It’s not often a woman can be compared to a train and not feel remotely insulted. For Irina Litchfield though, it’s regarded as something of a compliment.
An entrepreneur, angel investor and adviser, the Russian-born Texan arrived early into the world of blockchain and cryptocurrency, falling immediately in love with the technology’s potential for making the world a fairer place.
That instant attraction mobilised a sharp business mind with a speed and enthusiasm that she has become renowned for throughout her working life – hence the train reference.
The early days…
“The whole ethos of what Bitcoin really proposed to humanity and the optimised processes really spoke to me,” she recalls, thinking back to the early days of cryptocurrency.
“After 2008 it gave us the question ‘Are we doing things right?’ and it took several years for me to figure out how things worked.
“Then, out of nowhere in 2013 I said to my husband ‘look, you’re going to quit your job and we’re going to do this’ – just like that.
“He knew straight away how serious I was and how much thought had gone into what I was saying to him. That’s how it is. People who know me well describe me as being like a train – they know it’s very hard to stop me once I get going!”
Irina says that her constant studying of the crypto space and what blockchain could achieve made her see the future of the human race in a different light.
“I drank the ethos and saw an opportunity for people everywhere in the world – it’s an obsession,” she says with a wry smile.
“It has to be an obsession in some ways in order to generate the belief to keep going and be driven by the industry.”
Behind the obsession…
That obsession sends the Russian-born academic across the globe as she evangelises about the great benefits of blockchain and cryptocurrency to anyone who will listen.
The obsession, it seems, shows no sign of slowing up – even while trying to juggle being a parent to a six-year-old girl fascinated by her indefatigable mother’s globetrotting adventures.
“It’s interesting that my ‘CryptoSuperwoman’ twitter handle was born last year,” she laughs.
“My daughter was five years old then, and I was very private and conservative. I wasn’t public at all. I started looking at all the growth that was happening and some of the bad things that the industry was being associated with. I became concerned that we were heading into some dark places and no one was really opening up their hearts and minds and speaking up.
“So I went through something like a reform and I told my daughter ‘look, I’m going to be very busy now and I’m going to be travelling quite a bit – we’re entering into a new circle in our family life’ – I knew I was going to try to look after the industry.
“She asked why I had to do that. I told her ‘there are a lot of bad guys out there and I want to be able to beat them’. Without a pause she said ‘oh mummy, you’re a crypto superwoman!’ and it just stuck.
“I changed my handle straight away and I love it because, to me, that’s empowering my daughter and other little girls because it made total sense to her. She knows that I have power to defeat some of the villains in the world.
“She comes along to conferences and meetings with me and my husband and goes on some business trips. Although, she said recently that she was doing too much in the blockchain world and that she wanted to take a break – ‘maybe I’ll wait until I’m seven!’, she told me!”
Empowerment means a lot in a world being made a fairer place by blockchain, and although that male dominance still exists, Irina has been involved in the space long enough to see change has taken place.
Pausing to gather a careful thought, you can sense she wants to keep a veil over negative views of the past and instead hold a candle to how things currently are in the industry.
Making a difference…
“You know,” she sighs. “It’s interesting. It was extremely male dominated. I see support of women everywhere nowadays. I can see the current time, and the time that was before. The difference is huge.
“At the beginning there was an attitude that a woman should go along to a conference almost as arm candy. Seriously, that’s how it felt.
“When we opened our bank in Mexico, I was getting told that women don’t work and I was being asked when I was having another baby and things like that.
“That was strange at the time because, if anything, when we first started, my husband was at Stanford so when I was going to conferences he was, effectively, my arm candy.
“Things have changed massively.”
Those experiences have certainly shaped Irina’s feelings – particularly when it comes to speaking at events. That’s the time when she looks inwardly at how she is being perceived and valued in the space she loves.
“I feel a little insulted sometimes, because I feel like I’m being told that you’re not being invited by people to come and speak at their events for your expertise in blockchain, you’re being invited because you’re a woman,” she says.
“I’m not there to tick a box! If you want to empower a woman, invite her to speak because of her expertise, not just because she’s a woman.
“They shouldn’t see just a woman, they should see a human being with a pool of knowledge.
“We need to empower women, but we need to do it without insulting our intelligence. It’s the same in FinTech and banking. It’s insane how much of a male club that is – women really have to go through hoops, and men don’t have those barriers in their world. But in blockchain it feels very different.
A better future…
“It’s much more powerful to all work together. It doesn’t matter.”
The thought of working towards a better future leads conversation to what’s in store for the industry. Is regulation an inevitable destination on crypto’s current roadmap?
“People think that regulation is coming,” she nods.
“Best practice of self-governance simply isn’t working.
“I really believe that the cryptocurrency boom is not anti-government but more anti old structures. We live in a world where we operate with such old systems – and that is holding the industry back.
“Governments know they have to make a huge restructure of infrastructure in order to allow the industry to work.”
A little sabre-rattling against authority would normally betray a person’s feelings towards governance, but as you quickly discover with a crypto superwoman, things are often more intelligently complex than a simple binary thought. There’s no black or white – just a colourful sense of fairness that she wants to spread throughout the world.
“I’m not against regulation, I’m against the wrong kind of regulation,” she says with the urgency of a person who wants to drive a point home.
“I’m from Russia – a place where the law is flexible depending upon how much money you have.
“I’m against regulation being able to take advantage of people.
The right kind of regulation…
“If you murder someone in Russia you can bribe a judge and walk free – you can’t do that in the US or the UK. You murder someone – you go to jail. When we think of regulation, we have to make sure it is the right kind of inflexible regulation.
“I really did believe in self-regulation, but that was a bitter sweet thing in the end. It hasn’t worked in this space.”
The movement towards regulation is seemingly unstoppable, but Irina Litchfield’s current goal is to make sure that proposal works for everyone involved in blockchain and crypto.
“What I’m pushing for now is global comprehensive regulatory infrastructure – I need to see that through,” she says.
“It’s not about slapping on regulations, this will facilitate adoption. The industry can’t thrive without it. That’s how we’re going to beat the bad guys.
“We need positivity. We need good information to get through to people.”
It begs the question why is she so determined to see it through?
“Simple. Being a mother really changed my world so much. It became a realisation that there is all this love and purity in people – there is enough of everything for everybody. Including money!”