free to build on the network, but the key is that you would have to give back to the network in order to keep it sustainable. There’s the whole concept of a “circular economy,” or a “360 model” (I’m actually spending a whole lot of time figuring out which model works best). Here’s the basic question: How to incentivize data creators to maintain the integrity of the data and benefit financially from the data? In a world of increasing automation, this question takes us well beyond crypto.
That being said, crypto is actually quite important because you need some sort of digital mechanism in order to pay people in that network efficiently. Those models (i.e., circular economies/360 models) are all being tested right now, but when you hear the term “Web 3.0,” people are talking about more than technological advances: They’re talking about model changes to how we look at and process things, or to how we organize ourselves as a society.
There are even directly political applications, like the work in West Virginia on blockchain-based mobile voting. The tech really seems to be changing basic elements of our democratic structures.
When I say “reorganization of society,” that touches almost everything– and this is where I think the technology is very scary for those who are entrenched in existing institutions and ways of being. Look, there’s a very small fragment of society in this space that wants to start from ground zero and destroy all existing institutions. That’s a very small and extreme approach. On the other hand, I think a lot of people say, “Look, a lot of things function well, but there are a lot of things that are broken.” Not every government and not every process is efficient. Most people wonder, “Is there a way for us to help society fix some real-world problems with tech?” You can’t necessarily feed people with blockchain, but you can monitor how funds are deployed, for example, when it comes to food aid. You can make sure that those funds get to the right people and that they’re used for the right purposes, rather than simply being laundered or lost. There are a lot of people asking whether you can program money–whether you call it a “token,” “crypto,” or whatever–in a way that ensures it goes to the right people for the right purposes.
Now, there are always double-edged sword conversations around that application. Who monitors the funds? Who keeps the data around the transactions? If a government were to know everyone’s identity and what they bought or sold, would that be okay? You can start to get into big brother questions, and we don’t want a big brother society. There are a lot of ethical questions that will come up as the tech grows and replaces certain parts of existing processes. As you know, the tech is already forcing those conversations into the mainstream with Libra and Facebook.
What’s the GBBC? Sounds like a lot of traveling and work!
We’re pretty busy! We’re a really small team– small but mighty. Long story short, we emerged out of a group of entrepreneurs who were on Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island Blockchain Summit in 2016. GBBC actually formally launched at Davos in January of 2017. We’re a Geneva-based, Swiss nonprofit, and we work on education, advocacy and partnership. We focus on the highest levels of influencers, so that includes government legislators, world leaders, regulators, central bankers, and executives at some of the largest enterprises in the world. We bring these leaders together with some of the brightest minders in the entrepreneurial blockchain/crypto space.
We believe in bringing multiple stakeholders to the table in order to solve real world problems. We have a very deep social impact element to our work. We believe that you can have a company that makes money, solves real world problems, and helps society. We don’t believe that innovation is a zero-sum game where everyone has to lose in order for one person to win. It’s a very different ethos around next generation companies and how we interact as a global community.
That sounds pretty amazing.
We deal with a lot of cool people. I’ll be the first to tell you: Just because you have a lot of power or money doesn’t mean you can’t be a good person too. We encounter pretty amazing people all the time, and they still manage to be decent and kind people who care about the world and other people.
Turning to Yale. Having been involved with the university in a few different capacities, what’s the scoop on crypto/blockchain?
There are a ton of alumni in the space. There are a lot of Yalies in very high positions within the blockchain/crypto community. There are a number of Yalies working in the social impact sector at big institutions–the UN, World Bank, IMF, and actual governments–on scaling blockchain and crypto to really help masses of people, whether it’s human rights for refugees or climate change. You’ve got a couple of alums in the class of 2015. Ian Panchèvre (YC ‘15), for instance, wrote his senior thesis and a couple of other crypto papers on Bitcoin.
Around the edges, people have certainly been involved. There’s just no cohesive focus from the school in any kind of formal way. It’s fine for there to be student-driven initiatives, but at the end of the day, the university needs to acknowledge the technology and provide financial support in order for programming to be successful. Actual people are trying to use this tech for good things, and it’s catching the attention of some really, really big institutions.
Any other schools with more systematic efforts?
Yeah! Hands down, MIT is leading in this space. Among other programs, they have the Digital Currency Initiative under the MIT Media Lab, and we work closely with them at GBBC. Stanford is another one. It’s the typical science schools that are leading this space– and it’s unfortunate. What I see here is not just tech but a convergence of tech and data with society, law, regulation, money, financial services, and other fields in the humanities.
That’s what I’ve been learning. The tech really affects everybody– even journalists!
The tech is permeating all of society, and it’s unfortunate that people are only going to realize that when it’s a bit too late. That’s fine, but it’s important for the influencers and legislators to understand what’s happening here. Most people in the space would like to help, but their bandwidth is so limited that if a school isn’t already considered “pro-digital” or “pro-tech,” it’s going to be hard to start from scratch– at least from the standpoint of the blockchain community.
I saw that Yale became one of the first universities to invest part of the endowment into cryptocurrencies, specifically through Andreessen Horowitz and Paradigm.
Yeah!! David Swensen is a tour de force. I even knew him when I was at school, and I think he’s just one of the coolest guys around. He’s a leader and a pioneer. I’ve read a bunch of his books, and I’m a big admirer. It doesn’t surprise me that Yale would be innovative in that way. That’s the thing– you have one or two people in leadership positions who take a calculated risk and do things like that. He’s one of those pioneers. I very much respect that. It’s a very bright spot, and Yale should be proud. I still think they’ve probably just dipped their toes in the water, but the very fact that they’ve invested in crypto is really important. It sets a precedent that others will follow.
I’ve shared this view publicly for about four to five years–which many others do now as well–that digital assets (which includes crypto but also encompasses digital representations of other physical assets) are an entirely new asset class, and that you’re going to see real maturity as the space develops. Bitcoin is 10 years old. It’s the grandfather of cryptocurrencies, but as you’ve seen, there are many other coming up the curb. Many of those cryptocurrencies will die, but we’re seeing innovation that will continue. We’ve got a long road ahead to see what ultimately becomes the dominant cryptocurrency which gains mass adoption around the world. It may or may not be Libra. It could be that Facebook was first out of the gate and that everyone else will enter the space after Facebook’s taken all the hits. But the point is that innovation is happening, and despite the uncertainty, it’s moving in one direction for sure. This tech is growing. It has its ups and downs–its crypto winters and summers–but the pie is growing every year. If you look over the past 10 years, crypto has been a rapid evolution.
Final non-Yale related question – Regulation is a double-edged sword. Some people think it’s necessary to curb fraud, money laundering, etc. Others think it stifles innovation and sets the U.S. behind other global powers. Would it be fair to say that you come down slightly more on the side of regulation?
Yes. There were problems with the last iteration of ICOs. I think there will be more iterations, and then governments will step in and regulate. I’m all for guardrails, for regulation, and for proper safeguarding of consumer protection. Ultimately, that’s what we have to figure out: what are the rules and guidelines in this new digital world?
We’ve already seen what happens when you have no rules– and it’s pretty catastrophic. Frankly, we need guardrails. But, we also don’t need government dictating every development that occurs. There’s a happy medium in between those two extremes, and the key is whether we can find that medium. What usually happens is that we go too far in one direction or the other, and that’s why people in the space who are building, regulating, and legislation are coming together.
We believe this to be the next multi-trillion-dollar industry, but even if monetary value went to zero, people would tell you that the quality of relationships and global collaboration in this industry are just unprecedented. There’s a level of idealism that there could be a better society with improved mechanisms for transparency and trust– one that’s fairer in terms of who controls money and value.
A lot of the work is just being played out, and there are certainly no guarantees. But look, Bitcoin was supposed to die a thousand times over by now. It hasn’t yet, and it’s not going away. It may never be mainstream, but it’s nearly 11 years old, and it’s not going away. Governments can try and control it, they can try to get rid of it, but there’s no CEO. There’s no Head. The genie’s been out of the bottle for more than 10 years now. It’s just that people didn’t notice until recently because they were busy elsewhere, and they’re not a bunch of computer geeks. It’s now arriving in the mainstream, and it’s here to stay.