In our fifth edition of 21 Questions By Decentralize Today, we feature Leah Callon-Butler, Director of Emfarsis, a consulting firm in the Asia Pacific with special expertise in blockchain and other emerging tech. She also writes a bi-weekly opinion piece for Coindesk and is a global ambassador for Women in Blockchain.
Let's get to know Leah a bit better and dive right in to the interview!
Decentralize Today: If you could choose three words to describe yourself, what would they be and why?
Leah: Curious. Adventurous. Optimistic.
DT: How/when did you discover Bitcoin/crypto?
Leah: My first exposure to blockchain tech was due to my experience working in renewable energy; I worked in commercial solar thermal between 2007 ー 2011.
One day in late 2016, when I was talking to a mate in the Aussie tech community about why I left that job, he shared with me a case study about the Brooklyn Microgrid. It blew my mind. I was deeply inspired by the idea of peer-to-peer energy trading because it proposed to solve all the things that frustrated me about the energy sector ー the inherent inefficiency and lack of resilience in a centralised system, the slow takeup of renewable sources due to vested corporate interests, and the lack of real financial incentives available for householders who were willing to install rooftop solar panels.
The idea of decentralisation captured my imagination because it became possible to completely rethink how the world works and who holds the power (pun intended).
DT: What was your previous profession?
Leah: I’ve always worked with super early-stage technology companies, helping them build their brand from scratch, grow a solid customer base, grow revenue and eventually launch new products and expand into new markets. My professional expertise is in marketing, communications and business development and I’ve been lucky to hone my skills across many verticals. What I’ve learned is that the fundamentals of developing real and authentic connections with your customers are the same, no matter what industry you operate in.
When I studied for my Masters in Business Administration at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia, I devoted a big chunk of my focus to the topic of social entrepreneurship. The idea that for-profit business can be a force for good has become the basis of all that I do and that commitment has afforded me some incredible opportunities.
A real highlight was traveling to Philadelphia in 2015 to work with the Fox School of Business (Temple University) on a strategy to align the profit interests of the global reinsurance industry with the newly announced United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
DT: How would you describe your work to a 5 year old?
Leah: I team with people that are building a better future and help them amplify their impact.
DT: What was your first ever job (even as a kid)?
Leah: When I was about eight or nine years old, I started a newspaper called ‘The Hitchcock Herald’ and sold it to my neighbours on Hitchcock Avenue for 50 cents a pop.
The Herald reported all the hard-hitting local news headlines such as: Little Boy Gets 10/10 On Spelling Test and Old Lady’s Dog Barks Too Much.
DT: Who is your biggest inspiration when it comes to work/business?
Leah: I am inspired by visionary founders and CEOs that are motivated by social impact to create new, disruptive business models. Some examples are MPesa, Grameen Bank and the blockchain-enabled Plastic Bank. All are sustainable, scalable, for-profit companies that debunked the notion that you can’t make good earnings on a bottom-of-the-pyramid model.
DT: What’s the best life and work advice you’ve ever been given?
Leah: At a particularly dark moment in my life, my friend, Dr. Jane Thomason, who is world-renowned for her work in the field of blockchain and social impact, advised me not to dwell on my feelings of anger and resentment. Instead, she encouraged me to take the lessons I’d learned and create a better tomorrow instead. I’m super grateful that she helped me recognise my negative emotions and channel them into something more constructive.
DT: Your favorite superhero or fictional character, and why?
Leah: Captain Planet. Hot blue dude saving the world from bad guys who like to loot and plunder. What’s not to like?
DT: What were you like as a student?
Leah: Teacher’s pet. Straight-A student. A total nerd. I was enrolled in all the extracurricular activities too ー I was on the debating team, I was a prefect and a library monitor, I was a lead singer in the choir and I played the orchestral glockenspiel in the school band.
Oh, I was also on our school aerobics team and we made it to national championships twice!
DT: You have the power to solve one world problem forever. Which one would you choose?
DT: What is your favorite sport or game?
Leah: To watch? Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
To play? I’ve never been very sporty but I love to run! I always look forward to the Sunday Hash (and post-run drinking session) with the Angeles City Hash House Harriers.
DT: What’s the biggest challenge in being a woman in a male-dominated industry?
Leah: Having female role models to look up too. Luckily, I have had many in my life, including inclusivity activist Thessy Mehrain, legal visionary Donna Redel, privacy advocate Amber Baldet, and social impact crusader Jane Thomason, who I mentioned earlier.
DT: Who are your real-life heroes?
Leah: Leila Janah is a real-life hero. She empowered the poor by providing them with job opportunities in a fast-growing industry (as opposed to delivering unsustainable and unscalable charity handouts). Regrettably, I never got to meet Leila and I only learned about her incredible work after she passed away in January of this year:
DT: What does your family think of Bitcoin / crypto?
Leah: Like many people, my family usually say they don’t really “get” crypto. But they’re definitely open to it.
DT: What was the last book you read that made you want to read it again and again?
Zero Hour by the economist Harry Dent. Written in 2017, Harry uses economic cycles such as (but not limited to) the 34-Year Geopolitical Cycle, the 45-Year Innovation Cycle and the 250-Year Revolution Cycle to predict a major financial crash in early 2020. His arguments are underpinned by data tracing back more than 500 years.
I’m also on my second-read of Bitcoin is Magic by David Z. Morris. It’s a fascinating analysis of the global phenomena that is Bitcoin and how it has become a base layer of digital reality.
DT: What grinds your gears or is your pet peeve?
Leah: People who send those awful, templated, totally impersonal, completely untailored, sales-pushing, unwarranted LinkedIn InMails.
And the sound of a dripping tap.
DT: Do you have an “I lost my private keys” story? Or a crazy crypto related story? Do share!
Leah: So far, thankfully, no [knock on wood]. Part of my job is to help noobs not end up in situations like this, and I’ve come into the crypto scene at a fairly late stage, so I’ve had the benefit of learning from other people’s horror stories. Professionally, we deal with a lot of corporates and financial institutions so we spend a lot of time with executives ensuring they understand the risks and their responsibilities when it comes to custody. I’d like to say I’ve prevented more of these stories than told them.
DT: Where do you see Bitcoin/crypto in ten years?
Leah: I believe that crypto will be regulated across the world, and thus, a legitimate participant in the mainstream financial system. It will be safer, more user-friendly and more inclusive. My hope is that privacy will be a by-default feature and blockchain-based systems will be globally interoperable, so we don’t run into all the same issues as the traditional financial system.
DT: What’s your go-to form of entertainment or pastime? What do you do for fun?
Leah: I love exploring the Philippines and learning more about its history and culture. Living in Pampanga means I’m always exploring the local food scene and I’ve had a few great day trips to Subic. With Clark International Airport on my doorstep, it’s super easy to get away for a long weekend so I’ve been lucky to visit the beautiful beaches of Bohol, Boracay, El Nido and Puerto Princesa. By road, I did a 5-day trek across the north of Luzon which covered Sagada, Banaue Rice Terraces and Mount Pinatubo. And down in Manila, I recently did a full-day tour around Intramuros learning about the Philippines’ colonial past ー it was awesome, can’t recommend it highly enough. Definitely do it if you get the chance post-lockdown!
DT: What would be your dream project if money was no object?
Leah: I’d love to set up a home for orphaned children in the Philippines that provides world-class STEM education, underpinned by principles of entrepreneurship and social impact.
DT: You have one thing to say to your 18 year old self. What would it be?
Leah: Buy Bitcoin.
About Leah Callon-Butler
Leah is the director of Emfarsis, a consulting firm in the Asia Pacific with special expertise in blockchain and other emerging tech. She has lived in the rural Philippines since 2018, having relocated to work more closely with a team of Filipino software developers working on blockchain-based solutions for financial inclusion and digital ID. Previously, as Chief Marketing Officer for a crypto payments startup, she led the company’s go-to-market strategy to drive merchant integration and consumer adoption in the US, Europe and Asia; this involved design and delivery of a range of education initiatives to on-board mainstream users who had no prior exposure to cryptocurrencies.
Leah writes a bi-weekly opinion piece for Coindesk and is a global ambassador for Women in Blockchain.
Follow her on Twitter @leah_cb