"Ladies, are you curious about crypto?"
Crypto 101 + designing an inclusive crypto economy with Julianne Brands
I first met Julianne Brands when she was working at Oregon Venture Fund, helping to allocate capital to startups in Portland and beyond. Julianne has since left the venture space and is studying at Stanford Graduate School of Business, but I’ve followed along with her via her excellent finance newsletter and through mutual friends.
When I heard Julianne was building a business in the crypto space, my ears perked up. Like a lot of curious people these days, I’ve been spelunking through internet rabbit holes, learning about crypto, blockchain, and NFTs. I’m intrigued by the technology, but pretty turned off by the greedy energy and rampant scams. The bro-ey vibes and pixelated profile pictures all over Twitter don’t help.
As Julianne says in her recent Stanford talk, Designing a Crypto Economy for Women, “If you’ve tried to get started in Crypto, and you feel like you don’t belong - it’s not you, it’s Crypto.”
I’m not the only woman who left her initial exploration into crypto with a bad taste in her mouth - and Julianne wants to change that.
Today, Julianne joins me to talk about her entrance onto the crypto scene, what the heck all this stuff even IS, why women should get involved, and details on what she’s working on to make that process easier.
Keeley: How did you get into crypto in the first place?
Julianne: I'm really passionate about making finance accessible, and I've spent a lot of time in my career thinking about making capital easier to access, both via policy and from working for a venture fund. One of my reasons for coming and doing a fellowship program at Stanford was because I was convinced there must be a better way do collaborative, community-based investing, but do it at scale: make it easier, more fun to use, and more accessible.
That exploration led me to crypto, because so much of the crypto and the decentralized Web3 world is centered around removing the middleman. Finance is built on middlemen: banks, investment banks, and so on. The decentralized Web3 world is saying, "Hey, there should be a peer-to-peer, me-to-you way that we can move money around and provide a lot of our existing financial services without middlemen.”
Now what I tell people I talk to is, "We're all going to be using crypto to access our global internet economy over the next 10 years. There'll be native cryptocurrencies to the marketplaces we use. It's going to be a piece of our global economy. So if you get started now you can future-proof your bank account, and you're prepared for the next 5-10 years."
Let’s define some terms before we go further down the rabbit hold. What is “Web3”?
Web3 is basically the next phase of the internet, but based on blockchain. While our current internet [Web 2] is centralized within companies like Facebook and other “Big Tech”, Web3 is based on the blockchain, which doesn’t require big tech companies to verify and track transactions. This means it’s decentralized and not owned by these big companies - in theory, anyways.
What is “Blockchain”?
I think of blockchain as a global public computer. Technically, it's a database that you can only add transactions to and not delete them. But, for me, when I started thinking about blockchain as one big public computer that anyone can access, and everyone can see all the history ever of all the data on this computer, that to me started to make a lot of sense.
Of course, technically there are things about the blockchain that make it work, like, the cryptography behind it and how you add transactions and verify transactions. But basically, it's a public computer that we all have direct access to. In crypto, when I make a transaction, I don't rely on a company to record that for me. I have my own little signature that I sign, and when I sign it, it records the transaction on the blockchain to make it publicly available for anyone to see and verify.
What about “cryptocurrency”?
I think about cryptocurrency as just like any other currency. It’s a store of value you can trade for other currencies or for assets. Except, instead of using a bank or a government to manage, back, and run that currency, cryptocurrency just uses this network of computers called the blockchain to verify, track, and manage all the transactions. And that's kind of it. That's the big difference.
What is an “NFT” or “Non-Fungible Token”?
I think of NFTs as rare assets stored on the internet. A “Non-Fungible Token” means this specific image or asset or piece of music or piece of artwork is the only thing like it online. What the NFT does is verify that's the only one like it online and then it verifies who owns it. So you can say, "Keeley has this picture of herself and she uses it as her profile picture. This really cool artist drew it for her. And it is publicly recorded on the blockchain that Keeley's the only person that owns this asset. So even if someone else downloads it, or tries to sell it, it's known that they're not the real owner of that digital asset."
When you first heard about crypto in 2014, did you hear about it and go, "Oh, my God, that's so cool. I totally get it"? What was your first impression of the space?
I first heard about crypto when I was in investment banking and learning about this world. I had friends who were starting companies within crypto and the blockchain. At that time, what was happening were Initial Coin Offerings, which I saw as an interesting new way to raise money for startups, which I thought was really cool. But it didn't pique my interest enough to go all in until 2018 or 2019, when I started looking at companies to invest in. I'd read all these articles about cryptocurrency and blockchain. But it wasn’t until I realized that Web3 presents a totally new business model for online internet companies to incentivize users. When that clicked for me, I realized, "Oh, okay. This could be a big, important thing."
What really clicked for me was just this idea of rewarding early users. It’d be like, if to use Amazon, you had to own a small piece of Amazon stock, and then you used Amazon stock to participate and buy and sell things on Amazon. Then the more people that used Amazon, the value of that stock would rise, rewarding you for early participation. That’s how a native cryptocurrency might incentivize users on a platform.
Then the other thing that really clicked for me was decentralized data ownership. Facebook makes a lot of money on us, because they have this private database of all of our social interactions on their platform. They have that data because you log into their website and then all your interactions are under that login, which they own. If instead I have a login for the whole internet that I own, and that data is public for everybody, there's no way for a company to make money by selling my online data. It’s a way to give power back to the end user, and make it easier for you and I to transact with each other, rather than that centralized intermediary. Coming from finance, I have seen the problems and downsides of having these intermediaries that have a lot of power.
So what are you building right now?
I'm really passionate about making this world accessible. My business partners and I decided to focus on bringing women into this space.
One, because making finance accessible to women is a topic that's near and dear to my heart. Two, there is so much opportunity in this space.
Initially, my business partners and I were looking at products to make this world easier to use. We were thinking about creating a beneficiary product – a way to back up your crypto accounts so your family members could access them if you were no longer here. Great product idea, absolutely needed in the market. But what we heard in the research for that product was that a lot of men we talked to were fearful that their female partners didn't know how to use or access crypto. So we were like, "Oh, okay, interesting. Let's spend a little bit of time, exploring this problem. Why aren’t women using crypto at the same rate as men?”
We're calling our product TrioCrypto. We want to build a network of investment clubs in crypto and Web3 - think an AngelList for Web3. To start, we've been getting groups of 10 women together. One woman invites her 9 friends, we do a little workshop, and then they decide on the things in crypto they want to invest in together, and they can collaborate and learn. It’s super cool. What we want to build longer term is the infrastructure that makes that happen - meanwhile, the workshops are a great way to test the market before we start building.
It’s been really fun. Women love the collaboration, the community element, the learning element. Right now, women are motivated to get educated and learn. It’s more about the process and less around making money. But how you learn in this space is by doing. We've done a lot of different onboarding workshops. The “Aha!” moment is when women connect their digital wallet to a website, and they're like, "Oh, cool, I don't have separate logins for all these websites. It’s just my wallet. I own all of the data and my online identity. I get it now."
Tell me what your “digital wallet” is.
I think about my digital wallet like my bank account in crypto and Web3. A bank account holds money for you to transact in. And, two, a bank account has some sort of identity associated with it in the real world. In traditional banking, they actually know your name and address and social security number. In crypto, all they know is your public address, and that's your string of numbers that is kind of your account number for people to send things to and from you.
Tell me about your early conversations with women about crypto. What have you learned so far?
One of the coolest things about crypto and Web3 right now is there's just so much interest and people are so excited to talk about it. So we'll go to the farmer's market and put up a sign and have balloons and we have no problem getting people talking.
We made paper signs because we found that having an element of play when talking to people about this big topic made it more fun for them to interact with us.
A lot of women told us crypto made them feel excited and interested, or like they just didn't want to miss out on this new crypto space, and they wanted to make sure they knew what they were talking about. That was really good learning for us.
The other thing that was interesting was that 100% of the women we spoke with who were already involved or invested into in the crypto space all had a trusted friend who was already was in crypto who helped them get started. This was also true for me. Having that person to call to help with the next step is key.
Women ages 30 to 55 are the fastest growing segment of crypto curious in the US. They don't need someone super expert, or some advanced crypto trading group. They also don't necessarily want to learn from someone cool or famous. Women want to learn from someone who they already know and trust, who they see is slightly more expert than them, to help them get started.
When you kick off these 10 person learning groups, where do you start? In Crypto 101, what do you do first?
When we do group workshops, we send women materials on how to open their Coinbase account, and how to open a wallet. Then together we do the connecting of the wallet, and the investing and sending of funds. What we found is that doing all of these action-oriented steps together in the session really helps women convert to actually investing in crypto. If we didn’t take action together, we would spend a lot of time asking and answering questions, which is great, but this is a hard space to learn without action, without doing. It became pretty clear that you have to have action in these sessions.
What are the things that are keeping women from getting into the space?
Everyone getting started in crypto feels a lot of the same things. The space feels very different and new. It's hard to get started. Many men express these feelings too.
But what we found is that the big difference between men and women is that women feel they don't belong when they join communities, when they hear people talking about crypto. The feeling of not seeing herself in the space is the hurdle that makes her not start, unless she has a trusted friend to help her through the process. Whereas men will feel all those same things, but they just feel more comfortable taking that first step into the space.
Crypto products are built for current users. When the majority of users are men this becomes self-fulfilling. Motivations for men in the space are way more oriented toward competition, gaming, making money. So the products you see in the market are really oriented toward that type of behavior. Women’s behaviors in the space are more likely to center around collaboration and community and learning. Something like 15% of Bitcoin holders are women. So there's still a lot of room for more female users in the space to help drive more products that fit her needs and services.
Communities are so important in this space. Crypto is anonymous, if you want it to be. You don't have to attach your wallet or your Twitter or Discord profile or whatever to your real world identity. When a woman joins a community, if she only sees people that are anonymous or seem to be men, then I think those hurdles start to feel even bigger.
What are the risks to not getting involved now? What are we missing out on, not just emotionally, but practically, for careers and our lives and financially? What are all the risks if we don't get interested?
It's a great question.
I used to be more focused on wealth when I thought about this question. Crypto’s been the fastest way to build wealth in our generation. Women are missing out on this huge wealth generation opportunity. Especially in the last 10 years, that's been a huge motivation for a lot of people to get into crypto.
Honestly, though, I'm hesitant to say that that's the reason to get into crypto. I believe that the next 10 years of crypto is going to be less about making a lot of money on cryptocurrencies, and a lot more about how crypto becomes institutionalized in our day-to-day world on online. So while crypto is an important thing to think about if you want to construct and diversify your overall portfolio, I actually think the bigger thing is understanding emerging things like NFTs.
Right now, one of the few ways you can use cryptocurrency is to buy and sell NFTs. But that’s just, I believe, the tip of the iceberg. We're all going to need a digital wallet with cryptocurrency in it, alongside the US dollar or whatever our local currency is. I think we are going to be using these currencies to interact online.
I would imagine most women believe they’re going to be using the internet for the next few decades. So to me the more important reason to get started today is just a way to future-proof your bank account and make sure that you're ready for what's coming next in terms of technology.
So maybe this is a bit like hearing about the internet in the '90s and being like, "Whatever, I'll wait for this to blow over." It's like, if you don't want your kids to have to help you figure out your digital wallet, you should you get involved now so that you know how to do things.
That's exactly right. Yeah. It’s funny you say that, in a few of our workshops, women will invite their daughters to come. Younger people are just generally more comfortable with an online identity that might be different than your offline identity. They are used to seeing their friends virtually in games and they understand why you would spend real money to buy a virtual personalized outfit to wear in a game that you're in, because their online identities are just as real as who they are in the physical world. I think we just don’t get that as much as people in our 30s or older.
Every day there's some new thing. When I hear about all this new stuff, my inner laggard thinks, "Stop. Enough new things. I'm overwhelmed." What do you say to me and people like me?
First I would say, it's totally okay if you don't get started in crypto and Web3. The internet happened a long time ago, and we all use it. You don’t have to be on the cutting edge. So I'd say it's totally okay if you don't get started.
If you do want to get started though, start by opening a digital wallet. Use a product like Coinbase Wallet. I really love their UX. Or MetaMask is a really popular wallet. I would start there. I'd open a digital wallet for yourself, buy a little bit of crypto, and learn by doing.
Sometimes I hear about a more political side of crypto. I’ll heard someone like Elizabeth Warren talking how Russian oligarchs are hiding all their money in crypto, which can sound confusing or concerning. What's your commentary on that?
On the regulatory side, I’m not a lawyer, but it seems like crypto is here to stay, and regulators have started to acknowledge that. So it's not going to just go away, and I don't think regulators are going to be able to do anything to make that happen.
Any financial tool can be used for nefarious reasons or good reasons. And crypto is absolutely no exception to that. But if there wasn't crypto for Russian oligarchs to put their money in, they would just be putting money in the Cayman Islands and structures of multiple LLCs – both of which people have been doing and will keep doing.
Crypto is more traceable than it may seem. We all start out with our home currency before we convert it into crypto. Whether you are going to use the US dollar or the Euro, or something else, those governments are going to be able to see, "Okay, Keeley has $100, and now she's sent it to Coinbase to buy cryptocurrency." It’s very hard to access cryptocurrency without having your identity associated with it at some point. What is more difficult to trace is that once you're in crypto and your exchanges are all crypto to crypto, that's when it gets harder to trace.
Readers may also have heard references to the environment – as in “crypto's ruining the environment.” What can you tell us about that?
On the environmental side, I do think it's a great question to ask and think about. Over the next year especially, the environmental concerns around crypto will be less top of mind. This is because a lot of the crypto community is changing the way it verifies transactions.
The historical way that crypto has verified that you actually own the currency you’re trying to spend is by having computers verify each transaction using complex math. That’s called a “proof of work” transaction, and it requires a huge amount of computational power, which requires servers, which requires electricity, which requires fuel. The most famous cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, uses proof of work, which is why we’ve heard that crypto as a whole is damaging the environment.
However, lot of newer crypto currencies are moving now to “proof of stake” verification. In this type of verification, we can have people put up a little bit of their cryptocurrency as a “stake“. They can put up a little bit of crypto as collateral while the transactions goes through. Then there is some computational power to verify, but not nearly as much as before.
So if you hear about “proof of work” versus “proof of stake”, the proof of work is the more computationally heavy (thus, environmentally less sound) option and the proof of stake one is where you put up a little collateral and requires less computing power (which is better for the environment.)
I have personally largely stopped investing in Bitcoin over the last two years, because Bitcoin will probably never move away from proof of work. And other consumers can make that decision on their own too.
What resources do you recommend for people, in particular women, who would like to learn more about crypto?
If you want to learn more, start here with a video tutorial from a professor here at Stanford: Dan Boneh - Cryptocurrencies: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
Then, expand your Web3 education with the articles and other resources from Odyssey DAO.
Next, get started and open a digital wallet! I like Coinbase Wallet.
Two podcasts to listen to are Modern Finance, which is a look at the larger Web3 ecosystem and PROOF, which features interviews with NFT artists and investors.
Finally, I’d recommend a few newsletters: my newsletter, Common Cents, as well as Bankless DAO, and Li’s Newsletter, especially this a rticle.
If you want to learn through joining a community geared towards women in Web3, check out We3 and MyBFF.
So, what do y’all think? Should we hold a workshop for Foreword readers and set up our crypto wallets together? How does crypto make you feel?
For an alternate opinion, I encourage people to Google +Crypto +Ponzi