This is an entry in CoinDesk’s Most Influential in Blockchain 2017 series.
It’s February of 2017 – I’m sharing a standing table at a rooftop bar in Brooklyn with Amber Baldet, the executive director of JP Morgan’s Blockchain Center of Excellence, and I’m suffering from intense cognitive dissonance.
Earlier in the day at an event, JP Morgan launched the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance, where some major names in the banking industry and the blockchain space announced they would all work together to bang out a private version of the ethereum blockchain.
I had talked with Baldet on the sidelines about some of the cutting-edge cryptography being used to introduce privacy to blockchain transactions. The conversation had touched on cypherpunk culture and the priorities of transparency and decentralization, themes which, in my mind, clash on a fundamental level with everything the financial industry stands for.
After sharing notes about some people in the space, the conversation migrated to Blythe Masters, a former executive at JP Morgan who, among other things, is famous for conceiving of the credit default swap, that little splinter of a financial instrument that festered for years in the side of the banking industry and, by most accounts, caused the collapse of the housing bubble.
Baldet got an intense look in her eye. Masters, she told me, was a tornado. A tsunami. A force of nature. I could immediately tell Masters was one of Baldet’s role models.
And that’s when I remembered a fact about Baldet, a very obvious fact that my brain, nonetheless, could not handle – she works at a bank.
She works on blockchains at a bank.
She works on blockchains and cares about privacy and decentralization and admires Blythe Masters and has pink-tipped hair and works at a bank.
And that’s what makes Baldet undeniably an individual.
In the last year she has challenged our collective imagination about what the role of banks will be in the blockchain industry, blurring the line that separates the public and private blockchain communities, and thereby opening new avenues for collaboration and cooperation between the two.
On Baldet’s watch, JP Morgan has secured a reputation for itself as a serious blockchain innovator.
And she is the only person on CoinDesk’s Most Influential list who is working solely on enterprise blockchains, perhaps because she is the perfect person to reconcile the apparent contradictions between two very different worlds.
She is a veteran of both the stuffy financial industry and the more reckless blockchain ecosphere, a technologist and product strategist and an anomaly in any company she keeps.
If Amber Baldet were a force of nature – and she may well be – she would be one found on all continents, as neither her interests nor her influence can be constrained.
How it all began
Baldet seems to be a rarity first and foremost in her own family.
Her mother teaches AP English. Her father teaches drama and directing at Florida Atlantic University. And she has one older brother who found some success as an actor on Broadway.
Yet, Baldet pursued an entirely different path, studying political science and economics as a double major at the University of Florida.
It was during her senior year, when Baldet was an intern at a boutique business intelligence firm, that her eyes were opened to the power of financial data.
In the office was a Bloomberg terminal, a computer gateway to real-time financial data. Baldet had been informally studying systems at the macro level for her entire life. But glowing from the screen on the Bloomberg terminal, she glimpsed a system that reached lives around the entire world.
“I saw all of this market data of the Bloomberg terminal kind of wash over me,” she remembers, adding:
“For the first time I realized, wait a minute … if you want to understand more about why the world is the way it is, you need to understand more about this.”
To that end, Baldet began consulting for JP Morgan in 2009 and took a permanent position with the bank in 2011.
She bounced around at the bank for a while, looking for a group that would satisfy her diverse collection of interests, which tended toward technical topics like machine learning and cloud infrastructure. Though she didn’t have a degree in computer science, she had taught herself how to code when she was eleven (her first project was a choose your own adventure version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
Then, in 2011, some friends who worked in information security started talking about something called bitcoin.
“We heard that all of our friends were investing in this crazy crypto-anarchist thing,” says Baldet. “I remember watching and being like ‘eh, that’s probably going to blow over.'”
Despite her initial skepticism about bitcoin, Baldet decided to find out if there was anything to it.
Once again, Baldet was confronted with a macro-economic system, and once again, she was drawn in.
“The crypto economy is really a confluence of political, economic and technological drivers that are creating something wholly new,” she tells CoinDesk. “It’s fascinating.”
While she began thinking about how decentralized systems could serve those in need, it was not until Baldet saw a presentation at a hacker conference that it really clicked. The presenter laid out a strategy for using mobile peer-to-peer networks to coordinate local safety measures in at risk populations.
“I mean, I read the bitcoin white paper in 2011,” says Baldet, adding:
“But this talk made me think about how we could help humans who aren’t hackers or revolutionaries and just want to survive in today’s world..”
‘A little Amber special’
After that, Baldet began looking for opportunities at JP Morgan to work on bitcoin-related projects.
Eventually, she was recruited into a group working on new product development, where occasionally the topic of bitcoin and blockchains would surface. “I would put my hand up and say I’m interested in this space and I know things about it,” recalls Baldet.
“And … here we are,” she adds.
Yet, “here” is quite a long way from where she began.
In the fall of 2016, JP Morgan released Quorum, an open-source fork of the Go Ethereum client, and throughout this year, the platform has benefited from a series of improvements.
For instance, in October, the team partnered with banks in Canada, Australia and New Zealand to build a new interbank payment network on the Quorum platform. And, over the course of the year, JP Morgan joined forces with the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance and the Initiative for Cryptocurrencies and Contracts (or IC3) at Cornell University.
As Baldet describes it at a JP Morgan sponsored meetup in December, the role she plays is part product strategist, part team assessor, and part communicator.
“I sit in the middle. I’m a product person that knows about technology. Depending on the community I’m in, I wear different hats,” she said at the time.
Each hat Baldet wears is very much her own. And each contribution JP Morgan adds to the blockchain space bears her signature.
But some projects are closer to her heart than others.
Baldet points specifically to the zcash partnership, announced over the summer, where JP Morgan collaborated with engineers from the privacy-centric zcash project to integrate zero-knowledge proofs, a technology that enables the encryption of transactions, into Quorum.
During the December meetup, Baldet told the group:
“That was a little Amber special.”
According to Baldet’s counterparties, that partnership would not have gone through had it not been for the credibility Baldet carries across the diverse spectrum of blockchain tribes, including people very much outside the legacy financial system.
For instance, people like Zooko Wilcox, the CEO of the Zcash Company, the startup that manages the zcash cryptocurrency project.
Wilcox met Baldet for the first time in 2013 at Defcon, one of the biggest annual conferences in the infosec industry.
Baldet was there to give a talk about suicide prevention, a topic on which she had done extensive personal research, and which, with Aaron Swartz’s death not long before, was highly relevant.
Baldet delivered a data-driven presentation that was at once sensitive to the sting of the material, yet unrestrained in its honesty.
Wilcox, who had known Swartz, was in the audience, watching with approval.
“I thought it was a very good thing to do because it was not a technical presentation about computers. But it was a technical presentation about useful facts that were in need in that community,” recalls Wilcox. “Afterwards, she was swarmed with fans. We just barely got time to shake hands.”
In the years that followed, Wilcox and Baldet established a friendship over email and Twitter.
Then in 2016, they ran into each other again at CoinDesk’s Consensus conference in New York City. Over drinks, they talked about teaming up to implement the technology the zcash team pioneered into JP Morgan’s Quorum platform.
According to Wilcox, he had already had conversations with other enterprise businesses at the conference, but none of them felt like good potential partners.
“I had the feeling that most of these conversations would not go anywhere. When we sat down and talked with Amber, I got the feeling that maybe this could actually get something done,” he says.
In part, his confidence was due to the competence of JP Morgan’s engineers, but at the end of the day, it was Baldet’s character that convinced him, he says.
Wilcox, in general, does not shy away from constructive criticism, even when it is directed at his own projects. In Baldet, he says, he recognized a similar intellectual honesty and fearlessness.
“Amber was willing to call a spade a spade, and say that she thought most of the enterprise blockchain announcements were not going to produce anything,” Wilcox tells CoinDesk, adding:
“She was willing to say that. But most people were very much in hype mode that year. That made me trust her a little more.”
As the partnership took shape, Baldet took a role in deciding how the zcash technology would fit into JP Morgan’s existing platform.
“Amber wasn’t involved hands-on in the development, but she was certainly involved in designing the architecture,” says Jack Gavigan, chief operating officer at the Zcash Company.
According to Gavigan, it was Baldet who recognized that the Zcash technology could provide privacy for both the transfer of value on a blockchain as well as any business logic written into the transaction, meaning that the terms in a smart contract could themselves be hidden from view.
And that’s a fix that many large, regulated financial services providers, whose potential use-cases all require a modicum of confidentiality, have been looking for.
In light of that, Gavigan continued, telling CoinDesk:
“That combination is very powerful, and we wouldn’t have realized the potential for that if it weren’t for Amber.”
Despite Baldet’s technical contributions, a few prominent voices in the blockchain echo chamber have made it their responsibility to discredit her as a mere corporate shill. And when those tactics have fallen short, some have seen fit to sexualize their critiques of her.
At a Women in Blockchain meetup this December, I asked Baldet how she dealt with the constant barrage of insecure rants directed at her on social media. She mostly just rolled her eyes and laughed it off. She knows how to navigate male-dominated environments because she’s been doing it her whole life.
“It’s amazing that she can thrive in that situation with a bunch of men shutting her down,” marveled Micheal Wuehler, who is in charge of business development at ConsenSys, and joined the December meetup.
But just because Baldet is battle-hardened doesn’t mean that every other woman curious to learn more about the technology is or should have to be. Baldet is very aware of the social inequities in her community and has made it her priority to do what she can to foster inclusion in the industry.
This does not just mean bringing in more female voices, she says. It means fostering all kinds of diversity, even the ones we can’t see, widening the umbrella to include people with atypical emotional, cognitive and behavioral conditions.
Simply put, “we need to be a lot more welcoming,” says Baldet.
This is the message that she brings every time she speaks publicly about blockchain technologies, and in particular when she attends the New York Women in Blockchain meetup.
But Baldet does not have to speak about diversity in order to invoke it. The complexity of her character provides an example that is more powerful than any adjustments she could prescribe.
“She is non-role conforming and represents in many ways what blockchain represents for me. Accessibility. Intelligence. Fluidity. Collaboration,” says Thessy Mehrain, the founder of the New York City meetup and a product strategist at Consensys.
As Baldet worked the room this December, it was clear that she made a palpable impact in every interaction. Behind her was a wake of admirers, who did not hesitate to speak of her with the same intensity that Amber spoke to me last February on the rooftop in Brooklyn.
“Amber is like a Madonna of blockchain,” says Mehrain.
And if Madonna isn’t a force of nature, then I don’t know who is.