The other night my good friend & fellow cryptoenthusiast Ryan Shea suggested we head to a new Bitcoin meetup neither of us had been to before. I agreed to meet him there, and though the conversation was stimulating, much of the experience was pretty demeaning.
I walk in and a group of people are already sitting at a long table. I say hi and hover for a second, determining where to sit. Entirely uninvited, and before I even have a chance to react, one guy proceeds to grab me by the waist and pull me into an awkward, grope-y side hug next to him on the bench. To reiterate, I’ve never met this man in my life. I try giving him the benefit of the doubt and make some quip about his being a friendly sort, but it gets uncomfortable pretty quickly when he puts his hand on my leg and leaves it there until I squirm uncomfortably.
Unsurprisingly, this type of treatment wasn’t specially reserved for me. The person who actually suggested the event to Ryan was another young woman (the only other woman at the event), a VC who was in town from San Francisco and was interested in checking it out for the first time. The aforementioned groper I mentioned earlier know Ryan vaguely from other Bitcoin events, and greeted their arrival with a warm “Oh, nice to see you! I see you brought your girlfriend this time.” When the two of them try to point out that a) they are not together and b) she was actually the one who had brought him, they are cut off with a swift “Sure, sure, I just wanted to see what the dynamic was between you to.” Apparently that’s code for “checking if you’re ok with my hitting on her,” as that’s exactly what he proceeds to do.
The guy sitting on the other side of me turns and introduces himself. Turns out, he’s the organizer and leader of the meetup. He follows with a swift, “So, how did you find out about this?” I’m honestly not sure if he means the meet up group or Bitcoin in general, so I go with the latter and tell him I’ve been interested (ok, obsessed—my friend Sam Smith may or may not have nicknamed me Cryptoqueen) since around mid 2013, which is when I started buying some.
He then starts to look at me like I’ve suddenly morphed into a unicorn. Literally: bulging eyes, mouth slightly agape, the whole nine yards. Apparently the expected response would have been that I was Ryan’s friend/girlfriend/sister who had somehow accidentally ended up there. “Seriously? You mean you actually own bitcoins? You don’t look like someone who would even know about Bitcoin!”
Err…thanks? It’s not a reaction I’m unfamiliar with (I usually get the same one when people hear I have a motorcycle-and no, it’s not a vespa) so I just smile it off and start explaining my interest in the international implications of widespread bitcoin adoption, especially in countries where currency manipulation by corrupt governments has caused rampant hyperinflation and a host of other economic woes. I conclude the thought, and he (again, staring like I’m some sort of extraterrestrial creature), goes, “Wow. Women don’t usually say that type of things”.
I mean, what do you even respond to that?
Undeterred, I try to sidestep it and go on with my argument, concluding that what I am describing is “much more effective and efficient” than the current system. “Well,” he says looking at me knowingly, “Women don’t usually think in terms of efficiency and effectiveness”.
A few minutes later he starts describing an app he is working on to someone else at the table. “You see, women don’t care about crypto currencies, so we don’t have to design for them”. When I tell him he’s wrong, he smartly replies, completely in earnest, “Oh ok cool, so if we start dating I can use the app with you!”
The irony here is that he actually meant these things as compliments. But what he was implying that the bar for women is so low that my entirely unremarkable comments put me lightyears ahead of the “average woman” (whatever that even means).
Anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I’m pretty thick skinned. My self esteem remained intact throughout the exchange; if anything, it made me more determined to learn. I was not even made to feel unwelcome; these fellows were clearly thrilled at the presence of two women at the event. The problem lies in the conditions under which our company was desired. We were not treated as peers or individuals who might be able to contribute intelligently to the discussion. We were ogled and clearly assumed to be someone’s girlfriend, or someone’s potential future girlfriend.
Was either of us mistreated? Technically, no. But the conditions under which our presence was accepted were such that from the moment we entered the room, the other attendees’s preconceptions were at a distinct disadvantage. Perhaps this would be a good time to recall Warren Buffet’s comment that one of the reasons for his great success was that he was only competing with half of the population. We can view it as an opportunity. Being underestimated can be a surprisingly effective tool in the appropriate context, but perhaps that’s just me being overly optimistic. I know many women, many of whom are far smarter than I am, who would have felt seriously out of place there. Would they go back to the next meet up? I doubt it. If the organizer of the meetup makes people feel so unwelcome, it sets the tone for the rest of the conversation.
I’m not bringing these comments up because my feelings were hurt, and the last thing I need is sympathy. I’m also not concerned that one particular guy thinks women couldn’t possibly know about Bitcoin, or that another grabbed at me, but unfortunately this is representative of a larger trend. The current generation of hackathon organizers (largely led by the singular efforts of Dave Fontenot —hellllllyeah) is making a concerted effort to encourage the participation of women at their events, and while I’ve still gotten my share of off-color comments, the situation is gradually improving. Since Bitcoin is still so new, we have the rare opportunity to get onboard before the ship has sailed, becoming knowledgeable before a vast majority of people have ever even heard of it. Learning about it now, instead of trying to play catch-up as it often seems like we are in terms of women in STEM fields, programming, or traditional finance, will surely reap great benefits.
I think my experience at the meetup is worth sharing because Bitcoin lies at the heart of both finance and tech, two industries that carry tremendous weight and which have traditionally struggled to attract women. Given the events of the other night, this is hardly surprising. I am undeterred and if anything will be even more proactive about attending these events. In my mind, it’s a little preposterous that if I want to do so, however, I have to be ok with being felt up and indirectly insulted. If women fail to take an active interest in Bitcoin now, when it is still in its infancy and its potential is largely untapped, we will have yet another sector in which the gender is underrepresented and trailing. Bitcoin as a currency has the ability to revolutionize the banking and financial system, but the implication of Bitcoin as a protocol extend much further than that. I’ll write a post of my own on that soon, but in the meantime I recommend you check out Mark Andreessen’s excellent post on why Bitcoin matters.
Anyways ladies, ignore the naysayers and get out to those Bitcoin meetups! If you want to attend a meetup or chat crypto anytime, shoot me a line on Twitter.
Here in Africa I am practicing my waiting skills. Patience is a learned virtue and the fact that everything takes so much longer here makes it inevitable that one must develop some. It’s a tremendous change of pace, especially after manhattan. Yet I think ultimately it is good for me to spend a bit of time doing nothing and just understanding that the world does not operate all on the same clock. There is time, and then there is Africa time, and the two are very different.
Yesterday I went on a walk with Bruno, who I met at the hostel. We were intending to go to the township, Chinotimba, and just wander around and look at the market. As we went, we were walking next to a local woman who introduced herself as Homba, and I asked her if we were going the right way to the township. She told me yes, and she would take us since she was going there. So we went together and she asked us if we wanted to go to the orphanage. On the way there we stopped at a tuck shop (basically one room shacks that serve as little stores) and I bought us cokes. In Africa, they come in glass bottles and taste much better.
The orphanage, called Rose of Charity, stands right in the middle of the shanty town. It is a small place, hosting about 17 orphans at any one point. Of course there are many more in the area, but they only have space for that many. They took us inside and the kids hopped up and ran over, arms outstretched, wanting to be picked up. They were almost unbearably cute.
They seemed pretty happy and well-cared for, all things considered. What really killed me was when the matron started telling me the stories of how they got there. I had assumed their parents had died of AIDS, but it turns out most of them were abandoned. One little girl, Joanna, who is 5, had developed an affection for me and barely let go of me the whole time. She was dumped by the river when she was two months old. Hearing that one was tough. My heart broke just a little bit.
Lunch time rolled around while I was there, and the woman who runs the place came out with a basin and a pitcher of water and the older kids scrubbed the hands of the little ones. In a few seconds, the water was brown; the dust here is unbelievable. Lunch consisted of pap, which is basically a cornmeal mush that vaguely resembles mashed potatoes. The matron and some of the older kids also had fried caterpillars (!!!). They offered me some and I was certainly not very keen to try one but I felt rude refusing so I just went with it. Surprisingly, it wasn’t bad. It actually tasted somewhat like meat, and wasn’t dry and crunchy as I expected.
I bought two stuffed animals there, a giraffe and an elephant, which the children make to raise money. Eventually we had to get going because I was getting picked up for the sunset cruise at 3:30 (in the words of Yogi Berra, it gets late early out here). On the way back, Homba took us to see the market. Outside were a bunch of women with chickens packed into handmade cages. They were from the nearby village and didn’t really speak English, but they were hollering at me and rubbing their stomachs; Homba told me they wanted us to buy them bread. Inside the market vendors were selling clothes (mostly cheap things from China), and as we entered the other wing, foods as well. I even saw the dried caterpillars I had eaten earlier. There were a lot of people selling but very few buying.
After the market Homba walked us back to the supermarket in town, and I gave her 10 dollars. During the walk back I learned some fascinating things about Zimbabwe. Education is mandatory here, yet the schools are not free. For her son to attend school, it’s $60 per term, which is a significant amount. Homba also takes care of two girls, 14 and 15, who are her orphaned nieces—they have stopped attending school because the cost is too high.
When we parted, Homba asked to take a picture with me to show her son; he wouldn’t believe that she had been walking around with “a white lady”. After our afternoon together, I was very emotionally drained. It was a lot to take in. I felt like I’d been hit by an eighteen-wheeler.
In the evening, I went for a beautiful sunset cruise on the Zambezi, seemingly a million miles away from the shacks in Chinotimba.
The next day I decided to head back to the orphanage, and I wasn’t sure I could find my way back there on my own, so I paid someone a dollar to let me use their phone and had Homba come get me at the supermarket. Not only did she show up, but so did her husband, her friend from church, her son, and the neighbor’s daughter. Neither of the men had to work, so they just came along. The children has heard about me from Homba and almost didn’t believe that she had made a white friend. The little boy was so anxious to meet me he didn’t even play with his friends that day, staying close to his mother in case I called!
We walked to the orphanage first, where there were tons of kids as it was feeding day, when the orphanage feeds all the orphans in town, including the ones who don’t live there. Some of the kids were playing soccer, others painting on cardboard with watercolors, and most were just running around playing. The kids just loved climbing all over me and there were usually about 5 hanging off me in some way or another. I started tossing some of the younger ones in the air and they squealed in delight. After an hour or so there, Homba we suggested we move on to the old people’s home down the road. There are 14 elderly there, ages 60 all the way to 99!
We didn’t stay there long, as most of them were sleeping, so we walked on to the hospital. Homba’s friend volunteers there in the lab. He’s quite educated and went to university in South Africa but the hospital can’t pay him, so he volunteers instead. Soon, however, he’ll be working for a private clinic which is great because he’ll finally have an income. It’s astounding how people here manage to get by.
The hospital was not especially modern but looked pretty well-built. Much of it is still being finished. The most shocking thing was when Homba and her friend told me about what the situation was like in past years. Zimbabwe suffered from runway inflation and the government essentially stopped providing any services. People simply died because there was no one working in the hospitals. There was no medication either. Now the situation is better, largely thanks to foreign aid.
They showed me around the labs and then we left—now we were going to Homba’s house. We stopped at her neighbor Fiona’s house for a glass of water, since she is richer and has a refrigerator, and then went on. ( Her house cost $3500. I am seriously considering coming back and buying some small properties here to rent out cheaply, but I have to look into the legal side of things first.)The area where Homba lives is even poorer than Chinotimba, where the orphanage is.
When we got there, i honestly could not believe that someone lives there. It was heartbreaking. Of course, no power or running water, and there were newspapers stuffed in the cracks in between the cinder blocks. The door was a series of wood planks on a hinge. The bed was the sole piece of furniture and took up 80% of the room. “Welcome, this is where I stay,” she said. We sat on the bed, as there was nowhere else to sit, and she proudly showed me her son’s first grade diploma, his birth booklet, and a few pictures of her and the kids. Homba and her husband struggle to pay the rent even in that shack, as it is around 100 a month and neither of them have any stable employment.
The most amazing thing in all of this was Homba’s dignity. Rarely, if ever, have I met someone with such natural poise and composure. Despite living in destitute poverty, she has an extraordinary aura of elegance about her. She told me it was her faith; although she is poor, she refuses to look it, as “cleanliness is next to godliness”. Homba is beautiful but she has sad eyes. She is tall and slender and in another world she would have been a model. Here, she had to drop out of school at 15 because her father died when she was 6 and no one could afford to pay for it. She’s clearly bright though, and over the pizza I bought her back at my hostel, she told me she would love to go back to school. Homba has an idea for a business too—with any small amount of starting capital, she can go to Lusaka and buy used clothes (most of them are from Europe or the US, and I suspect that they were donations which people then misappropriate), bring them back to Vic Falls, and sell them. I asked if she would sell it at the market and she said she would sell more going door to door, so that is what she would do. The extraordinary challenge to entrepreneurship is that no one has any money to start with, even though the sums necessary to begin are really minuscule.
After dinner I took her to the supermarket and asked her what she needed. We had a pretty full cart by the end of it, and I looked at her worriedly asking how she could carry all of that back. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I can put it on my head!” What is most shocking here is how much everything costs. We ended up spending a little over 60 dollars, and it’s honestly about the same amount we would have spent in the US. The problem lies in the fact that everyone here earns so much less. A taxi driver, for instance, will make around $300 a month. I simply cannot understand how people manage.
Anyways, I have been doing some of the expensive tourist things like riding elephants and walking with lions in the national parks, but the most special thing was definitely being shown all around and visiting their home.
I’ve never been a fan of introductions, so I’ll make this brief. About a month ago, I quit my job in Manhattan and, unclear on what to do with myself, I decided to take an 8 day trip to Namibia to visit a friend who is doing NGO work in Windhoek.
When I realized I couldn’t leave yet, I changed my flight, and now I’m planning on traveling around southern Africa for two months at least. I’m in the third week, and this is a bit about what I’ve been doing and seeing.
Be polarizing. A wise Ben Franklin once said, “There are many roads to success, but only one sure road to failure. That is to try and please everyone else”. So stop it. You’ll never make a product that everyone loves, but the good news is you don’t have to. If half the population loves your product , and the other half hates it, you’re doing great. Take the Nissan Cube, for instance. I think it’s hideous and wouldn’t have bet on it being alive for more than a year, but some people think it’s beautiful. Because the design is so far out there, the people who buy this car feel strongly about it, and that’s what’s kept it on the production lines since ‘98. What applies to cars also goes for blog posts—my co-founder Dave proved this with a highly controversial post called “Hipsters are a Billion Dollar Industry”. Readers were pretty evenly split between those who think he’s a genius and others arguing he has the mental acumen of a sea slug, but he was undeniably effective in fostering that discourse.
The Republican National Convention just ended, the Democratic one is coming up, and flurries of painful economic numbers are being tossed around. Regardless of political affiliation, most business owners will agree that economic recovery hasn’t come as quickly or forcefully as they’d hoped—which is why retaining customers is more important than ever. So be polarizing enough to snag that core group of customers who will love you forever, pimples and all, and don’t ever let them go.
Considering I was six months old when I started gallivanting across the globe, I’d say the time has come for me to write something about it. I’ve kept some travel journals, but they’ve stayed hidden away in some dusty drawer until now. I solemnly swear to make everything I write travel-centric. There’s a zero percent chance anyone wants to hear how long the line was at the post office or how boring my professor’s lecture was. The likelihood someone might want to hear about my international adventures is still slim, but somewhat higher. I’ll also be tossing in a few pieces I wrote during my travels over the past couple years.
As expected, the story starts in Italy. For those of you who might not know, I was born in Milan, daughter of an Italian mother and an American father. I grew up there, flying back to the US to visit my dad’s side of the family once or twice a year. It comes as no surprise then that I have an inherent and incurable case of Road Fever. It’s more severe and longer-lasting than any other disease I may have picked up along my way, including African tick bite fever (more on that later).
Barcelona, Spain. A word of advice for those studying abroad, traveling to an unfamiliar place, or just trying to get to work: walk. Just a couple blocks, and suddenly it’s like you’re in another world, one that you’ve never really noticed before. Today I finally took the time to poke my head outside the metro and make the trip home from the IES center by foot, and it was my favorite part of the day, despite a few small issues I’ll get into later. It’s so easy to get caught up in getting to school, work or wherever you’re going, always running, always in a hurry, trying to beat the giant clock that seems to be constantly looming overhead. Ignore it for once: it’s worth it. My walk took me through side streets and past tiny shops I never would have seen on my usual underground commute. I strolled down the Passeig de Gracia, one of the main streets in the city, which is lined with the store windows of some of the biggest names in international fashion: Gucci, Burberry, Chanel etc. One I stopped lusting after the stilettos and leather purses, I started to really look around and wandered onto the less touristy side streets. I stumbled upon bits of the local reality this afternoon—a girl on a bike wearing a backpack containing her dog (the poor creature was only about the size of a large gerbil), a group of men playing bocce in the park, and, my favorite: an elderly couple, both in wheelchairs, holding hands as they rolled down the sidewalk.
The last stretch of my pedestrian commute ended up being far less peaceful, as it required me to walk by the Sagrada Familia, Gaudí’s great church (which, I learned, is not a cathedral as most people believe). It’s an extremely impressive building, although the myriad cranes and seemingly endless construction do mar the sight.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only pesky issue surrounding this landmark. The main problem of the area? The sidewalks. I am now firmly convinced that West Point should abandon it’s Indoor Obstacle Course Test in favor of a two-block navigation down the sidewalks around the Sagrada Familia. They’re cluttered with:
Tourists—craning their necks upward to catch a glimpse of the highest towers of Gaudi’s masterpiece. I’m beginning to get the impression that they no longer actually have distinguishable features; most of them stare through their camera so much that in the heat, it has probably fused to their faces by now;
annoyed locals— attempting to go about their business in a timely matter, but of course failing miserably the face of what seem to be trillions of tour groups, each of which somehow manages to take up twice as much space as that many people would need to stand comfortably in any other scenario;
outdoor café tables and chairs, scooters, loitering teenagers, and the never-depleted assortment of pets, (and their excrements) small children, restaurant signs, bicycles, and revolving postcard stands.
I hope my description gives a general idea of the complexity of trying to make forward progress in this area. As I attempted to walk, it went basically something like this: Duck! Dodge! Left! WOW, a break in the crowd, two steps forward! Right! One step backwards to avoid trampling a two-year old—success, my left foot missed the dog poop by a quarter of an inch! I’m fairly certain that at times I was moving more sideways than forwards in a desperate, futile attempt to dodge all of the above.
It was annoying, but like so many of life’s nuisances, held a secret reward. After this walk, for the first time, I started to really understand what it’s like to live here. I’ve transitioned from being one of those star struck tourists to feeling like a local. Sure, I wasn’t born here and I haven’t lived here all my life, but I now understand why my señora avoids the area like the plague (¡las aceras siempre están llenas de turistas, y no se puede caminar!) and I’ve started thinking about the tourists as “they” rather than “us”. I finally feel at home here.