Blockchain expert Amber Baldet is disrupting Wall Street from the inside out

Blockchain expert Amber Baldet is disrupting Wall Street from the inside out
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Amber Baldet clashes with everything the banking industry represents.

As the blockchain team lead at JP Morgan, Baldet believes in transparency and decentralization. Nicknamed the “Madonna of blockchain,” her whip-smart intelligence, nonconformist attitude, and openness to collaboration represent the very same ideals of blockchain technology itself.

With her pink-tipped hair and a passion for information systems and cypherpunk culture, she bridges the gap between the free-wheeling crypto community and stuffy world of finance. “I sit in the middle. I’m a product person who knows about technology. Depending on the community I’m in, I wear different hats,” she told Coindesk in December.

A rebel of the financial world who is keenly aware of its inherent inequalities and barriers to entry, Baldet is proof that it’s possible to work within a legacy financial institution, maintain your radical values, and affect change from within. She is, therefore, determined to use her influence to bring more diverse and nontraditional voices into the fold; “capital markets” and “distributed systems” are among the interests listed on her personal website, right alongside “smashing the patriarchy” and “global domination.”

In an interview with Quartz, Baldet talks about knowing your worth, how the global financial crisis gave her clarity, and why now is such an exciting time to be a technologist.

1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?

The financial industry has long been a consumer of open-source software, but is just beginning to share its own code with the world. Freely available, high-quality platforms built to meet the requirements of the most demanding banks in the world offer a tremendous opportunity to flatten the divide between first-world economies and everyone else.

Traditionally, most software is developed regionally, and a lack of global standardization isolates markets technically, even when people want to come together. By putting real money into first-class design and development, then “giving away” the result, we create huge opportunities for financial inclusion and business growth that more than pay for the initial investment.

Blockchain technology has been a catalyst for incumbent institutions to finally “get” the value of an open-source approach. We have an opportunity to either re-create walled gardens of the past or build a next-generation internet of value that changes how we connect in a way we haven’t seen since the rise of social media. It’s a very exciting time to be a technologist.  

2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?

I’m good at bouncing quickly between high-level abstractions and granular details, as well as transforming complex ideas to be relatable for diverse audiences. I also have what my mother refers to as an “acerbic wit.” This means that often when I give deeply technical talks, the feedback is, “Hilarious, I learned a lot!” And that’s the goal: to get people not just to listen, but to feel like they get it and are inspired to learn more, and ultimately get involved.

3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?

Anonymized salary transparency across the industry would make a huge difference in how underrepresented populations price themselves, as well as encourage fair play and competitive job markets.

4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?

I wish I had known that computer science and management information system programs today are like the communications degrees of 40 years ago. People with sound technical skills are valuable in every industry; every company is a “tech company” these days.

Secondly—and this didn’t apply at the beginning of my career, but today’s laws are changing—I hope that everyone researches their rights regarding salary disclosure to potential employers, as the laws vary by state. Rebasing one’s salary to the market rate for a new position rather than taking a small incremental increase can be a game changer over a lifetime.

5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?

When I first wanted to move to New York, it seemed impossible to find a job without already living in the city. Luckily, I found a technical role at a hedge fund… in 2008. I watched the financial crisis unfold daily on the televisions that played 24/7 on the trading desk at the same time it was happening live in front of me. The fund was completely liquidated less than a year after I started. I spent the next six months looking for work. I moved into a consulting role, which was far outside my comfort zone, but that eventually resulted in finding a role that was a perfect long-term fit. It’s not fair to tell people they should accept nothing less than a passion project that makes you thrilled to wake up in the morning.

6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?

I’ve been on Twitter since 2008, back when it was used mostly for niche tech subcultures to live-tweet conferences. In my opinion, coordinating people who “kind of know each other” is still its most positive application, and has allowed me to hear from and strike up casual conversations with really smart people across my industry. When we do inevitably bump into one another, we already have a warm, open vibe. Relationships can’t be built over a networking hour or a 30-minute coffee, but you can learn a lot about someone from the quality of their reaction GIFs.

7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

The CEO of the first boutique sell-side firm I worked at was a quintessential old-school trader from Brooklyn. He once hung up the phone after a particularly heated conversation with a counter-party, pointed right at me and said, “Never apologize.”

“Never” is a strong word, but we have all heard that women often say “sorry” reflexively. Since then I’ve tried to apologize genuinely, and only when I mean it.

8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…

Hire them, pay them, believe in them, and believe them. I guess that’s four things. How about “treat them as equals?” That’s one thing.

Bonus Questions:

The mountain I’m willing to die on… is digital organizers will never beat pen and paper.

I wish people would stop telling me… to pay my dues. (I’m 35!)

Everyone should own… a black motorcycle jacket.

This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.