Changing Blockchain, with Amber Baldet
Episode 115: Changing Blockchain, with Amber Baldet
After leading the Product Development team at J.P. Morgan, Amber Baldet, the Co-founder and CEO of Clovyr decided to take a dive into the world of startups. A self-taught coder, Amber is now successfully redefining the world of blockchain and cryptocurrency as well as showcasing what women in tech can achieve if they have the right tools. On this episode, Amber talks about importance of having a good partner when leading a startup, importance of shared responsibility in families, as well as what could be done to involve more girls and women in the field of tech. Tune in to hear more about this up-and-coming technology, future of blockchain, data privacy, and Amber’s spin on the world of tech.
00:12 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace, with my co-host, Maricella Herrera. How are you feeling, Maricella? It's been a pretty hectic month.
00:25 Maricella Herrera: No kidding. Pretty hectic a couple of months. I'm feeling good, I'm feeling great. We have our summit...
00:34 KW: Count down to the summit.
00:36 MH: Well, it's the day after tomorrow, so I'm a little nervous, but really... I'm really excited.
00:43 KW: Nervous about what? This is gonna be amazing.
00:46 MH: Well, it's always. It's always, you know...
00:50 KW: The big event.
00:51 MH: Right.
00:51 KW: There's lots of variables.
00:52 MH: There is. And I know, and I know, as someone who has done this for a little bit, that no one will ever be able to tell if something went wrong, except me.
01:03 KW: Mm-hmm. True.
01:04 MH: And I also know that I'm a perfectionist.
01:06 KW: That, yes, you are. Yes, that is very true. Well, it's gonna be amazing. And I'm personally really excited. And you know, we talk about this all the time. I go to, I don't know, easy 20 conferences a year, and...
01:24 MH: I thought you were gonna say like 20 conferences a month. [chuckle] Because it could be.
01:28 KW: It feels that way sometimes. And there's certainly some really inspiring and phenomenal conferences out there, but for Ellevate and for our Action Summit, it was very important to us to look at this convening in a different way. There's certainly events that are focused more on professional development, skills building. Here, we're focused on change, and we're focused on action towards change. And it takes a village. Each of us in our own way, can be an advocate, an advocate for others and advocate for the things we believe in. But we need to get everyone together to utilize that power and that momentum of how we will drive change. And I, after coming off of last year's summit and moving into this year's summit, I know that that's what we're doing here.
02:21 KW: And we're bringing so many voices to the table that typically are not heard, that typically we're not exposed to in our everyday life because often times, we live in somewhat of a bubble, based on who we are, and the industries we work in and the places we live. And so, we're shattering that bubble to really break down the barriers between people, people from different races, from different industries, from different backgrounds, people with disabilities, people with a different sexual identity, or orientation. And that's what we think is so important about the Ellevate Action Summit because until we break down the barriers, we create that network, that community that's gonna work together to really propel us forward and create action, we're gonna stay stagnant. So this is, this is... I'm excited.
03:17 MH: I am too, I am too. And this is a great lead-in to our guest today who is gonna be speaking at the summit. We have Amber Baldet, she's a co-founder and CEO of Clovyr, and before that, she was leading JP Morgan's blockchain product development group, which is a fascinating. I had a conversation with her, and I swear, I don't consider myself to be dumb, but I felt a little dumb.
03:48 KW: Well, you should never downplay your intelligence 'cause you're incredibly intelligent. But we all have lots to learn. That's kind of what the summit's all about, right?
03:57 MH: It's amazing.
03:58 KW: There's a lot we don't know. You don't work in blockchain, so you're not gonna know everything about it, but Amber is, you know, the expert.
04:05 MH: She is awesome. And it was great to talk to her and actually learn a little bit of things that I did not know, I had no idea, and why it's important, and privacy issues, and anonymity online, and how people are getting on board. And also, she's a huge proponent for women in tech, so that's always great to see and talk to someone who feels so passionate about something like that. Plus, she has purple hair and likes cats. So there's that.
04:34 KW: Oh my gosh. That's it. Sold.
04:38 MH: Yeah.
04:38 KW: New best friend. Well, great. I cannot wait to hear Amber at the Ellevate Action Summit which will be on the 21st. So in just a few hours... We're so excited. It's in New York City. But what we would love for all of our listeners to do is watch us online, support us online. We have a free live stream, you can find it at ellevatenetwork.com. Sign up for the live stream. You can check out all of the great speakers, panels, fireside chats, and show us some love. Show us some love on social media, share what you find fascinating, what is inspiring you. We wanna hear from you and we're looking forward to the next few hours of chaos to bring you the change that we're all looking for.
05:31 MH: And now, to my interview with Amber.
05:43 MH: So I am here today with Amber Baldet, the co-founder and CEO of Clovyr, and I have to say, I've been kind of fangirling over you a little bit, I'm not gonna lie, because you're gonna be at the Summit. So I've been stalking you, as I have all our speakers, and on your website among your favorite things you have not just New York City, but Whiskey, glitter, cats, and smashing the patriarchy, so...
06:14 Amber Baldet: That's true.
06:15 MH: We should be friends.
06:17 AB: Well, thank you for having me, and I'm glad to know my brief list of favorite things is finding the right kind of people, bringing them into my life.
06:25 MH: I love it. It's really showing who you are, and we're big on that at Ellevate. We're all about focusing on your authentic self and kind of making things work with who you are. So tell me a little bit about your career. I know you just started Clovyr. So how have things evolved for you?
06:44 AB: Yeah, it's been quite a journey, and I feel like I've actually just gotten to the starting line at this point. So, I've been in the financial and financial technology world for about 15 years at this point. And I started out working at a relatively small shop that had a trading desk, but was a boutique information arbitrage kind of thing. We don't really have to explain what all that means. But I was initially doing more client outreach for them and I was on the trading desk a little bit. I was Series Seven registered and... But they just had a lot of problems with reconciling their spreadsheets, and so I said, "I could probably help you with that." And I ended up moving into more of a development role, eventually. I kinda moved into middle office and then back office, because I had taught myself to code when I was much younger, but it was very fun. So this was really before all of the women in STEM programs, and Girls Who Code, and what not. So I was a developer there for a couple of years, which also meant being a sysadmin and a DBA, and your own DevOps, and all of that.
07:50 AB: It was a very small place. So it was great experience, but then after that, I wanted to kinda keep doing that, but in New York. And so, I moved up here, I was working at a hedge fund for a little while. 2008 was not a great time to be working at a hedge fund in New York, and so, shortly thereafter I was a consultant, since that's what was available. And from there, I was placed to JP Morgan and made some great relationships there, found some great teams, and moved into their technology group.
08:16 MH: So you taught yourself to code. Why did you... How did you get interested in that?
08:21 AB: Well, when I was young, there was no... This was pre-Internet, I'm gonna date myself at this point. But I always thought it was fascinating to find out how things worked, and it was just about making systems do what I wanted them to do, and systems didn't do a whole lot back then, so that was considered normal to just extend them to do what you wanted them to do, whether that... This was back when Radio Shack actually sold transistors and capacitors, not just cell phones, so I wasn't afraid of that technology. And I think I do have my dad to thank for that. He was really into early PCs, and so we had one in my house, which was probably a luxury at that time for sure. But from there, I just... Once I found out what is this kind of Internet, what are BBSs, and what are MUDs, those kind of text-based games back in the day. It was this whole new world, and I begged my parents for a modem, and I got one that was so slow, we're talking like 9600 baud, kind of beep, beep, bloop. But that was my first floor into this world where people wanted to talk to you not based on what you looked like, but just based on what you were saying.
09:33 AB: And that was fantastic for me as a 13 or 11... You know, teenage girl... To get to talk to academics and people that I wasn't exposed to otherwise. They say now, "No one knows that you're a cat on the Internet." And that was true. I think it has its own problems and that we shouldn't have to obscure who we are in order to be taken seriously. But the fact of the matter was that at that time, that kind of anonymity was very powerful, and probably one of the reasons that I continue to advocate for anonymity and privacy, and digital security now.
10:05 MH: I love that. We're gonna get to the privacy and digital security. But when you were at JP Morgan and what you're doing now at Clovyr, a lot of it had to do with the cryptocurrency world. But for all of those like me who know nothing about it, can you briefly explain why it is and why it's important?
10:25 AB: Sure. Cryptocurrency is a new concept... And it's a decade old really, at this point. And if you ask some people, they say they invented E-cash in the 80s, but if all this stuff was adopted, we probably wouldn't be here at this point. So, for a lot of people, it's still a new concept, and what we're talking about is what are considered cryptographically unique digital bearer assets. That's a lot to throw at you. But what that means right now, is that what we have that you're familiar with is this Internet of information, right? So, if I email you a picture, I have the picture and I send it to you, and now you have the picture, and we're both happy, but there's two pictures in the world. You can tell me you've destroyed your copy, but I don't know how to trust and believe you. So, what blockchain technology allows us to do, and cryptocurrency as one thing that's instantiated on top of a blockchain, is to create something that's unique, that once I send it to you, I don't have it anymore. So we can essentially create a new kind of Internet of Value where we can send not just money but also all kinds of other assets, whether that's intellectual property rights, or a land title, or a vote, or anything that you own. So, it is a really new and revolutionary kind of technology, and people are considering this to be a next generation of Internet.
11:48 MH: That is great. I actually understood that, and it makes sense, it makes sense that it could be something very powerful.
11:55 AB: Yeah, what's interesting about cryptocurrency is that you don't need the central intermediaries. So what people have probably heard about with Bitcoin being anonymous and peer-to-peer, that's where that's coming from, is you can literally just send something like an email from me to you without meeting an escrow agent or a bank in the middle of that. And that kind of disintermediation is what financial institutions initially thought was going to be threatening or disruptive, and why this entire narrative has become kind of adversarial between the financial industry and between people that wanna create cross-currency kind of payment systems that go around that. But where the tipping point was, was probably back in 2014-2015 when people started talking less about this one specific asset of Bitcoin, and instead, started talking more about this underlying ledger, and that's the blockchain technology part. And financial institutions realized that they could use the technology to both send value to each other and amongst each other, but also to send information, not just value, but to come to consensus to agreement about the common shared view of the world. Which is funny, since I already mentioned that my first job was fixing people's spreadsheet reconciliation. Honestly, the financial industry is just spreadsheets all the way down.
13:18 MH: Yep.
13:18 AB: So, having everyone see the same thing would be a dramatic driver of cost reduction for the industry.
13:22 MH: Yeah, no kidding. I mean, you're absolutely right. It is all spreadsheets all the way down. Do you think that there will be more openers into these type of technologies and using, I guess, not necessarily Bitcoin as asset class, but in the larger financial institutions? I mean, you were at JP Morgan developing their blockchain technology, which is something I'm fascinated with because it's such a huge institution that is clearly considering and taking in new ways of thinking and doing business, and I'm just curious if you think it's gonna happen more and more in different larger groups.
14:11 AB: I think where we're headed is towards this kind of Internet of Value that I mentioned, and it's not just about any one piece being predominant. So, I think that Bitcoin will be one payment type amongst many, and when you need semi-anonymous censorship-resistant global payments, it's there for you. There are other tokens and currencies that seek to solve slightly different challenges. For example, Zcash is one that's trying to solve the true anonymity and fungibility challenges of Bitcoin. Ethereum is another system that rather than creating a peer-to-peer payment system, it's actually a distributed global computer, so the transactions that everyone is coming to consensus on are actually state mutations of a computer, which is mind blowing, right? So we can start creating these applications on top of something like that that represent not just payments, but then you can, say, go back to when I was saying, what would you do if you had a tokenized land title? Well, you could follow a mortgage all the way through and trace its providence from deed through title, through mortgage, through payments, through securitization, potentially. So it's about transforming the way that all of these markets are represented.
15:22 MH: That's fascinating. How was your experience building a team within this bigger organization and actually building? It was kind of your CEO of the little blockchain, big product development... How was that, compared especially to now being outside and doing your own thing?
15:43 AB: I think it was a great experience to have the kind of autonomy that the new products development team had within JP Morgan, and we were encouraged to operate like a startup there. There's a similar team at probably every big bank and a lot of Fortune 500s now. But it depends how organizations treat those teams and whether they're also embedded with the rest of the product development life cycle and the other lines of business, or whether you end up with an ivory tower kind of incubator, that's a cool place to stick your nerds, but doesn't actually create something you can use in production. So finding the right way to balance interfacing with the business folks that know the problems they're trying to solve on the ground, with the technologists that just wanna build cool things. Finding that balance is always a challenge.
16:34 MH: How has your time becoming an entrepreneur been?
16:38 AB: It's been overwhelming so far. It's been amazing to have the kind of springboard into this that I have had because people have been so interested in the work that I was doing and that I continue to do. That has been amazing. I think on the day that we launched, we got over 2500 inbound inquiries to our website, of people who actually sat down and wrote us a message. And that was considerably more than I expected. So, what we're doing, I think, is really resonating with people, and it's not just people that wanna do business development or partnerships but people who say, "You're the first company in this "blockchain space" that I've seen that has a Culture page on their website that says that you explicitly value people beyond your development group. And what can we do to work with you? I just wanna come work for your team." And that's amazing.
17:34 MH: So your partner at Clovyr was also working with you at JP Morgan. How important was it for you to actually find the right partner for the venture?
17:45 AB: It was incredibly important to find the right partner for this venture. If Patrick hadn't been in the right place at the right time, I probably wouldn't have done it. We are absolutely equal partners in this venture and good friends as well, so we've already built a platform and other technology solutions that people are really using out there in the world, so that we know that we can work together. But he also was an early advocate of saying, "Why don't we just have a Culture page on our website?" So I encourage people to co-found companies with Scandinavians.
18:22 AB: They tend to just already be feminists, but it's important to have people that both augment your strengths, but also help balance your weaknesses, and I think Patrick is a fantastic co-founder in that respect.
18:35 MH: Yeah. Partners can, from what we hear in these interviews mostly, we at least touch upon, those partnerships, especially when we have entrepreneurs... Because it can really make or break what you're doing. If you don't have the right people and the right kind of, like you just said, person to strengthen your strengths and balance your weaknesses. What has been the biggest challenge of starting Clovyr?
19:04 AB: So far, I think it's time and prioritization. I mean, I apologize to the 2500 people who did email us whom I have not yet responded to, or the portion of those people. I am used to at this point having a team of half-dozen, dozen people that are all working on different pieces of the larger vision. So, to suddenly cut that back to just Patrick and me is a challenge. So, as soon as we can possibly get to the larger team building phase, and I can delegate things again, that would be great.
19:39 MH: You said... When you came in here, we were talking before the interview, and you said you have a three-year-old. How are you balancing everything? Can you even balance everything?
19:54 AB: Yeah. I don't know if balance is the right word. It's kind of like a 120% in one direction and 120% in the other direction. I still... It's important to me. I was talking to my partner about this this morning, but I try to either pick him up or drop him off every day. And I have a fantastic co-parent partner, who is committed to being a great dad 100% of the time, but also doing at least 50% of the work, and we agreed about that early on. I remember telling him early that, "Hey, you've been a parent exactly as long as I have, I don't have any more answers than you." So I think without that, it would certainly be a challenge. But still, a startup is 300% of your time anyway. So, I look at other co-founders who basically have the opportunity to just say, "Well, hey, you deal with the kids for the next year, and then, cool, I'll be back." And I do feel this obligation to be there... I want to be there, of course, I love Gibson, he's wonderful. So it's a balancing act for sure, and I'm not sure where it comes out of. Maybe just my sleep.
21:00 MH: It's an integration. [chuckle]
21:02 AB: Yes.
21:03 MH: You also mentioned that you are, and I know you are very much involved in both getting more women involved in blockchain, but also in general in women in tech. Can you talk a little bit about that and how we can get more girls, particularly, interested in the area?
21:25 AB: I don't think we need to get more girls interested in technology. I think that we need to keep the interest that they have when they're young from dying out because they're surrounded by a hostile environment. Kids are super curious and they're interested, and they wanna take things apart, and they wanna build things, and they wanna have the tools to build things. But if you go to do that... And every... All the tools that are available look like something that wasn't made for you, and I don't mean because it's not pink, that's the worst.
21:55 MH: No.
21:55 AB: I don't mean that, but if all of the examples that you see of other people doing this don't look like you, then you feel like you're aberrant and doing something strange, and it's very easy to step away from it too early. So, the trick to keep building the pipeline is simply not to kill the interest of the people that are already there.
22:19 MH: So tell me about Clovyr and what are you guys doing, what are you guys up to?
22:24 AB: Yeah, what we're doing with Clovyr is trying to bring modern application development practices into the blockchain space.
22:32 MH: What does that mean?
22:33 AB: What does that mean? That means that despite the number of press releases and news articles that have been published about blockchain technology, actually building something for it feels a lot like the 1990s right now. It's really hard, and it's hard whether you're building something that's going to live on one of these public chains like Bitcoin or Ethereum, or if you are building something for more of a business setting, where you have kinda private permissioned blockchains amongst the consortium of enterprises. And, added on top of that right now, the development tools you would use in those two spaces are completely different. And I don't really understand why. So, to the point about building this Internet of Value, I really think that ultimately we want to have information stay close to its point of origin. You had mentioned GDPR as well, and I think as we start to talk about handling data less like gold and more like toxic sludge for a company, data management becomes very important. You want it to be closer to its point of origin.
23:32 AB: So that means we're probably gonna end up with all these different kinds of blockchain networks connected to each other rather than just one main network. The way that people currently think of, say, the Internet is one thing, even though it's not, but leaving that aside. And so, we're simply building tools that help you bring your vision to life in that world. It's really about empowering businesses, startups and individuals to build these next generation websites so that we can get the next-gen systems off the ground.
24:03 MH: And how do you see it evolving in the next few years? Do you think more and more people will come on board to do stuff like you are doing, or using more of... Building this next gen technology.
24:20 AB: We're gonna see a lot of fits and starts. I think there's gonna be the standard trough of disillusionment. The Fortune 100 has put a lot of money into the hype cycle thus far, but probably 98% of businesses on the planet have not even looked at this yet, so there's a huge opportunity. If we look at how the Internet evolved as well, it wasn't until you had better developer tooling that allowed smaller shops to spring up, that would help their local businesses get online for the first time, that this kind of boom happened. So, I think we're just barely seeing the first tip of the iceberg. And then, coming from the other side, where more and more people are getting cryptocurrency wallets or toying with digital identity and that stuff... It's maturing very quickly, but it's still... Just because everybody has heard the price of Bitcoin went up last year, it doesn't mean that everyone actually has a wallet or has ever bought something with a cryptocurrency. There's a long way to go for real saturation.
25:22 MH: Why do you think it's become such a hot topic? The whole crypto and Blockchain and Bitcoin? I don't know enough about it. I just know that it's such a big hype everywhere.
25:35 AB: And people are making a lot of money. So, that tends to hype interest.
25:38 MH: That is true.
25:40 AB: It has been fascinating to watch the growth and interest amongst the general population here because I thought that Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies were this kind of hacker, cypherpunk niche interest-like toy since back in 2011 or so. So, to see it catch on has been amazing, but what that means is that the more "normal people" get interested, they bring different philosophies and different priorities with them, so it's not just people who care deeply about digital privacy and thwarting surveillance, and all of the kind of cypherpunk cred that are now considered old-school. It's people that just wanna get investment returns and don't mind paying their taxes. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does impact the system as a whole in ways that other technologies have not. We're all kind of tied together in this blockchain thing. You can really trace all the transactions back to the shared route of the system. And in that way, it's almost like anonymity and privacy on a blockchain it's almost like herd immunity, and as it becomes more compromised it presents a challenge for everyone.
26:54 AB: So there's a lot of learning to be done. It's happening in a great time. To see what's happened with, say, like the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandals, with GDPR coming out. There's this renewed interest in privacy that people have. But it's great to say, "Be your own bank and hold your own private keys, and all the power. You have all the power." But we need to take care of people that don't necessarily understand what that means. And sometimes, a trusted intermediary isn't just a bank that wants to take your money from you, but is someone like LastPass, or 1Password, or Password Manager that has spent a lot of time figuring out how to hold and manage private keys for people. It's easy for people that are very technical and are very well-versed in privacy technology to just throw it back at people and say, "Do your own research." But one of the reasons that I advocate for having more inclusion in this technology is we can't just have people who think like that. Sure, education and getting people to take responsibility is important, but building tools for... Or recognizing that we need to build tools for that probably 99% of people that still have not enabled two-factor authentication on most of their accounts globally, is important. This technology should not just be reserved for the technocrats among us.
28:22 MH: Cool, thank you.
28:23 AB: Thank you so much for having me.
28:28 MH: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out. Subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review. Also, don't forget to follow us on Twitter at Ellevate N-T-W-K, that's Ellevate Network, and become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website, www.ellevatenetwork.com, that's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E network dot com. And special thanks to our producer, Katherine Heller, she rocks, and to our voice over artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much and join us next week.
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