The Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) has been connecting with leaders in business and regulation to shed light on the powerful ways in which blockchain technology can be used to solve specific financial problems that impact the world, ranging from high transfer fees through limited access to banks. Sandra Ro brings her expertise to GBBC where she’s driving progress. Recently, she shared her insights with BitIRA on where the crypto and blockchain industry is at in tackling these problems, and and what’s coming up next in the world of financial regulation.
BitIRA: How did you come to enter the world of crypto and blockchain? What in particular drew you in? What made you trust that there was a future in this industry?
Sandra: I’m definitely one of the old-timers in the space in the sense that while I wasn’t part of the first wave of cyber-punk cryptographers and computer scientists ’08-’09, I was definitely part of the 2011-12-13 wave of predominantly traders and early tech adopters who got into Bitcoin. I found out about it through the FX trading community in London.
As of 2011 or so, most of the people who were on the trading side had actually heard of Bitcoin. I actually looked at it from not a speculative standpoint, but from the angle of “this technology is meant to disintermediate market.” I was in the foreign exchange currency markets at the time, and thought to myself, “Wow, we’re in the middle of the financial crisis… if this technology can actually disintermediate banks and the other intermediaries, this is groundbreaking. This is game-changing.”
I wanted to figure out whether it works. First you read the white paper. Then what? Well, I started meeting up with people who are like-minded. I started learning about it. I bought Bitcoin.
It was very interesting at the time because, well, most people way back when knew about this, but I don’t know how many people today have heard of it: in New York City next to the New York Stock Exchange, of all places, there was a physical Bitcoin Center. It was probably around 2015 when I would come to the Center for their open trading night. And people would just bring wads of cash and buy Bitcoin. I have to say that was, to me one of the most strange and anachronistic scenarios—seeing people gathering to buy Bitcoins and yet it was an open pit like the Chicago trading pit.
I remember getting my first wallet. Believe it or not, my first crypto wallet was a printout with a private key on it. I still have that. Obviously crypto wallets have evolved quite a bit since then.
After that, and even then, the attraction wasn’t around crypto becoming this huge moneymaker. I don’t think a lot of people who got in during the early stages were thinking about that at all. They were thinking about this as an alternative financial system, or an alternative to what actually broke down in ’08-’09.
What got people excited—and surely what got me excited—was trying to answer whether we should we be building an alternative system that helps navigate around any future crises. Is there something that’s better than our current system? Is there something that would allow for the cheaper movement of money?
If you think about the way email helped move information around, where you didn’t need to write letters anymore because you could now just type it out and it would go instantly—why couldn’t you do that with money or value? And if the Bitcoin network allowed that and did that, well, that’s amazing. That was the promise.
Obviously, a lot has evolved from that. But I think most people who got in fairly early and certainly before all the ICO craze in 2016-’17, most people’s mindsets were really focused on the technology and curiosity about it, as opposed to the speculative piece.
BitIRA: How did the Global Blockchain Business Council get to where it is today?
Sandra: When I ran the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) group’s FX and Metals Research and Product Development, we started really investigating and doing a lot of research on cryptocurrencies. And then eventually, we launched a new group on Digitization, which I ran until I left in 2017. We focused on putting out products that were regulated for a new asset class. I began to realize over time—back in like ’15-’16-’17—that blockchain and digital assets were taking on a whole other dimension, beyond anything I’d really thought about before.
And so after that we launched the Bitcoin pricing products and the futures product, which still trades today. We had also worked on a digital gold project with the UK government, which unfortunately got shelved. We were pretty early in a lot of institutional enterprise projects that were looking at how could blockchain help solve certain problems; how could you digitize assets better, etc. I decided then to pivot 100% of my time to blockchain.
In that period, that’s when I was part of the founding board of the Global Blockchain Business Council. And that GBBC group came out of a group of entrepreneurs who were on Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island during the Blockchain Summit of 2016, and the need for a nonprofit that was focused on the education piece for the blockchain industry. And your next question might be, well, why would you need a new nonprofit to do that?
Here’s the thing: back in ’15-’16, you were just beginning to get mainstream media thinking up on Bitcoin, and crypto, and a little bit of DLT blockchain, but there was still confusion. Some of the reporting was really filled with errors because it is fairly technical, and there are some concepts and vocabulary that can be pretty confusing.
And so the group was born. It was established in Geneva, Switzerland, and born officially at Davos in January 2017. I started off on the board (this was when I was still at CME). And then I left CME in 2017 to focus on my own projects, which were based on solving real world problems with a social impact focus using blockchain and other emerging tech.
When that happened, the initial CEO of GBBC left; this was back in February or March of 2018, which is when I stepped into the role. It’s become a passion of mine. And it has been a passion of mine to focus on the education piece, because I think it’s been really, really important that we continue to educate the public, and government officials, and CEOs, and executives of the biggest companies in the world around not only what it is, but why it seems to have so many use cases. I think that’s the bewildering part for people, and what drives people accusing blockchain of being overhyped. Why is it part of so many discussions? Why is it pervasive in so many industries? Well, it’s because it is an infrastructure-layer technology that is literally shifting paradigms around how we seek data, data’s value, and how we reorganize ourselves around business processes.
BitIRA: What direction would you like to see regulation take in handling crypto and or blockchain?
Sandra: One of GBBC’s primary missions is to drive education advocacy and partnership with leading influencers around the world. And because we are global and in over 50 countries around the world, we really focus on how to set up the right balance between encouraging innovation and all of those cool ideas that people have around the world. But we’re also set on making sure that there are guardrails so that individuals who are scammed or the effects of bad apples in general are kept to a minimum and that there’s enforceability around that.
So when you ask me, what do you want to see around regulation, especially around crypto, I think the number one thing is making sure that legislators fulfill the role and make the laws, and that regulators are charged with oversight and enforcement.
I think with crypto, they need to take a more nuanced view of these things. I think a lot of them do get it. Many regulators and legislators have been looking at crypto for quite a few years now, and there’s been a large body of evidence accumulating with some leading countries emerging as models for aspects of regulation.
But we’re at the point now where we need to bring along many other countries, which maybe are a bit laggard. And then not only after we bring along other countries up on the education curve, but also make sure that there is a semblance of baseline standards and understanding of how it should be treated.
I’ll give you an example. It’s not helpful in the US that we’ve got four different interpretations of what crypto is or a digital asset is. Is it currency? Is it a commodity? Is it property? Is it a security? And this is very difficult to navigate as an entrepreneur, if I’m being told all four of those apply, because then I have to deal with all the rules for all of these different asset class types. That makes it very difficult and, at times, contradictory. So the US in particular definitely needs more clarity around how it’s going to define certain categories, and also how much of it will fall into existing rules versus new ones that need to be written. But then we have countries like Switzerland, for example, which has been good about categorizing crypto from very clearly early on.
I think most people have gotten over the concept that there will be no rules. We’ve moved beyond that. I think maybe there’s a few, a very small minority that still think they can skirt regulation. But I think most who are in the space have understood that they’re going to engage with mainstream institutions, and they are going to have to abide by certain regulations.
BitIRA: What problems would you like to see the industry tackle next?
Sandra: When I think about the last five years in particular, a lot has happened. A lot has evolved. I don’t think anyone should be thinking, oh, crypto’s only this big right now because had the big run-up but now it’s in the doldrums, at least in terms of trading volume or whatnot. I think the way we should look at it is from a long term perspective, which is: have we increased the user base? Have we gotten more sophisticated around how we interact with other institutions, systems, and governments to look at the way crypto can help? Or even why crypto came out: why it exists to begin with, or why it was created to begin with.
I think where people can look to success is the fact that central banks are talking about central bank digital currency. Libra gets announced by a tech company, basically, and every country effectively freaks out. That’s important, right there.
Also, I feel like we’ve evolved to where people are more accepting now of the concept of data as value and that it needs to move around more cheaply. People still feel a lot of pain and friction and anger around how much it costs to move the UK currency across the border, especially all the people who can least afford to be paying 10% in fees (or even 5%). It’s still too high when they’re just trying to send money abroad to their families.
I would love for us to fix the cross border payment problem first. That’s billions of dollars that flow around the world, where if you can just reduce the fee, it could go instantly to real people’s pockets. And to me when crypto and the blockchain community are able to affect systems change like that, that is success. And I know a lot of groups that are working on this right now; we just need to encourage all those companies and all those projects and all those groups. We’re already forcing MoneyGram and Western Union and all those other guys to innovate; and while they are beating down margins and pricing, we must continue to put on the pressure. It should cost pennies to move $100 bucks, not $10 in fees. So I think I think that use case alone would help with millions of people, and is pressing.