You may have heard about this thing called blockchain. Touted as everything from the most significant technological innovation since the internet, to the future enforcer of trust in society–blockchain, simply put, has taken the world, and several industries within it, by storm. So in a nutshell, what is blockchain?
Blockchain is a never-ending list of transaction records (stored in blocks), which facilitates trustless, peer-to-peer transactions. Each block is secured in such a way that makes it near impossible to modify, keeping the records safe and secure, and eliminating the need for a bank or third-party to facilitate the transaction and charge fees accordingly. The fact that blockchain, at its core, is designed to transfer power from large organizations to the individuals themselves, is precisely what has captured the hearts of enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and philosophers around the world. One such champion is Jane Lippencott, an undergraduate student at the Darla Moore School of Business, who recently co-founded Zen, a privacy-oriented blockchain product and services platform.
What is the beauty of blockchain for you? Why are you so attracted to this technology?
From a macro perspective, blockchain technology allows for alignment of stakeholder incentives within a human system, creating a harmonious process whereby contributors are rewarded, and participants have a say in the system’s evolution. Decisions can also be made and verified in a decentralized nature (meaning by the entire network instead of by a few “managers”), and individuals join the system by accepting a core set of principles and/or a mission. Ideally, these principles would espouse peace, inclusion, and compassion. I really like this idea of codifying a set of morals, and building communities that are committed to (and rewarded for!) upholding them.
How did you get started with Zen?
Looking back, I never expected Zen’s mission to resonate with so many people all over the world. The “right to privacy” argument is a hard one to make, mostly because humans are so used to being exploited. We often associate demand for personal privacy with criminal activities, and we don’t view digital data as a monetizable asset. But my co-founders and I saw an opportunity to create a private version of digital cash, and to offer a holistic platform with messaging and media publishing available as well. We also had very strong opinions on how we wanted to create, expand, and market the project. We poured our collective values into a white paper, and then we launched without raising money (putting in tens of thousands of our personal money instead), and without hiring a “professional” team. To this day, our contributors and core teams are made up of exceptional people hired from within the community who believe the values inherent to Zen are fundamental human rights.
How old are you and how did you learn everything so quickly?
I’m 21! But I always receive such strong reactions when I tell people my age, so I usually don’t.
In terms of learning, I think when we’re young we shouldn’t be encouraged to put blinders on. Students should view the four years of university as an incredibly valuable opportunity for professional (and personal, but that’s another conversation) experimentation. I’ve engaged with various industries and functions through internships and jobs, as well as through independent research (never underestimate the power of the Internet!). I’ve worked at a hotel in procurement, a non-profit in admin and development, a hedge fund in financial analysis, a wealth management office, an events company, two venture capital firms and two startup accelerators, and a fintech startup. This range of experience granted me a generalist understanding of most elements of a business, as well as allowing me to be more empathetic to my colleagues and contribute to initiatives that aren’t necessarily within my role. It has also allowed me to translate my core morals and most strongly held beliefs into a profitable company.
“Another idea I really believe in: always start before you’re ready.”
Another thing that has taught me a lot is engaging with people I admire. I have a lot of friendships with older people who are very successful, in their own nuanced and personal definitions of the word. Often they have three or four different projects and companies that they contribute to with various levels of engagement, all the while never linking their identities to their present circumstance. I really admire the ability to work towards a life purpose or thesis using multiple “jobs” as channels to do so. Even now when I hire for Zen, I look for people with kick-ass careers and strong divergent opinions that they’ve translated into their individual purpose – and usually, these people have a range of side hustles on top of their day job.
You’ve cofounded Zen, but you’re also engaged in advising a few startups, contributing to documentaries, building up the blockchain community in Hong Kong, and working with a stealth project out of San Francisco. Do you have any tips on how you manage all these different facets of your career?
The work can certainly get overwhelming sometimes just because of the sheer scale, but I focus mainly on Zen and the rest is secondary. Jumping between projects that are at various stages of development requires laser-sharp focus and the ability to switch modes quickly. I’ve learned to segment my headspace into sprints, and also (for sanity and creativity) to prioritize time when I can be completely switched off. One tip that helps (and is only possible in a super-connected city), is that I don’t have a cell phone with a working sim, so I only use my phone when I’m on WiFi – usually at a co-working space or cafe. To be fair, this is 90% of the time, but anytime I’m not plugged and working, I have the opportunity to be completely present. This method initiates a serious state change that helps me get in the zone faster. As soon as I walk in the door, a trigger goes off and I know it’s time to execute. Similarly, when I walk outside, the burden drops. I know it’s my time to create and think, and the people I love know I am 100% present with them.
Have you ever felt like you’ve failed or disappointed yourself?
I don’t believe in wasting time or emotional energy with regret. I don’t think success and failure exist in dichotomy, and I believe that it’s healthier to be reflective without unnecessary and indulgent self-criticism. When I look back on each day, I realize I could have acted more optimally in a social or professional situation, but I don’t let this realization emotionally affect me. I certainly cringe a lot at myself, especially when I speak publically or am asked a question I don’t have an eloquent answer to, but to me all of that is comedic. By realizing that any perceived personal failure is a result of subjective framing, you’ll realize that we also have the power to reframe. Life is a lot lighter than we make it out to be.
Were you always so introspective?
I grew up moving back and forth between Asia and the United States. As a kid, it’s super easy to live in your own internal world, a lot of thinking and not a lot of presence. I learned presence through tragedy. I had a hard six years with family turmoil and some painful experiences that started right before high school. At some point, I remember thinking, “Ok this is my rock bottom, I will not fall any further.” From that point I’ve put a lot of time and energy into becoming present, compassionate, stoic, grateful – ultimately enlightened, maybe, one day. I decided to learn how to build organizations and systems with strong cores that were fair, equitable, and good for the world, while still turning a profit and rewarding contributors. I think that decision and pursuit in itself has been really empowering.
What is your advice to all the women out there who are looking to grow, learn and be successful?
Some of the most fundamental advice I give is: realize right now, today, that you’re the only person (or variable) capable holding yourself back. Blaming insufficient time, a busy schedule, your environment, or people in your life for suppressing you, only leads to complacency, internalized anger, and negativity – none of which will lead to positive change in your life. Realize how much power you have, and work on things that excite your curiosity. I often come up with questions that I strive to answer through writing and mini-projects that only I know about, and that exposes me to new, fringe ideas that spark my creativity. I choose to engage with people who inspire me and ideas that challenge me, and this makes all the difference in my self-esteem and effectiveness.
Another idea I really believe in: always start before you’re ready. If you’re not living or communicating or engaging professionally as you ideally want to, start with micro-changes, and start today. You’ll never be ready to drastically change your life at the drop of a hat, but you can start building momentum and competence right now. For example, nowadays it seems like every other person I meet wants to make it big in the crypto space. In speculative markets, it actually is possible to get super rich overnight, but usually, it takes consistent engagement with a problem to really crack it, or numerous iterations of a company to make it successful. My advice is always “dive into Reddit, BTCTalk, and other indispensable online resources, learn the fundamentals and history, and then find a niche or use case or unsolved problem that really interests you, and engage with it.” Once you get yourself in that proactive mindset, you suddenly realize that all the resources you need to facilitate any kind of learning are already at your fingertips.
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