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Crypto/Blockchain Interviews

Vincent McPhillip (YC 10), Head of Community at Pi Network

Vincent McPhillip is Head of Community at Pi Network, a cryptocurrency and smart contracts network secured and operated by everyday people. As a Yale and Stanford-trained social movement builder, Vincent is on a mission to democratize how society defines, creates, and distributes wealth. Early in his career, he launched WellWyn, a community-based wellness practice. Later, Vincent joined nonprofit/NGO consulting company Bridgespan where he worked with philanthropists and NGOs to deploy hundreds of millions of dollars for education and workforce development in communities across the U.S. While earning his MBA at Stanford, he co-founded the Stanford Blockchain Collective, a group of 750 thought leaders, businesspeople, engineers, and lawyers across Stanford and Silicon Valley. Vincent received his BA in Political Science from Yale University.

The Politic: What led to your interest in crypto/blockchain?

Vincent McPhillip: My greatest passion is bringing people together in ways such that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I’ve spent most of my academic and professional career building collectively intelligent systems.

I started this work in earnest at Yale, where I founded my first “collective” called Catalyst Apparel. At Catalyst, we crowdsourced innovative college apparel designs from students and then put them up for a campus vote. This design collective created much more distinctive Yale-branded apparel that was quite a hit with students.

I continued this work after Yale, when I built a wellness collective in Boston where holistic wellness providers (yogis, massage therapists, personal trainers, etc.) pooled their skills to better serve their clients. 

I loved the work but wanted to scale my impact beyond the couple hundred clients we were serving. That led me to start working as a nonprofit consultant at The Bridgespan Group, where I helped large nonprofit organizations better serve millions of underserved folks across the U.S.

As much as I loved community service, there was always this stark tradeoff between doing good for others and doing well for myself. In other words, my community-oriented work often didn’t pay the bills, especially when compared to many of my friends doing consulting and investment banking in New York. 

I kept asking myself, “Why can’t people generate wealth for these important acts of service that they provide to each other?” This question was at the heart of my journey into crypto and blockchain.

How did that question–and your interest in collective solutions–guide your work at Stanford Graduate School of Business?

Many of the challenges we are facing in the world today are COLLECTIVE challenges. Climate change, rising wealth inequality, and other issues are going to be very hard to tackle if individuals can’t see the bigger picture. 

I went to Stanford to get my MBA and to figure out how to make socially responsible behavior more financially rewarding. In other words, how could we build systems that better aligned individual and collective interests—where people could generate wealth and freely advance their own interests while in the service of a collective goal?

Although I’d heard about Bitcoin in 2014, I didn’t understand the full implications. When I encountered cryptocurrency at Stanford in 2016, I realized that this seemingly scary and foreign technology actually held the solution to one of the biggest problems I’d been grappling with aligning individual and collective goals.

To make that more concrete, today’s market capitalization of Bitcoin is $185 billion. In a sense, a group of people from around the world came together and agreed to honor this shared virtual asset as well as a range of activities that ensure its security to the tune of billions of dollars. What if we could harness that power to reward a wider range of socially responsible activities?

Why did you found the Blockchain Collective at Stanford?

Although I was initially excited by cryptocurrency, I gathered the smartest people I could find to fully explore its potential. At the time I founded the Blockchain Collective, we were near the height of the crypto bubble with Bitcoin shooting up to $20K. I wanted to make sure that I was identifying the essence of what blockchain could bring to society in the midst of a hype-filled and noisy crypto atmosphere.

One of the most fascinating and challenging aspects of cryptocurrency is its interdisciplinary nature. Cryptocurrency lies at the intersection of computer science, economics, political science, psychology, and sociology; the list goes on. To achieve a comprehensive perspective on cryptocurrency, the Blockchain Collective served as a kind of open-source educational movement where anyone from any discipline could take leadership positions, run events, and steer the direction of the organization.

The Blockchain Collective quickly grew to over 750 people including Stanford students from the Business, Engineering, and Law schools as well as experts around Silicon Valley. This interdisciplinary perspective further convinced me that cryptocurrency had the potential to empower everyday people to generate wealth for themselves while serving a collective goal.

How did your team come up with the idea for Pi?

Increasingly convinced of the power of cryptocurrency, I spent my last months at Stanford exploring how to bring the power of cryptocurrency to everyday people. At first, I did this by teaching basic blockchain 101 classes.

In the Spring of 2018, I met two brilliant Stanford PhDs and a visiting researcher who were responsible for teaching Stanford’s first Decentralized Applications on Blockchain class. They convinced me that we could actually “show” not just “tell” the power of blockchain technologythat we could directly develop the technology that would put the power of cryptocurrency into the hands of everyday people.

I like to joke that an anthropologist, two computer scientists, and a businessman walked into a bar and asked, “How do we bring the power of cryptocurrency to everyday people?” After meeting, we embarked on an intensive, human-centered design process where we analyzed the key barriers to cryptocurrency adoption. We eventually launched Pi Network on Pi Day, 2019 (3/14/2019).

What’s the scoop on Pi? 

You can think of Pi as a new version of Bitcoin re-imagined for 2019.

One of the biggest barriers we identified to cryptocurrency adoption was accessibility. You see, there are basically two ways you can acquire cryptocurrency: 1) mine the currency by helping to secure its ledger or 2) buy it from other people. Today, mining currencies like Bitcoin requires setting up complex and costly server farms, which is out of reach for most everyday people. When it comes to buying cryptocurrencies, most of them lack either the spare money or risk appetite to invest in these highly volatile assets.

In light of these obstacles, we set out to build a cryptocurrency that everyday people could mine from the convenience of their mobile phones in a fun and social way.

Instead of relying on the energy-intensive, proof-of-work consensus mechanism used by first-generation cryptocurrencies, Pi secures its ledger when members vouch for each other as trustworthy. This forms a network of interlocking “security circles” that determines who can be trusted to validate transactions.

This approach allows everyday people to mine cryptocurrencies on their phone by leveraging their existing social connections, with low financial cost, limited battery drain, and a light footprint on the planet. The adoption of Pi to date has far exceeded expectations. It’s been amazing to witness the global community grow up around this shared currency.

When you step back, what is the most important problem that crypto can help address?

Today, humanity is facing challenges at a scale we have never before seen. Climate change, above all the others, will require us to coordinate ourselves at an unprecedented scale.

While many people see cryptocurrency as the next evolution of the internet, I also see cryptocurrencies as a new organizing principle for society, helping us evolve from more self-interested corporations toward “cooperatives” that better align individual and collective goals. The most important of these goals today, in my mind, is keeping our planet habitable for future generations. 

While corporations have been a major propeller of growth, helping lift billions of people out of poverty over the last 400 years, they don’t seem to be equipped for the emerging challenges of the Anthropocene.

Ultimately, corporations are accountable to their shareholders, not society as a whole. That means that if a corporation can profit from dumping tons of carbon dioxide in the air, it can still win while society loses.

If we’re going to combat climate change, it won’t be enough to coordinate a few hundred or thousand shareholders. We actually need to coordinate the majority of humanity around a shared goal. Corporations are not yet up to this challenge.

How can crypto actually address problems like climate change?

Cryptocurrencies can enable a new form of organization that I think of as “the digital cooperative.” I believe that these digital cooperatives have an important role to play in allowing humanity to organize and address challenges like eliminating poverty and climate change.

You can think about a digital cooperative as a corporation on steroids. Instead of the hundreds or thousands of people that coordinate around a corporation, crypto-enabled cooperatives could enable millions or even billions of people to coordinate governance and incentives around a shared goal.

The best illustration of this today is Bitcoin, where millions of people around the world have collectively built and supported a global supercomputer to secure their currency. By some estimates, the computing power of Bitcoin is over 100x more powerful than all of Google.

I don’t condone the massive energy consumption of Bitcoin, but I marvel at how Bitcoin has built a system where individuals freely pursuing their self-interest contribute to a collective goal of securing the currency. There are powerful principles here that we can leverage to combat a whole range of global problems such as poverty, rising inequality, and climate change.

Ultimately, more people will receive financial rewards for their positive yet currently under-acknowledged contributions to society. I like to joke that the crypto movement feels like the hippie movement of the 1960’s but with proper technology and currency.

What role do you see for Yale in the cryptocurrency and blockchain?

Yale has a critical role to play in the evolution of blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Although Yale has not traditionally led when it comes to technology, Yale’s traditional domains of expertise (politics, governance, economics, psychology, etc.) are core to the success of the cryptocurrency movement. We need more people from institutions like Yale to think about cryptocurrency and its implications for society. I would encourage Yalies that are seeking novel and impactful ways to address the world’s most pressing problems to explore the power and potential of cryptocurrency.

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