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Paving the Way in Decentralized Finance: Stories from Women in DeFi

Three women in DeFi share their experiences and views on the future of decentralized finance.
Written by TM Team, Jamil Dhanani, and Webstacks Dev
Read Time 9 min
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Written By

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TM Team

And

Jamil Dhanani's headshot

Jamil Dhanani

Co-founder, Gamma.io

And

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Webstacks Dev

DeFi has transformed how we interact with everyday financial transactions and how we engage with financial systems.

As DeFi applications grow, they have demonstrated how blockchain technology has the capability to improve upon traditional finance and existing financial institutions. From lending and borrowing to decentralized exchanges (DEXs), DeFi apps have shown that digital assets can be utilized to build a more inclusive and equitable financial world. They have embodied the ethos of trustless technologies and demonstrated how the absence of a middleman and centralized entity – key components of traditional financial institutions – can empower everyday people to take full control over their tokens and other digital assets.

And a good number of these DeFi projects have women at the helm.

While women still remain largely underrepresented in the wider Web3 industry, their presence has been increasingly felt in recent years, including in DeFi. Trust Machines spoke to three women making their mark on the DeFi space about what drove them to DeFi and the cryptocurrency world, and how they’re looking to shape the future of DeFi.

In many ways, their stories reflect the wider Web3 world's mission to empower individuals and their communities.

From Centralized Finance to Decentralized Finance

“The idea for ALEX was conceived by my co-founder, Rachel Yu, as we were discussing the growth of DeFi on Ethereum,” recounted Dr. Chiente Hsu. “The crypto bull market was strong and we were entering a second ‘summer of DeFi.’” 

Dr. Hsu is the CEO and co-founder of ALEXGO, a fintech startup backed by Trust Machines. Looking at Dr. Hsu’s career path, it’s easy to see how her skill set allowed her to move to the DeFi world. Prior to co-founding ALEXGO, Dr. Hsu led and managed teams at some of the biggest banks and financial institutions in the U.S.

“My background of two decades in TradFi (traditional finance) has prepared me for DeFi because I can see the steps that connect where DeFi is now to what DeFi is capable of becoming,” she explained. “I’ve spoken with all major asset managers across the globe. I know what their needs and reservations are, and my vision is to take the market cap of DeFi from tens of billions to hundreds of trillions.”

Over the years, more and more professionals on Wall Street have flocked to new financial technologies, DeFi included. Dr. Hsu and Lindsey Crawford, chief of staff at Proximity Labs, were just two of a growing number of financial professionals who made the transition and felt that they had a background to grow the industry as a whole. 

DeFi vs. Traditional Finance

But most importantly, their time in traditional finance circles allowed them to see the gaps that existed in age-old systems.

“Repeatedly, I noticed that I had access to information that was inaccessible to others outside of Wall Street,” said Crawford. “The wealth gap was apparent in many of the rooms that I entered, and this made me think strategically about how to seek out a more equitable financial system, where wealth and information could be open sourced.”

Crawford wasn’t the only one with that goal in mind.

The 2008 global financial crisis led many people to seriously reassess the foundations of the current financial system. That same year, Satoshi Nakamoto created Bitcoin and put forth the idea of a decentralized peer to peer digital asset system. The system was trustless by nature, effectively empowering individuals to have full control over their money without needing intermediaries or central authorities like banks, as had been the case in centralized finance.

Crawford – who began her career in institutional equity research sales – emphasized that she realized the publicly accessible and transparent nature of DeFi protocols aligned with her desire to give individuals autonomy over their financial decisions as well as access to financial services and tools otherwise unavailable to them.

“I started to think about how new and innovative technologies could emerge that have the potential to disrupt our current financial system and to create a more equitable wealth system,” explained Crawford.

That same belief also drove Dr. Hsu’s interest in crypto long before ALEXGO was conceived, and it has served as a motivator for the project founder. “I started getting interested in crypto after the 2008 global financial crisis when I experienced, firsthand, the shortcomings and inefficiencies of the traditional financial system,” Dr. Hsu explained. “[All the] information asymmetry, lack of transparency and overleveraging, [it caused] banks to stop trusting each other because no one knew who owed what.”

“We decided that rather than be passive spectators, we would be builders and ensure DeFi would mature to be a fairer, more secure, and universally inclusive alternative to the [traditional finance world] we had left behind."

The Many Roads to DeFi and Web3

The appeal of DeFi, however, did not stop with financial professionals. Over the years, DeFi platforms and protocols have evolved and are no longer limited to decentralized applications that focus solely on financial products. In addition to providing new financial tools that focus on DeFi transactions, which includes allowing users to borrow and earn interest on their tokens, many DeFi products have significantly expanded their use cases. 

That potential has attracted people from beyond the financial world to the space, including to projects that interact heavily with DeFi work.

Xverse’s Head of Growth, Elizabeth Olson, moved into Web3 after leading marketing efforts for Sotheby’s auctions in New York. Wallets like Xverse – which has become one of the most popular wallets in Web3 – are often the first point of entry for crypto users given that they facilitate everyday crypto transactions and asset operations.

This has put the wallet and its team, Olson included, at the forefront of some of the biggest developments across the wider Web3 space, many of which have extended beyond the typical crypto asset management and products and services normally associated with the DeFi market.

“The unique opportunity about working for a wallet is that you get a seat at the center of all the action,” Olson explained. “Wallets provide a gateway to blockchain ecosystems, offering solutions for all areas of Web3 from DeFi, to NFTs, DAOs and other decentralized applications.”

“At the time I was hired, I didn't have direct experience in crypto, but I knew Bitcoin held a standard of excellence and innovation with which I shared an affinity.”

Adapting to the DeFi Landscape and Its Challenges

Olson is just one of many people who have entered crypto and Web3 as the world gradually recognizes the benefits of decentralized blockchain technology and decentralized apps. In many ways, their experiences in non-crypto industries actually helped them contribute to the richness of today’s Web3 ecosystems.

Olson's marketing background served as an advantage for her at Xverse, countering what is still a relatively common belief: that you must have certain qualifications to enter Web3 industries, including DeFi. “You don't have to have an engineering or finance background to get started in Web3. For example, in marketing the same principles apply from Web2,” she insisted. “Of course there's a steep industry learning curve, but that's what makes it so exciting.”

Part of that learning curve comes from adapting to an ever-changing market that is still very much in its infancy. And in recent years, conversations about building a more inclusive and supportive environment have come to the forefront as more people join Web3. 

In many ways, DeFi and the wider Web3 industry mirror many of the trends seen in the tech industry. This includes the challenges underrepresented groups – women being just one example – face that hinder their progress. Men still vastly outnumber women in Web3, and many women have cited the lack of resources and community support as barriers for their decision to enter the market.

But Crawford points out that Web3 is in the position to change that, all things considered. 

“As a female on Wall Street, there were constantly mixed signals for how to approach every room that I walked into,” she said. “As a woman in DeFi, there are others rallying around me, advocating for financial inclusion and change.” 

“There still are not nearly enough females in executive roles within DeFi, but I do see this evolving much faster in a Web3 environment where voices are heard, and discrimination is much less prevalent in my personal experience.”

However, Crawford acknowledges that there is still a lack of strong female mentors for women in Web3, which has contributed to the absence of women in top leadership positions. Over the last year, she co-founded a community for Web3 chiefs of staff to ensure that female executives have the support they need in the industry. Crawford is also pushing for more women to have access to advocacy groups, another crucial factor that she believes will give women more pathways to leadership roles.

Female founders like Dr. Hsu are often leading the charge. While surveys do show that female founders are still vastly outnumbered by their male counterparts and also receive significantly less funding overall, there are promising signs for women determined to lead their own projects.

“Crypto is borderless, gender neutral and twenty four seven," said Dr. Hsu. "As a founder, you put in 100 percent of the work, you see the results, and you choose who you want to be surrounded by as you build up your team.”

Looking to the Future

Ultimately, Web3 – and DeFi, by extension – possesses immense potential, though more work needs to be done to ensure that these opportunities are accessible to all.

“Currently, crypto ownership rates are less than 5 percent worldwide,” said Olson. “If we’re here for global adoption, we are going to need a lot more talent, which means a lot more opportunities to empower more women to join the space.”

And much of that begins with finding the right communities. Olson pointed out that networks such as women-empowering DAOs (she gave H.E.R. and Boys Club as examples) can serve as resources for women entering Web3. She also recommended simple steps that people can take, such as joining more technical chat groups, to gradually educate themselves on the Web3 world and its many ecosystems. 

Olson also underscored that it is crucial for women to provide the same support they needed to future generations. “When you make it, actively support other women to follow in your footsteps,” she stated.

That last point has been a priority for Dr. Hsu, who encourages women entering DeFi to reach out to female leaders for advice and to expand their networks. Like many people in Web3, Dr. Hsu believes that diversity is essential for the tech world to advance, and having women support other women is necessary in fostering that diversity.

“Pass on that assistance to the women who come in after you. Women helping other women can reshape the course of history,” she emphasized. 

But perhaps the most important first step is to take the plunge and engage with the Web3 ecosystem itself. “Start by doing,” advised Crawford. “Get curious, play around on various DeFi applications. Ask a million questions, join Twitter and start following everything you can about DeFi.”

“Most importantly, know that all women are welcomed and very much needed in the Web3 community. We’re just getting started.”

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