Pooja Chokshi '16
Interviewed by Nora Peterson, '14
Pooja Chokshi, '16, is head of partnership strategy at Blockchain, where she leads the global partnership program with the goal of delivering a better financial future to millions across the globe. A 2016 Booth grad, Pooja considers her experience at Booth to be instrumental in helping her find her passion for blockchain and cryptocurrencies. She is also a strong advocate for bringing more diversity into the emerging tech ecosystem.
Pooja’s career has led her to work in 6 cities across 3 continents, at firms such as Goldman Sachs, where she advised institutional clients, and Sangam Ventures, where she invested in startups across India. She is a frequent speaker at various international finance and technology conferences.
Q: You began your career in investment management in New York, and have since traveled the world living in places like London and New Delhi. What is one experience living abroad that changed the trajectory of your career?
My experiences living and working abroad, particularly in India, had a big influence on my decision to work in blockchain, an emerging digital technology. After moving to India in 2013, I was truly shocked at how difficult it was to set up my financial life there. I couldn’t seamlessly move my money from the US to India and vice versa and I had to jump through hoops for almost 2 months to try to open up a bank account so I could get paid.
More importantly, as I traveled to rural and agricultural parts of India as part of my job, I saw how many unbanked Indians were adversely impacted by being excluded from the financial system -- unable to take out loans. When I started to learn more about bitcoin and blockchain technology while at Booth, I was able to easily understand its transformative potential for under-banked populations across the world. If I had never left my job at Goldman Sachs in New York, I wouldn’t have been able to quickly recognize the breakthrough potential of a new technology.
Q: Could you describe your current role as Head of Partnerships Strategy at Blockchain and what it entails?
Leading Partnership Strategy, I build strategic opportunities with businesses in the blockchain and crypto ecosystem to drive user growth and across our platforms. Since the sector is in its very early stages with new entrants and projects emerging every week, I spend a good deal of my time staying abreast of developments, understanding trends, technology and how to best position the company.
Q: Why is blockchain a critical technology for people to understand? Any recommendations on how to learn the basics?
Blockchain technology will reengineer the way we exchange value at both an enterprise and personal level, similarly to how the Internet changed how we exchange information.
For example, in the case of digital identities, imagine a world where the massive Equifax scandal, compromising millions of users’ data, couldn’t have happened because each of us solely own our own digital identity and only we can provide or revoke access to parts of that identity to third parties for certain benefits. Or a world in which the 232 million undocumented migrants around the globe could no longer get exploited, go unpaid or be forced to work in inhumane conditions because they lacked verifiable identification. Blockchain technology can enable that world.
There’s been a lot of hype around blockchain, yet very few people understand the inner workings of it because it’s rather complex. For example, the bitcoin blockchain involves the convergence of the web, information security, cryptography and a slew of other technologies. That’s difficult material to grasp!
However, I try to tell people that they don’t need to be the person who knows every detail of how to build a blockchain system, but they should understand the disruptive implications of the new system, especially as it relates to their domain expertise. For example, if you work in payments at Visa, Paypal or Airbnb, you should understand that cryptocurrencies could form new payment rails allowing free, instant, P2P cross-border payments, like the service Circle Pay has built. There are similar examples of disruptions currently happening in healthcare, logistics, insurance, development, media and all across finance.
To learn about the basics of blockchain, I’d recommend reading Digital Gold by Nathaniel Hopper and The Age of Cryptocurrency by Paul Vigna and Michael Casey. To stay on top of the bleeding edge, I’d encourage readers to follow blockchain and crypto-specific sites and podcasts, such as Coindesk, Token Economy, and Unchained, amongst others. There are also meet-ups in all major cities -- some of my favorites in New York are Women in Crypto and Crypto Mondays.
I’ll also be launching my own newsletter shortly where I’ll share more about the impact of emerging projects on our everyday lives and longstanding industries. Here’s the link to sign-up.
Q: What inspired you to transition your career to Blockchain in 2016? During this time, did you face any challenges being a woman in this space?
I chose to work in this space because I was so compelled and drawn to the promise of blockchain technology - a promise that we could live in a world where there were no barriers to financial inclusion, where we could send value to anyone, almost anywhere for free, where people in developing economies have access to the same financial system available to Fortune 500 CEOs. It may seem idealistic, but I think over the long-run we can build this type of world.
I think the challenges I face as a woman in this space are not that different from the challenges women face in the broader tech and finance sector. The sad reality is that women need to work harder to achieve similar successes of their male counterparts. Men are generally given the benefit of the doubt in terms of their knowledge and abilities, whereas women need to constantly prove it. There are of course exceptions, but broadly I’ve found this to be true. Thankfully, there is more awareness and discussions of these double standards now than ever before, so I’m optimistic that meaningful changes are underway.
While we continue to increase the ratio of women in the space, I like to highlight the many incredible women are already having a huge impact on the industry at its nascent stage. Some of these women include Elizabeth Rossiello, who’s bringing the benefits of crypto to African markets as the CEO of Bitpesa, and Jalak Jobanputra, a long-time investor in blockchain who’s spearheading bold efforts to bring more women into the space.
Q: What information would you like women to have who are considering either investing in cryptocurrency or learning the basics of blockchain?
I’d love for women, especially fellow Booth women, to dive into the innovation and be an active participant in whichever way they can. Many liken blockchain technology today to the Internet of the 1970s. I wasn’t alive back then, but I do know that those who took an active interest in the Internet in those days were well-placed to change how the world communicates and shares information. And that’s pretty cool! We’re now going through something similar with blockchain technology - we’re in the very early stages of changing how people globally exchange and hold value, be it money, investments, identity and goods.
Investing in crypto is just one way to participate, and it’s not for everyone. Volatility is still extremely high and we still don’t have super great models to evaluate new coins. I think the best way for people to initially get involved is by being part of conversations and communities that are discussing different cryptocurrencies and innovation. Find an angle that really interests you, go deep into understanding it, form a point of view and share it with those around you! In a nascent industry like ours, every opinion truly does matter.
Q: If you were to come back to Booth as a Professor, what class would you teach?
I’ll suggest a class that I wish Booth taught instead. I’d love to see a class about building resilience through professional, political and personal ups and downs. I think adversity, failure and loss are inevitably part of one’s career and life. It would be helpful to have more open discussions on dealing with, compartmentalizing and growing from setbacks.
A close second would be: How to Actually Become a Booth Professor. I always thought they had the best jobs!
Q: Any projects you are working on currently that you would like to share with the Booth community and how they can reach you?
Yes! Sign up for my soon-to-be-launched newsletter on all things crypto and Blockchain here. You can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.