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If there was a winner of San Francisco Blockchain Week last week, it was Catherine Coley. Everywhere I looked, she was there: onstage being interviewed by The Financial Times, commanding attention in the lobby, hanging out in the media area in a…Darth Vader costume?
It was, after all, Halloween. And the freshly appointed Binance.US CEO had a sense of occasion and, perhaps, irony. Here, Binance wasn't the evil empire—it was just The Empire. As one prominent name in cryptocurrency confided, it seems like most companies are struggling for users. Everyone except Binance, she added, as if wondering how they're doing it.
She might want to talk to Coley.
Coley—who introduces herself by her last name—is smart and funny. One might mistake her as a naïve newbie yet to be ground down by an industry powered by contrarians, trolls, and—worst of all—true believers. They'd be dead wrong: she's anything but naïve. Though just 30 years old, Coley came to the job from Ripple, where she was head of XRP Institutional Liquidity. Before that, she cut her teeth on the foreign exchange trading floor in Hong Kong a mere three years after the global financial system nearly melted down.
Her new employer, the massive global crypto exchange Binance, apparently sees in Coley the perfect candidate to lead its U.S. efforts. She’s too much of a veteran to be scared off by the regulatory uncertainty Binance faces stateside, and savvy enough to help the U.S. exchange stand out for a segment of the retail investor population confused by crypto.
In fact, Coley says Binance.US has been designed to get people trading on the exchange in six to 12 minutes.
Coley relishes her position as a standout in an industry dominated by (mostly white) men. She says she's stood out wherever she's been. "I was a 5'10" brunette with curly hair in Florida. It started then. Then I was a tall girl in Hong Kong on a trading floor," she said before looking around at a table that, with a lot of (mostly white) men, was broadly representative of the crypto industry. "And then I'm here sitting [talking] crypto at a table while we've got one other lady—cheers."
The thread through each stop is a goal to help people not only keep more of the money they earn but also make some cash from investing it.
That stated passion started at the Epcot World Showcase, a Disney-fied recreation of 11 countries in Orlando, Florida, near where she grew up. "You travel around the world, you had one wallet—it was probably my mom's at the time—and it was seamless," she said. "I got to see the cultures of the world. I got to see buildings, innovation, architecture types, all around the world super seamlessly. And I thought that's how the world worked. And I had a rude awakening when I left college and moved to Hong Kong to work with Morgan Stanley in foreign exchange and realized that everything costs money."
To Coley, the forex exchange fees represent more than just financial pains for power users. This "friction" deters people from traveling and broadening their worldview. "We're always going to be a close-minded society unless we lower these barriers to entry," she said.
She's taken that democratizing drive to her new role at Binance.US, even though she can talk traders under the table when she wants to. When I asked her about Binance's fees (which are a fraction of a percent for trading), she delved into basis points and lost me. So, I told her.
"Basis points! Oh my God!" she exclaimed. "That was my fault. Not human enough. I've done it. See? These things happen. We talk this jargon and lose audience members."
She then pivoted into a non-technical explanation of basis points that I'd like to forward to my mortgage broker before she brought it back to her main point: To make crypto use mainstream, companies have to recognize they're dealing with humans, not well-oiled machines, and eliminate barriers. She gave the example of trying to navigate the exchange KYC/onboarding process and having it take weeks.
"I hate to tell you I have a short attention span. If you're going to give me one-week notice, I'm going to forget all about that."
Who are those people Coley wants to be using the exchange, which is open to residents in 37 states, Puerto Rico, and D.C.? It's not necessarily folks who are familiar with crypto, whom she recognizes are "probably set in their ways already." After all, Binance.US is a few years late to the party. Moreover, some of those same users might actually be part of the problem, acting as psychological barriers to entry.
She scanned the room. "You've got either suits, which are intimidating for people in t-shirts. Or you've got t-shirts and hoodies that are intimidating for suits. And guess what: I don't wear either of them." She continued: "It's a rich man's sport right now, and we're not making it any easier for people to begin to cut into it…It's just built itself on such a culture that is celebrating misfits but alienating anyone that may not consider that who they are."
A lot of those people are women. She pointed out that while 51 percent of consumers are female, only about 13 percent of her Twitter followers are. Beyond the male/female divide, there's also middle America.
Coley said that despite all her travels, she's missed out on much of the United States. She mentioned a recent conversation with someone from rural Missouri and said, "There are parts of America that are just being able to have this sense of unlocked ability to be part of a much bigger world."
Addressing that "asymmetry" is the challenge, but Coley was hopeful about the promise of blockchain technology: "It really is such an equalizer in terms of getting people to access, manage, and grow their own personal wealth, that this doesn't have to be fit for only computer science majors, or fit for only bankers, or fit for only full-time paid employees."
The CEO job, however, does seem to be fit only for Coley: "I'm hoping that we can at least shepherd and show the way that it's not scary, and that a little girl from Orlando can figure out how this world works and bring people towards it." Sometimes while wearing a Darth Vader costume.