When Meltem Demirors was first starting out in the working world, she had two very distinct sides: Corporate Meltem and Fun Meltem. Corporate Meltem was, by her own description, “cutthroat,” highly organized, all about project plans and deliverables. She was working in the oil and gas industry, employed by Deloitte as a strategy consultant, and then for a short time as a corporate treasury analyst at ExxonMobil. The other Meltem was just as intense, but in a different way. “Fun Meltem was like, ‘Let’s explore all of the weirdness in the world and go to music festivals and go live in the desert of Morocco with a goat herder,’” she says.
It’s only after Demirors started working professionally in crypto in 2015 – leading the development team at Digital Currency Group, a venture capital firm focused on the cryptocurrency market – that Corporate Meltem and Fun Meltem became one. “My portfolio at DCG ended up becoming my friends,” she says, pointing out that half the guests at her recent wedding were industry folks. “Crypto people are my family at this point because we’ve lived through so many different things together.” Her philosophy these days is best summed up by her online tagline: “Making benevolent mischief.” To wit, during her talk at May’s Magical Crypto Conference, Demirors brought a toilet out onstage filled with “shitcoins” – actually gold-foil-wrapped chocolates – that she proceeded to throw out into the crowd.
However, Demirors can still go full Corporate Meltem when necessary. Like during her star turn testifying in front of the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services in July. (It was perhaps her most high-profile mainstream moment since Glamour magazine profiled her in its feature “Cryptocurrency Is Not Just a Boys’ Club.”) Demirors gave a prepared five-minute speech in which she spoke passionately about bitcoin and contrasted it with Facebook’s forthcoming currency. “Libra is not a cryptocurrency,” she said. “I’m not here to pass judgment on Facebook and its efforts, and I commend their altruistic aspirations. But they are just that: aspirations.” She clearly and succinctly pointed out that Libra, despite being an association with more than 20 members, would be centralized, backed by a pool of assets, and permissioned.
The highlight of Demirors’s testimony – at least as far as crypto Twitter was concerned – came during questioning, when Rep. Warren Davidson, Republican from Ohio, uttered the S-word. “A lot of people in this space will use a phrase that you may be familiar with,” Davidson said to Demirors. “There’s bitcoin and then there’s shitcoin. Are you familiar with that phrase and what people might mean by that?”
Demirors smiled – of course she was familiar with shitcoins! – but kept it professional, refraining from speaking the S-word herself. When Davidson asked how people would differentiate the two, she explained, “The idea here is that bitcoin has had a long track record. The network has been operating for 10 years. The bitcoin network has been tested and the decentralized nature of the bitcoin protocol has been tested.”
Today, Demirors says it was “just funny” to hear a congressman use the word shitcoin in a committee room of the House of Representatives. (She also says the exchange wasn’t planned.) “But what was more important to me is the conversation shifted away from Libra and really what got talked about was bitcoin,” she says.
“And then what really made me happy,” she continues, “is a number of people in the industry reached out to me afterwards to express that they felt like our industry was accurately represented by the comments and remarks that I made and some of the data points I shared.” She also got a lot of laudatory feedback from her Twitter followers, who total more than 96,000. (She keeps her DMs open and tries to respond when she can: “I love talking to people.”)
Journalist Laura Shin, who’s had Demirors as a guest on both her Unchained and Unconfirmed podcasts, says she was “so impressed” with Demirors’s performance at the hearing. “She’s not afraid to tell it like it is,” Shin says. “She understands her stuff, not only when it comes to the crypto space, but also when it comes to traditional finance. She can talk in a way that the traditional financial community can understand.” The crypto community, she adds, was cheering Demirors on: “It felt like people were so proud of her and so glad to have her representing their views.”
Still, crypto Twitter being crypto Twitter, not everyone was kind. One tweeter, for instance, suggested that Demirors was getting so much attention because of her gender. Dave Nage, a principal at Arca Funds, rose to her defense: “The President of the United States, just a few days ago, tweets to 61m followers he feels quite negatively about Bitcoin. A few days after @Melt_Dem goes in front of Congress & millions of people and boldly tells people essentially why he’s wrong. Give credit where it’s due.”
I first meet Demirors, who lives in Brooklyn, at the Manhattan offices of CoinShares, the digital asset management firm that she joined in May 2018. The two-year-old U.K.-based company today manages nearly $600 million of assets. Now CoinShares’s Chief Investment Officer, Demirors welcomes me into her exposed-brick office and settles into the seating area. At the other side of the room, behind her desk, there’s all manner of bric-a-brac on display – including her prized display of McDonald’s MacCoin (the “first fully food-backed global currency”) and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words SHITCOIN MINIMALIST.
The conversation quickly turns to how small the cryptocurrency community is. “When I was at Exxon, it was actually the largest company in the world,” says Demirors, dressed in a black pantsuit, her hair pulled back. “Being at the world’s largest company, managing a $20 billion loan book, is very different from being in an industry where $20 billion is the entire market cap of the second-largest asset” – by which she means Ethereum – “so it’s just a different feeling.” What attracted her to cryptocurrency in the first place, she says, was the people. “For them, it’s not just about technology or building a business – there’s a strong philosophical component to it,” she says. “It almost takes on religiosity at some points.”
Demirors’s come-to-Satoshi moment took place in 2013, when she, on the advice of a friend, got into bitcoin. “That’s where my left turn started,” she says. That same year, she departed her job at Deloitte and enrolled at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. (“That’s what corporate consultants do when they have their quarter-life crisis: You go and get your MBA.”) When she returned to school, she says, “There was a bunch of excitement around bitcoin in Boston and at MIT in particular.” (She worked at Exxon between her first and second years of graduate school.) Demirors gravitated toward the MIT Media Lab and got interested in fintech.
While at grad school, Demirors was introduced to Barry Silbert, the CEO and founder of what would become Digital Currency Group (which, incidentally, owns CoinDesk), and joined the team in April 2015. “Everyone was like, ‘You’re crazy. Bitcoin’s not a thing,’” she says. But Demirors was ready to commit to that left turn: “Up to that point, I’d never done anything really risky in my life.” She says she rejected the narrative that had been foisted on her for years – the one that results in “suburban bliss” and, ultimately, a comfortable retirement.
In many ways, by embracing risk, Demirors was following in the footsteps of her parents. Demirors was born in 1987 in the Netherlands, the second child of a pair of émigrés from a small farming community in southern Turkey. “My mom and dad didn’t have electricity growing up,” she says. “They didn’t have running water growing up.” Her parents were, however, big dreamers. “They dreamed of a better life, and they recognized they would have to work their asses off and take serious risks to get it,” Demirors has written. That meant relocating to the Netherlands, where Demirors’s father got a researcher job at a chemical company in the mid-1980s.
The family picked up and moved again when Demirors was 10, this time to a medium-sized town in Michigan, where her father went to work at Dow Chemical. “That was a big shock,” says Demirors, who spoke only Turkish and Dutch at the time. “It was so socially conservative. It was so homogeneous. Sunday school is the center of the community – we’ve never been religious as a family. I’ve never really set foot in a church other than to look at the architecture.”
She escaped through reading, particularly history and philosophy – disciplines that she still seeks guidance from today. (“In our industry, we don’t study history enough,” she says. “We’ve been talking about governance issues since the dawn of time, and a lot of people have written about it over the last 3,000 years.”) On a more immediate level, reading voraciously helped her learn English. “I credit it with my ability to speak English without an accent,” she says.
Demirors is a huge fan of science fiction literature. “It’s a great way to time-travel and imagine different versions of reality,” she says. “You start with a ‘what if’: What if this thing happened? What might the world look like?” On her personal website, she provides a reading list of some 80 sci-fi authors and selected works – beginning with Frank Herbert, the author of the Dune series. Demirors is such a Herbert stan that she incorporated some of his writings into the vows at her wedding (to a non-crypto guy). And her brother, who emceed the ceremony, concluded with this bit of geekery: “By the powers vested in me by the spice gods of Arrakis, I now pronounce you partners in life. You may kiss and share the water of life.”
Demirors sees connections between the world Herbert built and the world of cryptocurrency. “In Dune, there’s this interesting tension between empire and individual,” she says. “And I think that’s, for a lot of people, why they get into bitcoin. Bitcoin feels like a way to reclaim some self-sovereignty when you’re in a political, economic, and social system where you feel like you have no control.”
Demirors’s job at DCG proved fun, but she found it extremely challenging. “Because it’s 2015, and we’re trying to raise money,” she recalls. “So we’re going into these meetings, and you should see the looks on people’s faces. They’re like, ‘Why the fuck is this woman talking about bitcoin?’” She ultimately oversaw an investment portfolio consisting of 120 companies across 30 countries.
In 2018, Demirors took some time off to contemplate her next steps, then began consulting for CoinShares before joining the company fulltime and helping to set up the New York office. There are now eight team members based in the U.S. CoinShares is best known for its exchange-traded products listed on European markets. In October, CoinShares teamed with wallet provider Blockchain and precious-metal trader MKS (Switzerland) to introduce DGLD, a network for digitized physical gold that is secured by the bitcoin blockchain. As for Demirors’s focus, she says, “What I’m trying to grow for us right now is the private strategy side of our business, or the actively-managed hedge funds that cater more towards institutional investors.”
Meanwhile, Demirors keeps busy with crypto-related side hustles. She participates in the World Economic Forum Blockchain Council, lectures at Saïd Business School, at the University of Oxford, and co-organizes the annual Crypto Springs conference in Palm Springs. (“When Crypto Springs conference co-organizer Meltem Demirors took the stage on Wednesday, watermelon margarita in hand, her ‘nothing is decentralized’ rallying cry drew thunderous applause,” is how CoinDesk writer Leigh Cuen opened her report on the 2018 edition.) Until recently, Demirors co-hosted What Grinds My Gears, a crypto-themed podcast focused on the “bizarre and buzzworthy.” “Meltem is great because she is so multidisciplinary in her experience – everything from her experience on trading desks, in energy markets, as a venture capital investor,” says podcast co-host Jill Carlson, co-founder of the nonprofit Open Money Initiative. “She brings all kinds of lenses that you don’t often hear voiced in the crypto community.”
With all her projects, Demirors says, “the consistent thread is, ‘How do I take what’s going on in my brain, all of this information I’m learning, and share it out into the world?’” Whenever Demirors does a presentation, she posts all her slides online for public consumption: “I say, ‘Please take them, please use them. If you want to use this data, this framework, please do so.’ I think information is better when shared.”
CoinShares’s chief marketing officer, Fitch Carrere, describes Demirors as a “magnet for intellect.” She is, of course, also a fun magnet. (Shin calls her the funniest guest she’s ever had on her podcasts.) “The playful side is very helpful in business settings because a lot of the time what we’re being exposed to in this space are new ideas that may sound crazy at best,” Carrere says. “It creates room for people to be more vulnerable in a shark-rich environment.” He points out that the Demirors you see on Twitter – the one who, say, tweets about the performance of her satirical Potato Fund – is the real Demirors. “One of the most interesting things to me is that most of what you see on Twitter just comes straight from her phone, without editing, in real-time,” he says.
Demirors is well-liked in the cryptocurrency industry, but she does have her share of detractors. “She gets targeted a lot by the skeptic crowd because she’s so outspoken,” says Nic Carter, a partner with Castle Island Ventures who expresses deep admiration for Demirors and her work. “If you are extremely public, there's always going to be tons of ammo for the haters.”
In 2018, Larry Cermak, a former Diar analyst who leads research at The Block, took Demirors to task on Twitter in a 13-part thread that concluded like so: “She is charismatic, which lets her get away with more than your average person. And people forget very quickly or turn a blind eye. But in my opinion, she shouldn’t be given a free pass for being blatantly hypocritical.” Cermak suggested, among other things, that Demirors had profited from what she’s mockingly dubbed the “shitcoin waterfall.” “Her portfolio (that she willingly discloses) has more than 50 of these shitcoins including the shit of the shit like Verge,” he tweeted.
“I did not really make money on shitcoins,” Demirors says today. “The majority of my focus was on bitcoin and doing venture investing. But yeah, I participated in the mania, like everyone else, learned from it and shared what I learned. That’s how people grow. I think you’re allowed to change your mind on things.” She points out that she’s always been very transparent – she begins her presentations with a disclosure slide, and you can see what coins she’s invested in on her website – “more so than I would say 99 percent of people in this industry.”
She continues: “I just find it interesting that [transparency] is used as a point of attack instead of asking, ‘Well, why does no one else do this?’ And those people [who don’t] are openly praised.” Cermak’s tweets were part of “a personal vendetta or an attempt to discredit or undermine my authority,” Demirors says. “And I think some people have issues with strong outspoken individuals, particularly those who are female. Who knows? Not my circus, not my monkeys. I don’t give a fuck.”
Naysayers aside, it’s the humans of the crypto world who keep Demirors in the game. “What I care most about is people and relationships and doing what’s right, even when it’s not profitable,” she says. “And I think that’s an important line to draw.” The next time I see Demirors is at CoinDesk’s Invest: NYC conference, where she – probably the only person in attendance wearing black leather pants – has just given an early-morning, rapid-fire keynote address. “Just walking over here from the fifth floor, I ran into three different people who want to work on three different things together,” she tells me. “Being in the mix and being accessible, you run into people, things, ideas. Ninety percent of them are no-go, but there’s always a few good things that come out of these events.”
Occasionally, Demirors does consider leaving the crypto industry – but never for too long. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Maybe I should go back to oil and gas. Maybe I should go back to corporate finance,’” she told me back at her office. “But then I go dabble in those industries. I find that the passion, the intellectual horsepower, the curiosity, the ability to connect so many different ideas – that’s so unique to this industry right now.”
There’s a strong appeal to being “the ones who are on the outside trying to get in,” she says. “There is this element of trying to create systemic change in a way that's deeply unpopular. I like the struggle. Because when you're working really hard and you’re confronted every day with doors being slammed in your face, you have to really, really dig deep to find the energy to keep going. I think that’s where you find a lot of truth.”
Besides, Demirors says, a smile spreading across her face, “You’ll never have more fun than being the little guy fighting the Man.”
Correction: Demirors is Chief Investment Officer of CoinShares, not the Chief Strategy Officer.
The paintings in this article were commissioned from Trevor Jones, an artist based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Trevor became fascinated with art and tech collaboration soon after graduating from university in 2008. He was one of the first professional painters to incorporate augmented reality. Since 2017, his work has concentrated on cryptocurrency. These original oil paintings will be auctioned by the artist at Bitify.com, with 20% of the sales being donated to two worthy charities, BitGive and the Manny Pacquiao Foundation. Contact Trevor at trevorjonesart.com / @trevorjonesart for more information.