Liina Laas talks to Blockleaders' Paschal about the transformational power of entrepreneurialism and education in FinTech, gender equality, and the availability of sandwiches.
Not too long ago, Liina Laas was waiting at a train station in her native Estonia. Feeling a pang of hunger, she went looking for a sandwich. She had recently become a vegetarian and was dismayed to find that the local supermarket had no meat-free sandwiches on its shelves. Liina’s was understandably annoyed and was tempted to write a strongly worded letter to the company owner. However, she decided instead to take matters into her own hands, and what she did next is a fascinating insight into her character.
“My first thought was, okay I’ll write a letter to this chain of shops. Can you bring to the market some vegan ready meals? I’d like to eat something sometimes! Then I thought, why don’t I do it myself? So I thought of some recipes, started looking for suppliers, and a manufacturer, and we launched a line of vegan ready-meals and they were sold in most of the supermarkets in Estonia. ”
I put it to Liina that most people would have just whinged about this to their friends or, at most, posted a remark about the incident on Facebook. Any idea about doing it themselves would quickly give way to self-doubt and fear of failure.
“You have to just go and try. I think if people have an idea they should just go for it. People doubt themselves a lot. And so do I of course: ‘what am I doing producing food? I have no knowledge in this industry.’ But if you don’t try you never know if you will succeed or not. Of course, there is a fear of failure. But what is the fear going to do? If you don’t try you’ve failed anyway.”
Liina worked until recently in insurance, an area of commerce that she freely admits is painfully dull. What fascinates her is how new technology can take something as old as insurance - the Ancient Greeks and Romans used health and life insurance - and disrupt and remodel it. “That is what I feel. Insurance is completely dull, but if we can take something as old and as dull as insurance and make it work through blockchain, that’s when it starts to get exciting for me.”
Change is natural and inevitable, but many of us resist it. To be set in one’s ways is viewed as a negative characteristic, although most of us go about our daily tasks, brushing against annoyances, shaking them off and carrying on. Then there are some who seem to be wired differently, who must find solutions to problems, who won’t just accept that things are just as they are. “It makes sense to me. The first question I am asked is: why do we need blockchain, why can’t we just use a normal database? Paper still works, why do we need to digitize things? Horses worked, why do we need cars? If we keep doing the same things that we’ve been doing, how are we going to progress?”
Being from Estonia helps. For a nation with a population of only 1.3 million, only slightly more than Birmingham, Estonia has become a blockchain powerhouse. While other countries looked on in confusion as businesses and individuals flooded into the blockchain space, Estonia took the bull by the horns by becoming the first state in the world to put its inhabitants' health records on the blockchain. Estonians have grown used to interacting with the state digitally, whether through electronic voting or paying taxes online, even identification has become digitised. Wired called the country the “most advanced digital society in the world”.
“When we founded the Cryptocurrency Association, the government was quite against it. At that time there was a regulation that required that any crypto transaction worth more than €1000 had to be done face to face, to comply with anti-money-laundering laws. On top of that, VAT was applied to every single cryptocurrency transaction. We lobbied the government about these issues, and one unhappy Bitcoin miner took the state to court.
But very quickly the government changed its tone and went from ‘no, you can’t trade Bitcoin’ and ‘it’s all money laundering and criminal activities’ to being the first country to implement blockchain on a government level. And this was done in less than three years. Now, whenever a patient goes to a doctor, an entry is made on the blockchain and every patient can view their medical information online. I really love what they’ve done there. There is no way for doctors to cover up mistakes and the blockchain leaves a mark when a person accesses your file. People can be prosecuted for accessing your health records without a valid reason. It has brought a higher level of accountability to the medical profession, and the medical administration infrastructure.”
Liina believes the same rationale can be used to modernize and simplify the insurance industry, which also suffers from the perception of a lack of transparency. Her work as Chief Business Development Officer at Black Insurance allows her to use her experience in FinTech- and blockchain-focussed marketing to explain the inherent weaknesses of that industry’s working model. Her down-to-earth style and gift for public speaking are visible in the high calibre pitches she conducts for Black where, alone on a stage in front of hundreds of people, she captivates her audience without any gimmicks or props. Where does the confidence to do this come from?
“I don’t really get nervous about these things. I had some excellent training and that really helped, and I did a workshop on pitches. What I learned there was that it is all about storytelling. The pitch has to relate to myself, because if I am not passionate about what I am talking about, then the audience will disengage. I write the pitch based on things that excite me, and, in that way, I can draw the audience into the broader topic that I want to address.”
Watching videos of Liina presenting her pitches and giving talks on blockchain and fintech, it is difficult not to notice that she is often one of the only women on the stage at an event and female faces are few and far between in the audience of these gatherings. The Sausagechain, as Liina has rebranded it, dominates the blockchain and FinTech space and Liina has given a lot of thought for the reasons behind this.
“There is no one answer. The world is still quite chauvinistic, there is no denying it. If you start studying Finance or Tech, it will be like a boy’s club. I read an interesting article recently about a student who entered university to study IT. She was the only girl in the class. She didn’t finish it. She didn’t feel welcome there. She decided that she was going to spend these very important years of her life unhappy in an environment where she was not wanted. It’s sad, but the same happens in workplaces. I’ve experienced it myself. You might have an idea and express that idea at a meeting and it will be overlooked. But then a man says the same thing and everyone thinks it’s a great idea. I don’t understand why that is. It’s complete nonsense. But we can slowly change this by women stepping up. And role models are important. If there are so many men talking about blockchain and tech, women may not relate to it.”
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On the broader issue of women in business, the problems are more complex and a cultural shift is required.
“My mother was a violinist. When she got married she wanted to be a homemaker. That's what she did. She wanted a clean house, liked to stay at home with her children. She ironed my father’s clothes. Her parents divorced and, to her, having a happy family life was the fulfillment of her childhood dreams. Family will affect you, but it doesn’t mean that you will do what you saw at home.
“But that doesn’t explain the pay gap that exists between men and women. In Estonia it is 24%. You can’t just say, well women should just work harder, because they already do. Governments and regulators can only do so much. Women ask for less money. Why do women value themselves less than men? I met a banker at a conference who told me that when he is interviewing candidates, women will regularly ask for 20% less than men. He could interview a woman who is more qualified and experienced than the male candidate. The man will ask for more money. Okay, the woman gets the job because she is the better applicant, but the banker is hardly going to offer her that extra 20% that she hasn’t asked for.
"We need to speak up more and hopefully, through time, we can change this.”
Liina understands the importance of role models, having had so many herself but, as a young girl, she was determined to follow her own path onto the front pages of the business press.
“When I was seven or so, I would take my grandfather’s briefcase and would play at being on the cover of Estonia’s leading business magazine. I only remembered this when I really did appear on the cover of that magazine. But in blockchain there are some very powerful women speaking up. On the insurance side too there are powerful women like Inga Beale, the first CEO of Lloyds of London. Imagine, the first female head of a company that has existed for over 300 years. She is doing incredible work around equality.”
Liina, like many of the Blockleaders I have spoken to, has moved quickly through different businesses and careers. She is now concentrating on her own marketing and consulting agency CryptoHype Media. The modern business leader, it would appear, is not content to enter a company on the ground floor and take the slow journey upwards through its ranks and onto the board of management, reaching the top just in time for retirement. But are we prepared for the dynamism expected of us, as modern workers?
“I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to be when I was eighteen. But it’s nonsense to expect a person of that age to decide. Most people don’t know. I think the age of having one job for life is over. Before, a job was seen as something you should grateful for. Companies realise now that they are not all-seeing gods, they need to have the best team in order to succeed. I have a relative who had the same job for thirty years. Now the average is two years. To me, the more companies you work with the more experience you gain. The modern worker will have to have skills that aren’t being taught in schools.”
Now, with two young children and a husband who lovingly refers to her as the “dirty capitalist”, Liina enjoys life in Estonia, although she doesn’t hesitate for a moment in saying yes when I ask if she would move to Singapore, which she visited recently. Although she’s not ready to uproot her family just yet, she has the confidence and self-belief to reinvent herself, as she has done before. Finding blockchain was key to her transformation in business.
“I’m passionate about blockchain, it doesn’t feel like work. Some years ago, I remember talking about it at family Christmas events and people were saying ‘oh here she comes, with her made-up money.’ That has changed. Having said that, it’s still easy to be the smartest person in the room when it comes to blockchain.”
The key to Liina’s success, and what makes her such an easy person to talk to, is her indefatigable interest in people.
“I always try to be myself. Rather than selling what I do, I try to connect with people. If you are desperately just selling, people won’t care. I try to build relationships rather than simply give a conventional sales pitch. That’s important to me.”
Connect with Liina on LinkedIn.