A TED Talk published on October 30 touting ICOs as a way to “help struggling startups” has racked up more than 35,000 views on YouTube. Unsurprisingly, the comments reveal a deep distrust of ICOs.
“Crypto is not an investment, it’s speculation,” wrote one commenter. Another entreated the speaker not to “share this about dubious ICOs,” questioning her accomplishments and noting that the token for the ICO fund she discussed, 22X, isn’t tradable on any exchanges. “Yeah, combine scamming with planet crushing cryptocurrencies…great video TED,” another commenter wrote.
It is unusual for a platform as mainstream as TED (not TEDx, but the full-on main event) to essentially endorse ICOs, which have been widely denounced as scams in the aftermath of the crypto frenzy of 2017. Ashwini Anburajan, the TED Talk speaker, founder of ICO fund 22X, and CEO of ad tech startup OpenUp, “understands where [these commenters] are coming from.”
“Any time there’s a sort of massive bubble like we saw in 2017, people are naturally going to be skeptical,” she told BREAKER. “There were definitely syndicates and hedge funds and a lot of people engaging in pump-and-dump schemes…I think also, though, what’s missing is an understanding of the different kinds of token offerings that exist out there.” The 22X Fund’s token isn’t for your typical day trader. It’s an asset-backed token, also known as a “security token,” which means it’s backed by equity in companies. In this case, those companies are a group of startups like Anburajan’s OpenUp, all vetted by accelerator 500 Startups.
In her talk, Anburajan explained how ICOs can help foster diversity in the largely white and male-dominated world of tech, a space where many entrepreneurs come to the table with funding already in their pockets. Anburajan did not. Instead, she was trying to “survive and build [her] company at the same time.” Where traditional investors revealed gender and socioeconomic biases, she found, ICOs provided a “level playing field” for entrepreneurs. Now, her fully funded ad tech company is pivoting to blockchain with the aim of giving consumers access to their brand-privy data. Following her TED talk, Anburajan spoke to BREAKER about the different types of ICOs, investor prejudice, and why she “actually loved the ICO craze.”
First of all, how did you end up giving this TED Talk?
The TED Talk happened because TED has a really unique program called a residency. You get free office space at the head office in New York and spend three months with a group of—we were with a group of 18 people. And at the same time, [TED staff] are teaching you how to give a TED Talk and effectively tell the world what you’re doing. I think that obviously I was selected for the residency because [I was working with] cryptocurrency, blockchain, and it was a really interesting approach to it where you had a group of founders and a very personal story around why we wanted to get funding. Blockchain technology can be pretty complicated, but I think this is an easier story for people to understand. So I think that was the reason why it ended up happening and then ended up on the on the [TED Talk] homepage.
I couldn’t find the 22X token on cryptocurrency exchanges or Coinmarketcap. Why would it not be listed in those places?
Because this is a security token. And that means that it’s very limited on where it can be listed. We are going to be listed on OpenFinance. That will be as a peer-to-peer sale until it becomes a true exchange with liquidity. And there are some other exchanges where it will go online. There was news the other day that NASDAQ is going to create a security token exchange, but you cannot trade this token as you would with others that are out there. And that’s why I think it’s confusing for some traditional crypto investors, who think, like, What do you mean I can’t just trade, sell, buy? [Laughs.] It brings a level of compliance and regulation into a market that has traditionally wanted to avoid that.
In your TED Talk, you mentioned that 20 percent of the founders 22X is funding are women, while 50 percent are international. Why do you think that’s such a different distribution from what you normally see in terms of who gets funding?
I mean, the bias of VCs, right? Like, who knows why they choose how they choose? But there’s no question [that there’s bias]. I mean two percent of all venture capital funding went to women [in 2017].
In terms of your own company, what were some of the barriers you faced when it came to raising money early on that led you to look for alternatives?
It was deeply frustrating. We got conflicting advice about whether the valuation was high enough, but in some ways, who cares? As long as you’re getting funded, you’re able to build and grow your company. And then I went out to San Francisco to raise money. We met venture capital firms that still hadn’t gotten an exit from their last year of ad tech companies, so they couldn’t make new investments into ad tech companies. We hit against a wrong market, wrong timing problem. Then there are biases around being a female founder and trying to raise capital. That was always challenging and always difficult. I felt like I had to prove myself a lot more.
Do you have any particular examples of where that really showed itself?
The first and second year I was running my company, one thing that I would always hear was, “You seem really great. I bet you could sell really well. You should just come work for us.” Or, “Your company’s not going to work out, you should come work for one of our portfolio companies.” And it was like they couldn’t see me as the CEO. They could see me as an employee. It was a very backhanded compliment, right?
Or not really a compliment.
Not even a compliment! And I found that very upsetting and very, very challenging. I had several investors say that to me, and then some were rude and dismissive. Then I walked into my accelerator program feeling like I just wasn’t good enough, like my company wasn’t good enough. What I learned over time, as I saw other companies, I realized that people were raising capital, whether they had traction or not, and it had very little to do with merit.
So it’s almost like, whoever can bullshit the best might get the most funding?
Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes it’s timing, it’s connections, it’s opportunity. This is a really personal story that I’ll share with you. I had a really low moment during the funding for my own company. We were getting 22X going, and I had to let go of my [OpenUp] cofounder. It was very difficult. They had executive coaches as part of the accelerator program I was in. I had to pay my cofounder to leave the company—it was just messy. And I was so stressed, and so upset. This executive coach said something very interesting to me. He said, “You know, Ashwini, you’re very, very hard on yourself. The majority of founders in this program don’t have the problems that you have. They have family money, and they have more of a financial support network underpinning them that allows them to build their company in a more stable way. You’re trying to survive and build your company at the same time. And it’s very difficult to do. So you need to cut yourself a break.”
And that was very eye-opening for me, right? Because he showed me that there were factors in play about why people access capital, about why you’re able to build or keep going without having any revenues. There’s a mythology that exists about the startup story, right? It’s like you’re sitting in a dorm room, you’re sitting at home or at a coworking space, you get together to build this product, you put it in front of investors, you put it front friends or family, you gather the money together, and then you start this journey of going and going and going. And it’s not like that. That’s not the reality of who often ends up building and building successfully.
And that’s why I loved the ICO craze. Because at the heart of it, if you could write a good white paper, and you could put a team together, and you can put up a website, you might have been able to raise a bunch of money and do something interesting with it.
As you put it, ICO funding has helped promote diversity in terms of whose startups get investments. What are your thoughts on how the largely white, male population of the cryptocurrency/blockchain space affects—or doesn’t affect—that?
I’ve traveled a lot for our ICO, and I see people all over the world engaged, fascinated, and interested. I think while this space is still largely male, it’s definitely global. Second, women are putting a stake in the ground. I would point to my friend Nyla Rodgers who started the “Satoshi is Female” movement as an example. It’s a way to reclaim the narrative of whom bitcoin is for and where it can have long-term impact. This gives me a lot of hope that in 20 years we won’t be having the kind of conversations we are having now about the impact of tech, startups, and investment.
This interview has been edited and condensed.