A Week at the MIT Media Lab, A Lifetime of Impact

I walked into Regina Pizzeria slightly late on Sunday night. It was my first time in Massachusetts — my first time on the east coast, in fact — and I wanted to take advantage of the two hours between my flight landing and dinnertime to explore the city.

I knew exactly how I would spend that time — walking as much of the Freedom Trail as I could. As I trudged down the red brick line, luggage in hand, I couldn’t help but lose track of time in the history of it all. This is where the Boston Massacre happened. This is where Benjamin Franklin went to school. This is where the meritocratic promise of this nation was incepted — where the ideals that would ultimately allow for me to be included in the program that brought me here were born.

Raised in a small town to two immigrant parents, I’d never really had much of a chance to travel. But a few weeks ago, after a couple application essays, a nerve-racking interview, and a lot of finger-crossing, I was offered the opportunity to study cryptocurrencies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in an intensive week-long bootcamp.

Twenty-four other students from across the country joined me, and as I scanned their faces during the welcome dinner at Regina’s, I noticed that the group was constituted of virtually every tech-underrepresented demographic. This was deliberate — the week-long bootcamp was the brainchild of MIT Media Lab’s Senior Project Manager, Gina Vargas.

Gina is a striking woman: a standard deviation or two taller than the mean, poised, eloquent, and deeply concerned with social justice. On the ride back to the hotel, we rave about a mutually favorite TV show: Broad City. She somehow manages to make me — a twenty-year old girl just starting out in my career — feel welcome and included in this technologically-driven world.

This is true about her cryptocurrency bootcamp as well: after spending time in the digital currency community and noticing the lack of diversity, she set out to create a program that would allow underrepresented groups to be included in the space.

But her work has not been celebrated by everyone, and many continue to ignore the importance of diversity in tech. Even the very first tweet announcing the scholars selected for the camp was met with disdain:

Communism Lite: all the centralization — with just half the calories!!!

During my time at the bootcamp, I couldn’t help but give these criticisms some thought. Were they right?

But what I saw throughout the week cast off any doubt of our value. Not only was each member of the bootcamp exceptionally qualified, not a single one of us saw the world in the same way:

James met his challenges with humor; Amber had an understated brilliance; Alston saw every second as an opportunity to be leveraged; Priya wanted to prove her talents; America was a creator at heart; Arturo and Caroline formed an easy-going duo; Brandon was solid and dependable; Danielle had a sophistication about her; Edwin was always questioning underlying social implications; Pedro came curious and ready to use his smarts to help; Océane was charming and gregarious; Eric was a true socialite; John had an entrepreneurial soul; Jarnickae was well-spoken and thorough; Jordana was sharp and ready to speak her mind; Prince was organized and knowledgeable; Julio was a soft-spoken brain; Justin was an enthusiastic nerd; Kemi was kind and thoughtful; Shana was outspoken and direct; Stephani was a friend to all; Tami had a genuine heart; and Alice always had delightfully witty retorts.

And yet, even with our drastically different lenses, we all managed to come together for the same vision. Between twenty-five students, all from different backgrounds, there existed a level of collaboration, debate, and empathy I had never seen before.

The manner with which ideas bounced was explosive, and by the end of the week, we had all improved each other and benefitted from our differences.

It’s a dynamic that can’t — and won’t — happen in a workplace where everyone looks the same, thinks the same, and comes from the same place. This is why diversity in tech is important, and why I won’t think again about those Twitter trolls.

Interestingly, cryptocurrency as a technological concept can be viewed in parallel to the goals of the bootcamp, at least in terms of its potential to effect social change.

Currently, for instance, more than half of adults in the poorest households are unbanked. And “being financially excluded is linked to income level: The richest 20% of adults in developing countries are more than twice as likely to have a formal account as the poorest 20%.

Some cryptocurrency developers and enthusiasts see this problem as a major potential use case. Because bitcoin (at least in theory) is highly inclusive — you can download a wallet on your smartphone — it can be leveraged as “a means for an otherwise excluded individual to have a decentralized global bank account.

Moreover, because bitcoin carries a negligible transaction fee, it can be used as “a means to facilitate low-cost remittances for those seeking to transfer small amounts of money internationally. This means that someone in Cameroon could now digitally transfer value to someone in the Philippines in relatively little time and with a relatively low fee, facilitating global commerce and pushing wealth and capital to underdeveloped economies.

This is just the start. As Brian Armstrong writes, “digital currency may be the most effective way the world has ever seen to increase economic freedom, making it easier to start a business, enforcing property rights, reducing corruption and bribery, and more. If this happens, he says, digital currencies “could lift many countries out of poverty, improve the lives of billions of people, and accelerate the pace of innovation in the world.

Of course, it’s important to remember that “blockchain” technology is not a panacea, as it has been sensationalized. Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are slow and don’t scale. There are several security challenges, from choosing the correct algorithms to designing the appropriate infrastructure. And there is still a certain level of technical knowledge one needs to exploit bitcoin’s full capabilities.

But — we’re working on it. And it’s good to know that with diverse voices being included in the conversation, all is being done to ensure that digital currency is being done right.

With these factors —the diversity of the bootcamp and the social potential of cryptocurrencies — coming together, it shouldn’t have surprised me that every single one of our final projects had something to do with helping others. Some teams focused on bringing awareness of blockchain technology to underrepresented groups, others on leveraging the power of digital currencies to facilitate donations. No matter their missions, however, every project was thorough and comprehensive, and beautifully strung together everything learned throughout the week.

It’s Friday as I write this — the last day of the bootcamp — and the promise of a true merit-driven tech world is closer to being fulfilled than it was a week ago. We all promise to stay in touch, and even start planning future events: bitcoin hackathons and Silicon Valley meet-ups. We’ve all still got so much building to do, and something tells me that although this was my first time in Massachusetts, it definitely won’t be my last.

Thank you to the MIT Media Lab for this life-changing experience, especially Gina Vargas. Another big thanks to all of our brilliant teachers, speakers, and organizers: Robert Schwentker, Jeff Flowers, Whitney Burke, Tess Rinearson🕴, Brian Forde, Neha Narula, Monica Orta, Tadge Dryja, Meltem Demirors, Anish Mohammed, Valerian Bennett, Tyler Pate, Kelvin Womack, Balaji S. Srinivasan, and Rick Dudley. And of course, thanks so much to the sponsors of the project: Kapor Center, 21, Xapo, Tucows, and Deloitte.

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