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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Denelle Dixon (Stellar Development Foundation)

Welcome back to our women in blockchain initiative – spotlight series. Today we are so excited to have such a wonderful leader in this space and also a leader who’s working on a use case that promotes women in this space. We have Denelle Dixon here with us. Danielle welcome. Thank you so much, I’m honoured to be here yeah. Can you tell us a little bit tell us your position, you know about seller development foundation and kind of the basics that we need to know? Sure, I am Denelle Dixon and I’m the CEO and executive director of the stellar development foundation.

The foundation itself is focused on shepherding the code base for the stellar network and the stellar network is an open decentralized permissionless blockchain, that’s really super focused on payments asset issuance and particularly cross-border payments and remittances. Our mission at the stellar development foundation is creating equitable access to the global financial system and we achieve that mission through leveraging stellar and working with the ecosystem. And, all these really phenomenal creators out there that are building on stellar to really create network effects and to grow the ecosystem and to grow stellar.

Awesome and tell us a little bit something about you as a person what do you like to do outside of work or in your spare time? Who are you, you know off the clock? Yeah, so I run every day, I run every morning and I, that really gets my brain calmed down a bit from all of it; we have five kids we have five boys actually from the ages of 11 to 20.

We have and they’re all home right now because of covid and so we have had just a crazy busy life this last year as everyone has. I spend a lot of time with them and my partner. I also love to read although I would have to just be honest and tell you that I haven’t read a book in probably like a month and a half and that’s just super unlike me because I love reading.

But, it’s just been really busy. Wow so much going on, but so admirable. That’s amazing being able to balance this and you have extensive background and experience in the legal field. You’re a lawyer by trade as well as having you know, a ton of experience leading notable internet companies like Mozilla. How did you get involved with blockchain? What led to that crossover? Yeah, so I think I rely a lot on my legal roots and my legal training that’s one of the things that you know I was a trial lawyer for my first I’d say, 10 years of my professional life.

I loved it, thought it was super fun. But, what that caused me to think about is always, goals, strategies, and tactics. I think about that in every single thing that we do. And, so that sort of has led me to this. Even when I was a trial lawyer I embarked on this journey to really understand businesses. So much of what I did then was, learning about the clients that I worked with and their businesses and understanding what they were doing and really going deep on it.

So, that just caused me to have a really strong connection to technology into business. So, when I was at Mozilla and spending a lot of time just focusing on the internet space and technology generally, I dabbled a little bit in understanding blockchain but then, I got introduced to Jed and Jed and I really hit it off and I really loved what Jed was doing here at SDF and so we sort of came together in that I felt like there was a ton that I learned on the, what I call the content side of the web that we could apply to sort of the finance or the payment side of the web. 

That actually is a lot of the reason like we did a lot of things wrong when we were building the internet and I feel like we or wrong at the time we thought they were a thousand percent right. But, I felt like we could take a lot of those lessons like you know, initially, we chose not to engage with regulators around privacy and security we said we know what we’re doing leave us alone and I think now what I’ve learned is that that was a mistake and that.

What we should have done is engage early and often and so we do that at SDF with respect to blockchain and just the financial pieces of creating standards and it’s a really interesting connection in terms of really growing up in like the internet days and really figuring out how to leverage that and bring that knowledge over here to make sure that we kind of can do this a little bit better and maybe write.

That is so interesting that you were able to bring those insights that you learned with these other organizations that were still mission-driven and still you know advocating open infrastructure and being able to apply that to what you’re working on now. That is amazing. Stellar has stated their goals are, to enhance the existing financial system, in a way that’s transparent and efficient. It’s a little bit different from some other crypto projects out there that are all about disruption.

Tell us a little bit about that philosophy and how stellar is able to achieve those goals. I think that this is another one of those learnings. I think that, if you’re really trying to disrupt an environment or infrastructure you can do it from within and actually it’s much easier to disrupt through cooperation than actually to like really come in and sort of change it all. Because you have to get so much acceptance and when you’re dealing with financial infrastructure.

It’s something that hasn’t really changed for like 50 years. But, it’s really hard to create that change because it’s very fractured there’s a lot of challenges in terms of building that language, that communication that’s going to work.

But, if you can actually take stellar, it creates interoperability between stellar and the existing financial rails, so that they can talk to one another you don’t have to change everything on the side of the existing rail, you can just enhance it by leveraging the language of stellar so that’s really what we try to do, to be able to, you know frankly, it’s really important to me that there’s not a single end-user that really needs to know that they’re leveraging blockchain technology.

It really is that the money is being transferred for example from one bank account to another bank account the rails are being utilized in between, but the end-user doesn’t have to understand much the same way that the end-user doesn’t have to understand what HTTPS does on the web but it’s really helping them and creating value for them.

So, I think that’s the important way that I think we look at this instead of, we can create disruption and change but do it in a way in cooperation with the existing authorities and the regulatory bodies that already focus on these. The banking infrastructure which you know it’s going to be really hard to change in one fell swoop. So, why not interoperate with it and make it work seamlessly. That’s pretty amazing the foresight that was there because I’d say a lot of these other projects now, interoperability is like the number one issue with how do we work together.

That’s a really nice approach I think to make this accessible to people, so that they like you said, can use it with ease and accessibility. Tell us a little bit about the challenges they can use it with ease and accessibility so uh tell us a little bit about the challenges that maybe come with all this and that might be industry challenges; legal challenges; you know, you guys have had amazing growth in your company.

What sticks out as something you would, you know give somebody a forewarning and say, you know here’s what you could run into if you’re going down this path. I think that the largest challenge to all of this is when you’re creating an ecosystem and really trying to grow an ecosystem you need network effects.

So network effects sound like really a complicated word but just think about it in terms of you know one thing happens and then it creates change and opportunity for another thing and they can work together to grow and grow and grow and make the thing bigger. Network effects are really hard because, it’s that whole thing where people always talk about was it is the chicken or the egg, like where does it start and what started it and how do you make it grow faster.

The hardest thing about doing what we want to do and creating this ecosystem that is vibrant and amazing and full of developers out there that are so interested in building and creating value for their local constituents, is just that you need to make sure that we’re focused on bringing volume to each of them through the transaction so that they actually can have sustainable businesses. I think that’s the largest challenge.

I’ll also say that I think not surprisingly when you’re using new technology one of the things that people do is focus on the technology and not so much on the interface. So we did this in the early days of the web where it was not so simple to get onto the web and we then focused on usability and making it simple for users and that I think is the other challenge is that we sort of need like the technology is so important and for those who care about it we need to be able to speak to it.

But, it doesn’t always need to be about the technology it needs to be about what that technology is solving and how it’s solving the problems for the end-users, whoever they are, whether they’re small businesses or humans. We need to think about it from that standpoint and I think that those are the two biggest issues that I think that we have to tackle. The third one is regular regulations and just the regulatory frameworks. But, we can work with those. Constantly with new technologies, you have to do that, but that’s the third area of challenge.

That kind of leads me into my next question, because you talk about usability is a priority and cryptocurrencies are infamous now, for you know promoting financial inclusion and what does that mean to the 1.7 billion people who are unbanked or underbanked around the world and so what is Stellar’s approach? I know that ethos of financial inclusion is very core I think, to your mission and so tell us how somebody in that position could interface with something like the stellar network.

I mean the value to something like stellar which is open and permissionless and you can build on it will help you, if you need help to be able to integrate. The amazing thing is we don’t actually have to create and solve those problems from where we sit, for each region so the greatest thing about it is like for example, there are companies in Africa that are building on stellar that are focusing on the problems within their area and so they’re focusing on how to solve things like when people have to move, between regions because they’re being kicked out of some one country or one area because of discrimination or challenges.

There is this company called leaf global that is actually focusing on how to use the stellar network and how to use a wallet. Just a digital wallet that they can put on their phone so they don’t have to carry this valuable, currency with them. They can just have it in their wallet and they have it accessible from one location to the next when they get there.

These are things that I think that you know, when I talk about what is so awesome and the power of the open-source, the power of a permissionless blockchain, it is this focus on use cases. You don’t have to solve the use cases from California which is where our headquarters are.

In fact, we’re not equipped to do that. Because we don’t actually know all the challenges in each of the regions and so we want to work with these individual companies and these people that are creating these ideas.

But, we want them to be able to solve them locally and to be able to utilize the network to do so. But for the most part, focusing on unbanked and the underbanked all over the world, it’s leveraging this technology that’s really simple that you can use from your cell phone and not high-quality cell phones either they can be cell phones with lower battery size and lower memory space, to still be able to engage with the financial infrastructure. 

From that standpoint, it’s a remarkable tool and it allows people who don’t have access to bank accounts because they’re marginalized, or they’re discriminated against because they don’t have the right income level or they don’t have the right, the identity and they can just create this wallet and be able to have and save and store value for themselves and to create some financial independence which is pretty remarkable.

I agree I think that’s key that you’re empowering these people to take agency over their own like solve their own, like human-centred approach to problems you’re giving them the tools and that’s really important and needed that, we’re not coming in with ‘here’s our whole financial plan’ I think that’s incredible that you’re bringing in the user and giving them the ability to empower themselves.

That’s great. We talked about financial inclusion, among other social issues you know, how do you think cryptocurrency in general or the stellar network specifically is able to promote things like gender equity and empower women specifically? How will this technology you know impact this whole group of people? The technology itself again creates that fundamental language where there’s an ability to be able to work with existing financial infrastructure to do so and to build on it to create tools for individuals and to build on it to create tools for individuals and businesses to be able to do that when it comes to women, for example, it what we do know is that any time that women have the opportunity to engage in the finance and to have access to financial tools and products, it improves the GDP of each country.

That’s just math. The more people that are engaged and providing economic support for families and for companies and for businesses, the better it’s going to be for everyone. What you know these women tend to be marginalized from receiving bank accounts, they actually don’t have, they’re not involved in the traditional workforce as others might be sometimes and so they don’t have the tools to be able to get access to bank accounts most of the time in certain regions.

What this does is again allows them access to financial products, financial services to be able to store and access their own kind of wealth creation for themselves and to be able to contribute to the economic realities of their family and of their local economies. This then brings up the whole economy for the country so it’s again I feel like I say this sometimes it’s just not rocket science, it’s actually really simple.

The more people that we can include, the more that it’s going to improve the situation for everyone um so I think that that’s the way that we look at this and I’m very focused on the gender equality issues because I think that it actually, it creates the opportunity for just real creativity in everything. If we allow everyone to participate in the financial system, but also in creating tools that are going to improve the behaviour and improve the situations for businesses for individuals, it actually brings about like change, like real change. That’s what I think is really important about that.  

Absolutely and I think it’s something we take for granted in the western world or people around us so I’m glad we have leaders that are aware that these issues are not everyone and not every woman in the world is you know allowed to participate in some of these systems. It’s actually one of the things that are really important too. it’s not I mean what we actually have the same things happen here in the US.

I think it’s a really interesting thing when women don’t participate in traditional finance, I mean in the traditional workforce and they don’t have access to the same thing. It’s actually something that can create that opportunity everywhere. We do tend to be more focused outside the US because that is a market that needs this access even more deeply because there’s a lot of banks around down the street and opportunities here. But it is everywhere truly.

To add to that the wealth creation that’s happening right now is strongly happening in the cryptocurrency area which is male-dominated. So, that opportunity to create wealth for women is available right now and needs are visible and made aware for that foundational kind of laying opportunity for women to join in on that.  Awesome.

We’ve talked about challenges, tell us about your wins what are your big wins, your big milestones, that you’ve had with stellar that you’re very proud of. You know I’ve been here for two years now and it feels like so much longer and not in a bad way, it actually just feels like we’ve gone through such huge iterations of the organization as well as the network during that time and I think that you know, when I say I’m proud of something that the truth is that I just like sit in awe sometimes with the people that we work with and the people that, not just the folks internally, like the team that we’ve built at SDF.

It’s just a remarkable team that is able to be so committed and so challenged and so dedicated to all of the different things that we’re doing and I do sit in a lot of them individually but also just in terms of the different organizations that are building on top of stellar, you know, a lot of these  I actually don’t get to know personally because there’s so many of them but I get to know the story and for me so much of what life is about your story and your journey.

The journey and the story of these companies, about how they came together to build on stellar is something that I am just so proud to be a part of. Because, I think that this technology is offering opportunity for companies to create their own, to solve their problems and then to create their own value to the communities and to themselves.

That, I think just inherently part of this journey that I’m super proud of but I think I just love where we’ve come from two years ago to today. From an organization standpoint, we were 12 when I started where I think we’re 90 or plus 90 plus now.

During covid, we were able to hire so many remarkably talented individuals and to really kind of shift through that change where we weren’t together all the time in an office and now we’re been remote now for a year.

We’ve been able to do it fairly seamlessly.  

So, I just love all of that and you know I just actually wrote a blog post for my two year anniversary and there are so many challenges that we’ve faced and been able to overcome and also just so many and like the strategic playbook that we put together for the next couple of years is just a lot but, it’s just a journey that we really need to achieve and I just love that we’ve been able to do that.

Congratulations, those are you know things that partnering with organizations outside, in building relationships internally, have been very difficult through this last year with covid and so the fact that you’re able to stand there and you know say that we were able to get through this and even stronger.  

That’s pretty remarkable all right so what’s next for the stellar development foundation? I’ve peaked around on your roadmap and I know it’s building more trust in the system and evangelizing it and developing use cases what where do you see SDF going next? What we have is, we put together that roadmap and our strategy is that in 10 years we have created a global payment standard, the notion of interoperability and to be able to create standards in this technology stack with lots of different chains that are out there that each has their own value is a really important thing. 

To be able to do one of the things that I think that we’re going to continue to advocate for time and time again is that we don’t actually create the challenges that exist on the content side of the web, where we have five companies that sort of ownership and control the content side we want to actually have it so that there’s continuously the opportunity to innovate and to be creative and to have changed and in order to do that you need that interoperability and you need those standards.  So we’re constantly going to focus there and right now I think for the next I’d say the next three years our main focus is just on network effects. In fact, 2021 is our year for network effects.

It is the year that we need to actually not just bring a lot of different participants to the network but also create the value and the volume for those participants that are on the network. So, that includes anchors which are financial institutions, it includes wallets and it includes folks who are solving problems like d stock where you can buy blue-chip stocks everywhere in the world because of this from your wallet.

We’re going to just create and focus on those network effects and real growth in the ecosystem and also I mean one of the things that sort of table stakes for us is,  we need to have standards, we need to have security, we need to make sure the network handles the throughput so we’ll constantly be working with the community to improve the network as well throughout this process.

Wow, well last question, what advice do you have for our students that are going through, our female students, are women and IT professionals that we engage with our board member companies, do you have any advice for women learning in this space? I’m going to give some advice that my dad gave me when I was really young and I was like in third grade and decided that I wanted to be a lawyer and no one in my family had ever gone to college and my dad just said you can do whatever it is that you want to do.

You just have to put your mind to it and the truth is that sounds so quirky and simple but the truth is really following your instinct and following that intellectual path that you want to get to that that I was constantly focused on just growth of knowledge and I think that if everyone just sort of whatever their instinct is whatever their gut tells them that they should be doing.

Just push yourself in that direction because you can do it and reach out to other women in the tech space, whatever space that you’re focused on and they will support you because that’s part of what we need to do to be able to grow this space and  I think everyone sorts of understands that now. 

Follow your instincts don’t limit yourself and we all have that whole thing where we think that you know people are going to find out that we don’t know, what we’re doing that’s that we don’t really understand anything.

People all have that inside of them, so don’t let that hinder you in terms of the journey that you want to be. You can overcome it just by taking some deep breaths and pushing yourself through it and that’s one of the things that I think I wish someone had told me that you know 20 years ago when I started doing all these different things in my space and I think that’s the thing that I’d like people to really take away for themselves.

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