City’s still banking on blockchain by ensuring the industry is open to all

Thousands of people are expected to descend upon the city for NYC Blockchain Week, a series of events begun May 10 that celebrate the esoteric “distributed ledger” technology behind Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. But hold the Lamborghinis: The swashbuckling bro culture associated with the crypto crowd—last year Snoop Dogg performed while guests smoked joints at an after-party—is expected to give way this year to more diverse participants and a decidedly more grown-up vibe.

That’s a sign of the technology’s evolution (see story above for more on the city’s cryptocurrency companies). But it coincides with a deliberate effort on the part of city officials who helped launch Blockchain Week to engineer diversity into the nascent blockchain community. With key initiatives, including the opening of the NYC Blockchain Center in January, the city is betting that bringing women and minorities into the industry in the early stages can prevent problems that have plagued Silicon Valley and the broader tech sector in the #MeToo age. 

Women and minorities trail their white male peers in terms of employment, pay and capital raised. Men own 91% of employee and founder equity in Silicon Valley, according to a recent study. 

The lack of diversity is especially troubling as technology seeps into the fabric of our lives. For example, machine-learning algorithms that influence hiring and lending decisions have led to biased outcomes when the data sets—and their developers—are not reflective of the broader population.

Distributed-ledger technology, a cryptographically secure system of record-keeping, could be the next-
generation underpinning for applications in finance, government, health care and more. Although the initial euphoria surrounding the technology has worn off—in particular, Bitcoin, the much-hyped cryptocurrency, has fallen from its lofty heights—it is nonetheless poised for growth. And city officials want to stake a claim. 

“The tech sector has failed to diversify the talent base,” said Ana Ariño, executive vice president and chief strategy officer for the city’s Economic Development Corp. “We wanted to have a seat at the table and help shape its future.”

More than $500 million in venture capital was invested last year in New York blockchain startups. The city is home to some of the technology’s biggest employers, including IBM, which employs roughly 1,500 people in related roles; R3, a developer of blockchain software for corporations; and ConsenSys, a maker of blockchain applications. Coinbase, a digital-wallet provider based in San Francisco, is adding 150 workers to its New York office. 

Last year the EDC, along with CoinDesk, a media website focused on cryptotechnology, launched Blockchain Week NYC. The idea was to pull together under a single brand the disparate events private companies were holding across the city and to position New York as a leader in the emerging technology.

In January the EDC opened the NYC Blockchain Center, a 4,000-
square-foot space in the Flatiron District that serves as a gathering place for the community. It was funded with $100,000 from the city as well as support from IBM, Microsoft and other corporate sponsors. The center plans to charge membership dues. 

Its mission is to demystify blockchain and make it accessible to a broad range of New Yorkers. “The tech industry often can be very ‘insider,’” says Jalak Jobanputra, founding partner of early-stage venture-capital fund Future
Perfect Ventures and co-manager of the Blockchain Center. “We’re opening it up and showing people with different backgrounds are getting engaged.”

Exhibit A is the center’s all-
woman team, which, in addition to Jobanputra, includes co-manager Sandra Ro, CEO of the Global Blockchain Business Council trade group, and Kimberly Quinones, who was CFO of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corp. before becoming the center’s executive director in March. 
Since its soft launch in January, the center has hosted Women in Blockchain and Blockchain LatinX meet-ups, educational sessions in Spanish and a blockchain 101 class in Harlem. It offers a weekly community breakfast and welcomes drop-ins.

Jobanputra has had a firsthand view of the opportunities and challenges ushered in by new technology. In 1995 she worked on the IPO of Netscape, the original internet browser, and she has been investing in technology since. The first generation of internet tech, she said, was largely developed by a homogeneous group. 

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