You could call Jalak Jobanputra an early adopter. In 1995, as an analyst, she was part of the team that took Netscape public. And she’s been a bitcoin believer since 2013, when cryptocurrency and blockchain technology were even less understood than they are now. That’s when she left a plum gig with the Omidyar Network (a philanthropic fund started by eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar) to launch Future\Perfect Ventures, which focuses on blockchain tech and machine learning. We spoke to her about her gift for knowing what’s next.
How did you go from i-banking to crypto and blockchain?
I’ve always been very interested in the intersection of capital markets and technology. When I attended my first bitcoin conference in 2013, I was intrigued by this idea that you could transfer money across borders without needing banks, which meant no fees and no waiting for the transaction to be verified. We use technology for so many things but we hang on to antiquated processes—like it costs $50 to wire money from the United States abroad. The only reason this still happens is that those old ways haven’t faced any competition. So that’s interesting from a monetary standpoint. But crypto is fueled by blockchain, an underlying technology that can do a lot more.
Every time we see a new doctor we always have to fill out our medical history—again. That seems really silly in this day and age. What if I had a digital wallet that contained all my records, verified by different doctors, and I could send certain pieces of information to a particular wallet address assigned to a hospital or an insurance company? I’m controlling the data. I own the data. So that’s one possible application, but there’s also a security piece. Our health care records, credit card records, taxes—everything’s getting hacked! That’s because so much data resides in one place controlled by one company. The concept of blockchain is that you distribute where that data resides, so there’s no one point of failure the way there is with a central server.
Do you spend a lot of your time explaining bitcoin and blockchain?
I don’t think people need to understand blockchain in order to use the technology and benefit from it. Most people don’t understand how the internet works, but they still use it. We’re going to get to a point where this technology is part of our daily lives. In the meantime, the challenge is more about getting people over the idea that you don’t need the bank, or any big institution, to function as an intermediary. Bitcoin was introduced in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, after banks had let a lot of people down. The anonymous developer who created it thought ‘why can’t we use computers to function as banks? We can probably trust them more than we can trust what the banks did with our money.’ So it’s a whole different way of looking at trusting computers, trusting code, and trusting institutions.
You’re a high-profile woman thriving inside the bro cultures of finance and tech. Is that a lonely place to be?
There are women who are helping to shape the future of blockchain technology but we’re not always out there as publicly as we could be. I’m a firm believer that “you can’t be what you can’t see,” so last year I founded Collective Future—it started out as a gathering of 20 female VCs, executives and entrepreneurs and has already inspired similar groups in remote cities, like Cleveland and even Bangalore. Separate from that, in January we opened The New York City Blockchain Center with the New York City Economic Development Corporation. It’s a physical space in the Flatiron District, a meeting spot for the industry and an open door for anyone who wants to learn more about the technology. We’re partnering with high schools and colleges in an effort to get young people interested in the blockchain sector and curious about its potential.
You seem like a born networker. In fact, you were only 10 years old when you met Indira Gandhi, who was Prime Minister of India at the time. How did that happen?
I learned about her before one of our family trips to India. I wrote her a letter and said ‘I’m Indian, too, and I’m very much inspired by the fact that you’re a woman leading such a large nation. I would love to meet you.’ That’s the naivete of being a 10 year old in rural New Jersey, writing that kind of letter. And sure enough I got a response! My parents and I met her at a meet-and-greet at the presidential palace in Delhi. She was kind and gracious, and very interested in my family’s migration—I was born in Nairobi and my parents were both born in Tanzania. I was bummed when I found out I could never be president of the United States because I wasn’t born here, but to see that it was possible to be in that position, as a woman, was huge. It also made me realize that, at the end of the day, everyone’s a human being, and you never know who is approachable until you try.