Agnes Budzyn leads the Office of the CEO at ConsenSys, a global formation of technologists building solutions for a blockchain-powered future. In her role, Ms. Budzyn focuses on global growth strategy, operations, and acquisition strategy for over 30 early-stage companies in the ConsenSys portfolio. She informs, collaborates, and strategizes to define future of FinTech/decentralization and digitalization of finance with relevant stakeholders in order to ensure this groundbreaking technology is adopted quickly and efficiently by often risk-averse public and private institutions alike.
Previously, Ms. Budzyn served in the Chief Operating Officer function for Blackrock’s Financial Markets Advisory Group, where she worked for 10 years. She has spoken on blockchain technology and its applications at events held by the FDIC, George Washington University, Salesforce, US Chamber of Commerce and the World Economic Forum. She is also currently a member of the Board of Directors at the Biden Institute and the Yale Club Finance Committee. Agnes was selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.
The Politic: Tell me about your background and how you got involved in blockchain!
Agnes Budzyn: I pretty much spent my entire life at BlackRock, working on a special situations team responsible for financial markets advisory. We were advising central banks, regulators, and others– the largest constituents in the world during the 2008 financial crisis. We spent time analyzing the financial systems of Greece, Ireland, and other potentially defaulting countries. We helped them determine the shape and the health of their financial system and the necessary measures they would need to take in order to be bailed out.
I spent quite a bit of time working with portfolio managers, clients, and relationship managers. I started as an analyst, so I’ve pretty much done everything, and I was on a team that was always working with a lot of very heavy data, as you might imagine. We worked through thousands and thousands of portfolios, asset classes, and design models– whatever it took to develop an accurate picture of what we were looking at.
I had a few friends who were looking into cryptocurrencies– traders and developers. I took an interest in blockchain because of the idea of this almost magical database, where you would be able to just login and access all the information you wanted, and where you wouldn’t need to go through 7, 10, or even 16 different systems in the hopes of gathering all that info. So, I started looking into blockchain technology, and at some point, I began thinking about my next steps after Blackrock.
I was very much interested in the technology space, and one of my friends actually introduced me to the CEO of ConsenSys, Joe Lubin. It was a pretty small company then– around 150 people or so. I spent a bit of time talking to him about the technology, what he’d been doing, and how Ethereum and smart contracts would “change the world,” if you will. That’s a bit strong of a claim, but we talked about the way in which this technology would work and how cryptocurrencies were merely one application of the underlying blockchain technology.
At some point, I decided to join Joe Lubin at ConsenSys. We built the company from 150 people to almost 1,000 people in two years. It’s been absolutely fascinating to have an inside look into the technology, its progress and growth, its vast number of applications and implementations, and how it has become so standard to talk about blockchain. For instance, when I was in Davos the last couple of years, the term “blockchain” was spoken more often than anything else. The fortunate and unfortunate part is that cryptocurrency–its meteoric rise and its current fall from those highs–gave a lot of hype to blockchain; it was pretty much a catalyst for everyone to pay attention. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but certainly it’s true.
What was it like to be at Davos? What were you doing there?
I’ve been to Davos twice: last year and this past January. My company usually has a private lounge where we do blockchain-related events. We have panels, speakers, and we invite and partner up with different companies. Two years ago, we partnered up with SDG Live to advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We try to find use cases for blockchain for doing good and working on environmental sustainability, food supply, or other positive applications.
We invested into companies, for instance, that were designing supply chains, that were testing the technology to help deliver vaccines to Africa, that were trading and tracking shipments of vaccines, tuna, coffee, and other goods where it’s vital to understand where the goods came from and the road they took from the grower to the consumer. It’s also vital to shorten the process and make sure the process is as traceable, fast, and safe as possible.
For us, Davos was about talking to and sharing blockchain-related knowledge with other institutions. I think adoption of new tech is extremely important because that’s what makes or breaks its future usage. It takes time for new people to get used to the technology. They have questions before they start using it, and it’s a road, a process, and an adventure to make them feel comfortable.
What’s your day-to-day?
Essentially, I work directly for the CEO, and I focus on the growth of the company. My job is focused on three pillars: internal COO-like responsibilities, external strategy and growth of the business (CGO-like responsibilities), and working very closely to maintain and build relationships with clients, institutions, CEOs, and investors. The important thing is to look into mutually beneficial partnerships and synergies. At the end of the day, as an investor and an operator, I focus very much on growing the company and the business.
Can you tell me a bit about the environment/community?
It’s a very different makeup of people, because when you look at the numbers, the average age of an employee in our company is between 28 and 30 years old. The space is extremely young. It also attracts very technical people: developers, engineers, and coders. It attracts a lot of people that are very excited about the innovation, but also people that are very young–mostly right out of college–and used to the technology.
We’re seeing more and more experienced talent being attracted to the space right now, too. Look at companies like IBM or JP Morgan, for instance. The space is becoming a little bit more diverse in that way, but it’s still very young and very visionary. It’s a very exciting and inspiring environment. Everyone looks at this technology and says, “Oh my god, we’re going to do it!” It’s refreshing and different than what you see at some of the more established institutions.
What projects have you worked on?
One of the projects we worked on was called i2i, which stands for “island to island,” “institution to institution” and “individual to individual”. We partnered with UnionBank of the Philippines to build a platform to connect rural banks (traditionally excluded from mainstream payment networks and infrastructure) to each other and to national commercial banks. The objective was to enable and facilitate financial transactions in remote areas of the country.
Another example was where we partnered with the Monetary Authority of Singapore to develop an open source software prototype for decentralized interbank payment and settlements.
I think this is a very new and exciting technology, and if you want to go into FinTech or towards the tech world, you should definitely look into this space: It’s new, it’s emerging, it’s changing, and because of that, there’s so much opportunity to not only create and grow in the space, but actually to strategize, to influence its future development, and to become an expert in a very short period of time. We need more people with different backgrounds. The tech space needs to be more diversified. It’s mostly occupied by traditional tech people, so if anybody’s thinking about it, regardless of where they come from, this is the space for them to explore.