Morgan Stanley
  • Access & Opportunity Podcast
  • Sep 29, 2021

Building Equity Along the Blockchain

Transcript

Carla Harris: Ready or not, crypto and the blockchain are here.

Carla: On today's show, we'll be speaking to two women who have learned to embrace these technologies. First we'll hear the story of Lauren Washington, a senior at Northwestern University who began selling art as NFTs.

Lauren Washington: people are dropping so much money on these art projects

Lauren Washington: I got a collector very quickly, which was just so shocking it was just like, what? So that was really crazy.

Carla: And later we'll speak to the creator of the Audacity Fund, Erikan Obotetukudo.

Erikan Obotetukudo: The new generation of the internet is being built right now by people from all over the world. And we said, we don't want black people to be left out.

Erikan Obotetukudo: Black communities often for the majority of our time here in the US have contributed to the multi-billion dollar successes of various companies and people, but have not benefited economically from those contributions.

 

Carla: Welcome to Access and Opportunity, I’m your host Carla Harris. And we’re telling the stories of individuals working to drive change within their communities. We provide context about racial inequities and share tangible examples of how ideas around access and opportunity are being made real every day.

On this episode we look at the potential of blockchain technology to rewrite the rules of how money can be earned, transferred, and spent.

Many people see cryptocurrency as the beginning of a new, more equitable financial system, and one of those people is Lauren Washington.

Lauren Washington: I do photography, screenwriting, directing, any art form that can allow me to tell a story.

Carla: Lauren found her voice as an artist a few years ago.

Lauren Washington: So it all started in high school for me. I used to have a lot of anxiety about what my purpose was,  and it wasn't until senior year when I had this realization that I love to tell stories.

 

I think in my artwork I've been exploring a lot of change and grief and, um, you know, my experience as a black woman and kind of the world and also just human behavior. A lot of artists, whether, you know, artists from any background, really, and especially for minority artists, it's hard to get those opportunities and be seen or have your work bought and etcetera. Within all creative industries, there's a lack of inclusion, lack of accessibility. I think it's just been very difficult, as a woman, as a black woman, to be visible and find those opportunities like on film sets at school. So I felt very pushed aside or just, not like, you know, my space mattered or my voice mattered.

 

Carla: When she ran into roadblocks in the pursuit of a traditional creative career, she turned to the blockchain.

Now, let's get this out of the way: blockchain technology can be confusing. A Blockchain allows information to exist across a network of computers in what’s essentially a shared ledger, or history book. The information stored there is virtually impossible to change, or even delete, and this has far reaching implications across many industries. In the art world, the most innovative blockchain use case is with NFTs, or non fungible tokens, which you might have noticed in headlines lately.

Lauren Washington: So I heard about NFTs in 2020, I think around the time of quarantine everything, um, and I started out kind of investing in crypto through a friend of mine. Um, and it was interesting. I didn't really understand them but I just saw a lot of artists. I know making a lot of money from them. And I was just intrigued by that.

Lauren Washington: And then there's just this one clubhouse room that I stayed in. Like all night, I finally, it clicked

 

Carla: Before now, Lauren thought the only way to make it as an artist was to know the right people to get her a coveted gallery spot.

But with NFTs, the Internet is her gallery, and there are no gatekeepers deciding who gets wall space and who gets left out. Instead, there's this rich online marketplace of art, all linked to digital tokens called NFTs, that can be owned, bought, and sold.

For Lauren, this meant she was finally in business.

Lauren Washington: So the first one was a, it was this like a picture of this like fishnet, and I had it had it over my, like my mouth and I like animated to move. And so that was my first NFT and I called it Cut Me Zero One.

 

Carla: Once Lauren had her art ready, she added it to a blockchain by creating an NFT in a process called minting.

Lauren Washington: So I made my first sale. Don't even remember what the price was, but people are dropping so much money on these art projects and I got a collector very quickly, which was just so shocking. It was just like, what? So that was really crazy.

That was kinda my first piece that I minted and then I minted a couple more from that series. Learned a lot since then. It's definitely changing the way people put value into artists. Illustrators, animators, painters, photographers.

Carla: To date, Lauren has made up to $7000 on a single sale.

But better yet, she can make additional proceeds off of any future sales. You see, traditionally, an artist only makes money the first time they sell their art. With NFTs, the creator retains a degree of ownership and can earn a percentage every time the work is sold.

Beyond the money though, Lauren's found incredible value in the community she's now a part of.

I've never been this in tune with so many artists so that's been just really great to meet so many people. Just finding a lot of, black artists in this space and also just, POC and people who are. Helping to build the new world and have equity in this space and diversity.

You know, there's still problems with this space. So I think just really being intentional and being patient and find people who are really about it and this community, because that's the best thing that it can offer. There's so many people who are willing to help but really just have to find those right people who are still committed to making sure it's not the same as the traditional art world.

Carla: Lauren and many artists like her aren’t just looking at NFTs as a new way to make money. To them, blockchain technology holds the promise to rebuild our institutions in a more equitable way.

What exactly happens now is anyone’s guess. But our next guest is another believer that the crypto revolution is coming.

Erikan Obotetukudo is the founder of the Audacity Fund, a crypto VC fund investing in Black and African led crypto startups. The group plans to invest up to $100,000 into pre-seed, seed, and Series A stage businesses that are leveraging blockchain technology with a focus on decentralized finance. She also leads Crypto for Black Economic Empowerment, a community of black entrepreneurs in crypto.

Carla: We sat down to discuss her work, what she sees as the value of cryptocurrency, and how her faith in blockchain technology comes from her personal life story.

Carla Harris: Erikan. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for being here with me.

Erikan Obotetukudo: Yes, Carla, thank you for having me. It's an honor to be with you.

Carla Harris: Well, and it's such a pleasure for us to have you on the show. So let's jump right in. Are you ready?

Erikan Obotetukudo: I'm ready. Come on.

Carla Harris: Can you tell our listeners what the Audacity Fund is, why you decided to do it and how it differs from traditional VC funds?

Erikan Obotetukudo: So Audacity is a crypto venture fund that is investing in predominantly black and African-led companies across the world. Our investment thesis is with this new generation of the internet we're actually in something called the earning economy. So the earning economy is essentially saying, we think that anytime someone comes onto the internet and does whatever it is that they would do, spends their time, works on the Internet, plays games on the Internet, expresses their passion on the Internet, tries to invest on the Internet, they're going to get value back. They're going to get assets -- crypto -- back on their, on their various activities and usage of the internet.

And the reason why that's important is because black communities in particular, in the US specifically, have often for the majority of our time here in the US have contributed to the multi-billion dollar successes of various companies and people, but have not benefited economically from those contributions.

So we know that TikTok, for example, blew up in the United States last year. That's largely because of the creativity of young black kids creating these amazing dances the whole world wanted to consume, but they don't benefit from TikTok stock.

So we want to actually invest in companies that are using culture as an interface to bring in the next 1 billion users while leveraging on the backend this more complicated, nuanced financial technology to really accelerate the value back to everyday people through their own cultural introduction to the opportunities we're building.

Carla VO: You know that's a great point that I think ties to Lauren Washington's story about her entry into cryptocurrency through this technology of NFTs. So can you just tell us more about how NFTs fit into all of this?

Erikan Obotetukudo: I think the NFT side will actually be the biggest accelerator for more communities and people because the financial side, we all have such, you know, sometimes we don't even see our barriers and blocks with literacy, with transactions and all those things. But when you're consuming something that you just would have consumed already, you're playing a game or you are reading an article and, you know, whatever, the, the, the, the nuances, no one needs to know that the thing that you're accessing is an NFT, but the technologists do. And you just need to know you're accessing something that if you love this card, if you love this MBA moment, if you love this song, Carla’s Christmas album, if you love that, then you can buy that just as you would have any other time. But now you have a piece of ownership shared with Carla on her album, into perpetuity forever.

Carla Harris: Oh, I like that. So before we get too far into our conversation, I want to back it up and learn more about you and your background. So where are you from originally and what got you into Crypto?

Erikan Obotetukudo: Okay. So I, technically, am originally from two places. I'm originally from Rancho Cucamonga, California -- shoutouts at Rancho! -- so the cul-de-sac with, you know, the Mexican family, the Chinese families, black families. That was where I grew up. And my family is originally from Nigeria. And, um, so I really felt like I grew up in an African house, but in Rancho, growing up in Rancho Cucamonga, you see so many different cultural groups. And when you enter their homes, you see how they interact with money in ways that are very intimate. And my family used to send money back to Nigeria every single year when I was younger -- remittances. And oftentimes the money would either get lost. We would be unsure of what happened to the money. Sometimes it wouldn't properly get to the exact family member we wanted it to get to so I learned of the problem that eventually crypto and blockchain was solving from a very early age and moving through all these houses, a.k.a. countries and seeing how financial institutions, frankly, weren't serving my communities and seeing where the gaps were.

Officially, though, I got into crypto by not being able to get in. So 2017. Was when I had just come back from Nigeria and living in Nigeria, where I really got exposed to some economic challenges there, but I was working at LinkedIn and all of my clientele were asset management, hedge fund, venture capital, private equity managers, and executives. And at the same time, Bitcoin and Ethereum are bubbling amongst my black girl magic professional networking group. And, you know, I'm having dinner with my girls and they're like, one girl was just saying, “I just put 5K into Ethereum. Boom, it's up!” So you all should go figure this out and get in on this so that you don't miss it. And long story short, I downloaded Coinbase and I actually wasn't able to get past KYC

Carla Harris: Our listeners that may not know asset management, KYC is “know your customer”. It's critical in the wealth management and asset management business. Erikan, let me just ask you though, can you imagine what was it about, you're trying to get into Coinbase that didn't allow you to pass KYC?

Erikan Obotetukudo: Yeah. I mean, to just be really transparent I'm from Nigeria. And so in the financial system, Nigeria also has a certain type of reputation, and you know what I'm talking about. So those certain moments, when you miss or you are able to your identity, isn't able to get you through it, reaffirms those sort of senses of like where I'm from is actually an inhibitor to like getting further along.

Carla Harris: That's why I wanted to ask the question because, you know, when there's a gross generalization or reputation out there, it too can become an inhibitor, but it did not for you. You kept moving. Erikan, so let's keep going in the story. So 2015, you moved to Nigeria. 2017 you came back, you were exposed to this by your girls and which I love, love, I love that. We are sharing information other and it creates an opportunity for us, which is what we should be doing. Uh, so now you tried to get in, you couldn't let's keep going.

Erikan Obotetukudo: So I couldn't get in -- shout out to my girl, Kelsey, who put me on to Ethereum! -- I couldn't get in, but I was still obsessed. And at this point then the crash, co I was like, okay, maybe I didn't miss anything, okay. So anywho, 2018 was an interesting period. I had decided to leave LinkedIn and go on a journey around the world and I actually had enough savings to last me a year without taking a new job. When I traveled around the world, I got a chance to really see, in action, how money is moving from the market level to, you know, a woman selling tomatoes all the way to the Ministry of Finance in Singapore. I just got so much exposure to the different ways that countries are moving money with each other. Businesses are moving monies with governments. Governments are moving money. Everyday people, everyday people are moving money with each other. And that started to really show me how the global economy works and where there were holes.

Carla Harris: Wow. The fact that you were very intentional about saving your money to create opportunity, flexibility for yourself while you had the W2 lined up at LinkedIn. And that gave you the opportunity then to travel and learn for an entire year and to figure out how to create on this emerging technology. You learned more and more every time you took a new stop on this, on this almost a year long trip -- good playbook point. So let me go back for a second, you said that traveling around the world, you were able to see how money actually flowed from the woman who was selling tomatoes all the way to the Minister of Finance in Singapore, in any other country. And you were able to see the gaps and the inefficiencies. Can you point out two or three of those gaps and inefficiencies that you believe crypto actually serves or closes?

Erikan Obotetukudo: Yes. Yes. So one of them is trust. And when you're trying to do business in your own culture, in your own country, it's one thing. But when you're trying to do business with a place you've never been to, business details of other places can be hard to access. The beauty of crypto is that there's an opportunity there to say we're using a currency that we both believe in and understand. We can explore doing commerce with each other. Now we can minimize the fees that are associated with our transactions between us, because we don't have to deal with the banks that then kind of create the complications sometimes in the trust factor. So truthfully, when you're able to remove the middlemen that frankly do provide an essential sort of vetting of business activities and capital flows, very essential, but in cases, when you really do need to start building trust it is helpful to be able to say directly, let's do business without all of the intermediaries, preventing the potential around where you can grow and explore together. You just brought up a great point. I wanted to ask you, how do you replace the role that a bank does provide to, you know, by your own admission? Because it is an institution and a bank is a bank, is a bank. No matter where you are in the world with a bank, there is a level of assumed trust that may not happen between you and I just because we're using the same currency. I get it loud and clear that you know that a pound and a dollar may be different. And that creates some confusion. But if we're both using Ethereum, then that’s fine. All right. So there's no exchange rate. There's no extra fees. There's nothing. So we can trust each other. But I still don't know who you are. And I don't know who the bank is, but I trust the bank as an institution because it's governed by laws. So where's that, where's that piece in the whole exchange with ethereum.

Erikan Obotetukudo: I would say, let's then take that next explanation to individual, regular, everyday person level. And I'm someone who, since birth, has always had to send money to another country. And so when we go to certain platforms like Western Union and MoneyGram, we know if I wanted to send $100 today to Nigeria, it might be between $10 and $25 might be taken by that intermediary in order to send money. And so the beauty of being able to say, I don't need an intermediary to make a simple transaction that's easy for my life. That is essential for me to be able to say my grandmother is going to have an extra $100 this month and that $100, that goes further in a place like Nigeria than it does where I'm at. And now my, the fact that my grandmother doesn't have to travel three hours to a nearby city to go pick up the money from a teller, like all of these different things, because I can just zap it to my grandmother. For example, that gives me a greater sense of, this tool actually serves me, doesn't take as much of my money and enables me to connect and add the true value I desire with my family that I can't touch and feel.

Carla Harris: Okay. So just, just so that we can get on the same page and then we'll move forward, I promise. While it creates an opportunity for greater transfer, country to country, person to person, because it's a common currency -- that's with us knowing each other. You can see the point that if I don't know you, that the trust that a bank might provide with us doing business through that institution may not be replicated in the same way. If we would just, and we didn't know each other and we were exchanged in this currency.

Erikan Obotetukudo: Right. So let me just add that last layer of connectivity. I'll do my best. So the beautiful thing about various blockchains -- so Bitcoin is a blockchain, it is coded technology. Ethereum is another one. There are many others: Alana, Nero, Tezos. There's so many, right? And at the end of the day, these create the infrastructure and the railroad tracks for various people to build technologies, some of which are monetary, some of which are just enabling logistics businesses to do things more effectively, et cetera. So there's multiple use cases around blockchains and cryptocurrencies beyond just money transfer, just for clarity sake. But because one entity or person in one place really believes in the value that a particular blockchain and protocol is providing it, it enables this sense of like this ecosystem, this community, all users of this particular technology have consistently, by design of the technology, done right by me. And so if another entity that I learned is also enabled, powered by this same technology that I also trust and have generated some consistency with, I am actually now...this trust and safety associated typically with the bank as an intermediary to enable for ease of doing business is now attributed to the blockchain itself because of the embedded technology that is to ensure for peace and cohesion that now builds consistency, momentum, and brand. So all in all the same experience that a bank provides is what mass community and consistency of these various blockchains has now enabled for me more people.

Carla Harris: So what do you think now that you have seen this around the world? How do you think the understanding of crypto and blockchain is in the US? What do you think it is and how does it compare to that knowledge, understanding, and use in other countries?

Erikan Obotetukudo: So the thing is we forget that the US has had, you know, 400 years to build its financial system and with the support of many different communities, many different people, populations, etcetera. So as a result, things generally are pretty cohesive. But if you go to other countries where things have been volatile for decades, currencies have gone up and down for a while. You might even have signs of challenged economies by people leaving those countries and coming to the United States. Those are all signs of volatility in a local market, whereby if you, Carla, are operating on something that is pegged to the dollar and I'm operating on something that's pegged to my currency that keeps de-valuing every day, I'm at a disadvantage and being able to really move forward. However, if I can, in this case, access the dollar, or if I can access Bitcoin, if I can access Ethereum, which everyone around the world is operating on, at the same price point and operating on the same functionality -- we all know it's going to go up together, it's going to go down together. There is a big disconnect. That currency enables people in emerging markets to at the very least try and play on the same field.

 

Carla Harris: So talk to us a little bit about the Crypto for Black Economic Empowerment.

Erikan Obotetukudo: The United States right now is in this stage of seeing this new technology come to be. And the beautiful thing about it is everybody else around the world gets to participate at the same time because everyone can be on the same page. It's not the US has access to it first, and then that company expands to Europe three years later and then gets to Africa 15 years later. The new generation of the internet is being built right now by people from all over the world. And we said, we don't want black people to be left out. We have missed out on wealth creation opportunities, despite creating a lot of the wealth for most of the wealth creation opportunities for centuries.

Carla Harris: Oh, that's another podcast. Keep going.

Erikan Obotetukudo: And so we said, this is not the time. We are not only going to be visible -- this space is predominantly non-black. And so we said, we're going to make sure that if we are here, we are early adopters. We know each other. So we're not feeling alone. Right now, this conversation is a part of history that we will look back 30 years from now and be like, “Yo, that crypto thing, that blockchain thing really ended up changing the world.” Like that's some old way right now. We wanted to make sure black people felt like there was a place for them to continue to explore that and being in community with each other. So they knew they weren't alone. And we also knew that we wanted our own collective power. Our collective effort for ownership and advancement of our community could be compounded on top of each other by simply having proximity virtually. And we knew that the things that we can do together could be bigger than what we could do alone.

Carla Harris: So Erikan, talk to us a little bit about the biggest misconception that you see out there from all the conversations that you've had about cryptocurrency?

Erikan Obotetukudo: The misconceptions predominantly lie, I think, in the political arena and category. There is a misconception that crypto is mostly a place for money laundering, you know, scamming and all these other sorts of things, which, you know, full transparency, there is some of that activity in this, in this arena, but more than anything we're investing in companies to make money flow more effectively to make people have greater opportunities and access related to their consumption of culture and just general use of the internet. I think right now is a unique time in which multiple institutions are opening their eyes and I could imagine institutions may be concerned about, “Hey, we don't want everyone else making money and sort of moving us out,” essentially. They're saying we have to either jump in or stay on the sidelines, but at some point we're going to need to do something. And it's been really great to see various institutions are excited about investing. It's a matter of really, when.

Carla Harris: Well said, I'm going to put a period right there and we'll write to the lightning round. This is an opportunity for our listeners to get an opportunity to know the woman: not just the cryptocurrency specialists, not just the entrepreneur, the head of this amazing community, the head of the Audacity Fund. So you have experience as a jazz musician, so I'm going to ask you to flow and think on your feet with a series of these questions. So, are you ready?

Erikan Obotetukudo: I'm ready. Here we go.

Carla Harris: City or countryside?

Erikan Obotetukudo: Ooh, countryside.

Carla Harris: Winter or summer?

Erikan Obotetukudo: Summer.

Carla Harris: Coffee or tea?

Erikan Obotetukudo: Water.

Carla Harris: Working in the office or working from home?

Erikan Obotetukudo: Working on the beach.

Carla Harris: Ah, okay. What's your personal mantra?

Erikan Obotetukudo: Ooh. If you're not shameless, you're not serious.

Carla Harris: Oh, I like that. had a talk show, who would you want to be your first guest?

Erikan Obotetukudo: Wow. I'm gonna say it would be Aaliyah, Aaliyah, the R&B singer. Aaliyah is one of my biggest influences. And so I would sit and chat with Aaliyah and we'd talk music. And we talk about how we turn all of her legacy into NFTs. And we'd talk about how we make our legacy culturally relevant in the internet forever into perpetuity. We’d talk about getting her royalties.

Carla Harris: Okay.

Erikan Obotetukudo: All those amazing things.

Carla Harris: One word to describe your legacy.

Erikan Obotetukudo: Audacious.

Carla Harris: Wow. You know, I would've said ‘sharing’ because you have shared some amazing information in a very selfless way today. Erikan and Access and Opportunity says, “Thank you!”.

Erikan Obotetukudo: And I would like to just take this brief PSA moment to say, Carla Harris, we thank you because it was seeing you when I was working at LinkedIn, having a conversation with Dan Roth, you know, when you came to the studio that let me know, you know, I can jump in this game. We could do this, we could do this. So I just want us, yes, representation matters. Thank you, Carla. We appreciate you. Thanks, Morgan Stanley, y'all are amazing!

Carla Harris: Alrighty then, talk to you later.

Erikan Obotetukudo: Take care.

 (Outro Music)

Carla: I want to thank our guests Lauren Washington and Erikan Obotetukudo so much for joining me on this episode of Access & Opportunity. Hearing both of their stories, I’m so impressed by how proactive these two ladies are. They both went out of their way to find a community that could demystify crypto for them so that they wouldn’t be left behind. And now, they get a say in how this new financial landscape is built.

So often, here on Access & Opportunity, we’re looking at ways to change our current systems to make them more equitable. It’s exciting to be looking ahead this time around. This moment in time certainly isn’t lost on me, and I tip my hat to Lauren and Erikan for being trailblazers in this space -- I’m very excited to keep the conversation going.

So, what did you learn today from Lauren and Erikan? Send us your thoughts at carlapod@morganstanley.com. We would love to hear from you. Subscribe to Access & Opportunity on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Thanks for coming along.

 

On this episode, we hear from Lauren Washington, an artist who has learned to leverage NFTs to create community and forge her own path in the art world. Then Carla sits down with VC Erikan Obotetukudo to discuss ways that cryptocurrency and blockchain tech can address inequities in traditional financial systems.

On this episode, we delve into the world of NFTs, cryptocurrency, and blockchain technology. We hear from artist Lauren Washington, a senior at Northwestern University, who is using non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, to help connect with a new and thriving community of collectors and artists of color. Then, host Carla Harris sits down with Erikan Obotetukudo, founder of the Audacity Fund and founding member of Crypto for Black Economic Empowerment. Erikan shares her insights on the inequities of traditional financial systems and the potential for cryptocurrency to change the narrative for entrepreneurs of color and others left behind around the world.

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