With cryptocurrencies and blockchain hot on everyone’s lips, more people are looking to join in the controversial investing world but don’t know where to start. Enter Amanda Gutterman, chief marketing officer of Consensys, an Ethereum-based blockchain software technology company. As a female entrepreneur and leader in the crypto-community, Gutterman is working to bring more women into crypto and create an environment that truly personifies shine theory. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell me about Slant, the company you founded, and how it led to discovering blockchain.
I worked for a while at the Huffington Post with Arianna Huffington, and one of the things I did there was work on the contributor platform — the blog there — so I was thinking a lot about digital media and contributive content. I eventually left the Huffington Post to start a company called Slant.
What we did was provide opportunities for, usually, emerging journalists to not only just create content but to also monetize that content. We would serve ads across it and give each of the creators a portion of the revenue from advertising on their pieces. We would teach them how to bring traffic to content and how to do their own content marketing. Obviously the business model for Slant was a revenue-share model. We were dealing with micropayment, sometimes we were splitting the dollar; when you get into a micropayment-based business model, you start to deal with processing fees. It’s often not even worth it to have a micropayment-based business model, even if it makes sense for your industry.That’s why a lot of small businesses don’t accept credit cards, for example, because the processing fees will be high compared to the cost of what they’re actually selling.
I discovered blockchain specifically as a solution to that problem, which kind of blows my mind in retrospect because there are so many different applications of Ethereum and I landed right on it. I had heard of bitcoin, but it didn’t really capture my interest. It’s money and that’s interesting, but Ethereum is great because of the software and its ability to bring those processing fees down to nearly zero. It kind of blew my mind how many business models open up by removing intermediaries and by enabling micropayment-based business models, which makes sense in media, in remittances, and in so many verticals and sectors.
How did you come across Ethereum?
Socially. When I started my company, I never thought I was going to be a founder. I saw a very specific problem in the vertical I was working in in digital media, and I started my company in order to solve that problem. I hadn’t gone to entrepreneurship bootcamp and I hadn’t been a business major. I didn’t have a network of startup tech people, and so the moment that I left to start Slant, I started building that network and meeting a bunch of people. Not only did I start learning how to build a company, but I was also meeting people who were building virtual reality, artificial intelligence and robotics in New York, and it opened me up to a whole new world. That’s how I first encountered people who were working on Ethereum and they were able to explain it to me.
How would you explain blockchain to someone who doesn’t come from a tech background?
I’m just going to preface this quickly. Most people use the internet and are affected culturally by its existence without ever understanding how it works. Ethereum is the new internet. Everything is going to be decentralized, peer-to-peer.
Peer-to-peer means that you can send something to someone else directly without going through any intermediary. So no bank, no government, no PayPal — nothing intermediating this exchange.
But it’s going to affect people’s culture, what people can do with their software, economic and social organizations, and whether people understand the "nitty gritty" of how it works. Consensys is focused on providing the content for people who are interested to learn how it works and we’re excited to share that with people.
Imagine that you have a magic piece of paper that other people have too. Everyone has a magic piece of paper, and the magic thing about it is that when you write something on the piece of paper, it shows up on everybody else’s piece of paper at almost exactly the same time. You can’t erase anything on the piece of paper. You can’t change anything. You can add on more stuff, and when you add on more stuff, everyone can see what you add.
What would you add to the paper when you have that magic paper? Well, the first thing people thought to add was a ledger, because human beings cannot have a shared source of truth. Who do you actually trust to maintain this ledger of ownership? It’s difficult to trust any interested party to do this because they might be incentivized to manipulate it. The cool thing about [blockchain] is that it’s automatic. It’s a system that’s not controlled by anybody and provides this source of truth document about pretty much anything. A ledger is just the start of what you can put on a blockchain.
The innovation of the Bitcoin blockchain, which was the first manifestation of blockchain technology that came out around 2008 — it’s probably no coincidence that it came out around the time of the financial crisis — is that it created a digital money system. Bitcoin is really an experiment in monetary theory. Can we create a digital-only currency that runs on a blockchain, so it's decentralized and peer-to-peer?
The cryptocurrency software actually takes care of this is. As we’re transacting something, the two exchanged items will pass like ships in the night. There’s no escrow, there’s no holding tank. That’s one of the innovations here. Instead of a centralized system, you spread out information over a decentralized network of nodes, each of which runs the full blockchain on it. In order to hack or manipulate the system, you have to hack the network of nodes. It’s like the difference between robbing a house and having to rob every house in a village.
OK, if blockchain is the basis for cryptocurrency, how do products like Ethereum leverage it?
What Ethereum built on top of blockchain is fascinating. As the bitcoin system became popular, people started wanting to build more sophisticated financial tools and applications on top of it, but they had trouble doing so because the technical scripting language associated with the Bitcoin blockchain is really simplistic. It was really only ever intended to be a store and transfer of value. A bunch of these folks got together and thought, “H do we use the blockchain means to actually build a new computing platform, to build potentially a new web?” Out of that conversation, Vitalik Buterin, who was then a 19-year-old Russian-born, Canadian computer prodigy, invented Ethereum. He said, “In addition to a decentralized architecture and peer-to-peer, why not also add this layer of smart contract to make the blockchain programmable, so people can have it do whatever they want?”
Ethereum is a full computing platform, just like how Mac and Linux are computing platforms.
What Ethereum projects are you most excited about?
The first one is U-Port, which is blockchain-based identity. Right now, there are 2.5 billion people on Earth who lack access to basic government-provided identification or to banking services, and that essentially means they’re locked out of the global economy.
We think that the developing world can use a system like U-Port, which offers blockchain-based ID to leapfrog existing identity infrastructure and access capital infrastructure, and basically bootstrap their own financial inclusion.
How that works is you can set up a blockchain ID. If you have access to the internet, you can do it on a phone and then you can gather reputational attestations from members of your community.
So, if I’m a young girl in a village and someone trusts me to deliver messages or to go get the water, people can attest to my trustworthiness on my U-Port ID. I can use that to build up a reputation that I can actually leverage to secure a loan — maybe, from halfway around the world — in Ether. The person giving that loan or charity can see how that money is being dispersed and spent because the blockchain is transparent.
Because of the smart contract capabilities, I don’t just have that loan. I also have the ability to hire employees and execute contracts, almost every process that has to do with building a business, without ever having to come in contact with that missing, centralized architecture.
A lot of people think that identity is really the turnkey to opening up the decentralized web. When I log into any of the applications I use right now, I’m probably going through Facebook or Google. Those companies are taking data, connecting it to our identities, and putting it somewhere where we can’t see it and selling it.
What we think is that the new user-centric, decentralized web requires self-sovereign identity. You, the user, are able to create this rich constellation of reputational data around yourself that you control. You can sell it, you can selectively reveal and conceal it, you can send it to people, you can do whatever you want with it.
This is about putting you, the user, back in the driver’s seat. Right now, we have data about ourselves siloed in all these different places. We have some data on eBay about ourselves, we have some with our student loan provider, we have some with Uber, we have some with TaskRabbit — whatever it is. This is concentrating it all in one place — around the self — so we can actually get the richest picture of identity. That’s one thing I’m super excited about.
What advice would you have for women wanting to get into the industry or supporting other women in the industry?
There is a women-in-blockchain Meetup group that Consensys played a big role in standing up and hosting, so that’s a group that we’ve been very active with. Our Consensys Academy and our talent team also specifically target and look for women.
We look for women to educate as blockchain developers. We have a huge group of educational programs that we use for that purpose.
The other platform is something I started called Ethereal, which is our flagship event series. We have summits all over the world: conferences, programming, and it's little bit unconventional. It’s been called kind of a Davos meets Burning Man, which makes me laugh.
People have asked me how we make the conference so diverse, because most people haven’t ever gone to a blockchain conference with so many women in it. The answer is I don’t know. I think it’s partly the fact that women are running it. We’re creating the branding around it, we’re creating the feel and we're populating the stage with qualified female speakers. It’s funny — we have no control over who buys tickets, but when people show up, there are a ton of women.
I think it really emanates from having women in leadership and having women-planning spaces and creating those platforms.
Meanwhile, I think there is disparity in terms of how many women compared to men are going into this space. It sounds obvious, but there are pipeline issues and systemic issues. There are fewer female computer science graduates than men, which comes from systemic issues, cultural things about traditional gender roles and how people are raised. When we’re doing all these things, we’re doing them because there’s actually a gap and we want to help overcome it.
--Laura Porter is a cryptocurrency writer at She Spends. She also works as a digital media consultant.