The Lenox Group founder, published author, and former Ernst & Young and KPMG consultant takes Blockleaders on a journey through her past, from the cafes of Silicon Alley to the boardrooms of dozens of Fortune 500 companies
Have you heard the one about the management consultant with the unpronounceable name? Well, Obreahny O’Brien certainly has. The delightful founder of the Lenox Group has spent her life watching the world work its mouth around her moniker. On a first meeting, the name is used as a stand-alone question: “Obreahny?”, which means of course, “Am I embarrassing myself with this terrible pronunciation of your name?”
But Obreahny is not the sort to give me a hard time when I mispronounce it; even gamely telling me I’ve said it perfectly when only moments later she says it herself as though she has translated it into a different language. “My mother is an artist,” she says like that explains everything.
There is a reason why the name is important, because Obreahny’s keen sense of humour, and her ability to make careful and deliberate choices with her own career and on behalf of her clients, greatly stems from having a name that, in her own words, “creates an instant cognisant dissonance” with those around her. The Obreahnys of the world have to work that little bit harder to get ahead, and she puts her general unpopularity at school (which is difficult to imagine) down to her mother’s most lasting artistic flourish, leading in turn to her writing and producing an online college humour site, which itself was the catalyst to her success in the digital sphere.
Having a college professor who called her Oprah probably helped too.
Originally from Long Island, Obreahny always wanted to go into business, starting back in her college days. “When I was in college I wrote a piece about John Kerry for the college newspaper, and it was censored because my playful sense of humour wasn’t to the paper’s taste. So I looked for other publications but noticed that most leaned either far left or far right. I wanted my writing to be light and not driven by any interests, so as you can see I was very much a college student! I created a humour website called College Wit, and that was my first entry into the digital realm and entrepreneurship. From there I became involved with the people who were forming Silicon Alley in New York City”
New York’s Silicon Alley was buzzing with the possibilities of the new digital revolution that was then in its infancy, and Obreahny was immediately attracted to the many possibilities these technological advances offered. “I met the likes of David Karp of Tumblr and Dennis Crowley of FourSquare, and we would hang out in cafes and bars, talking about the new digital, media and entertainment sharing economy. I was being offered jobs in the emerging world of Social Media, which at that time leaned very heavily on the social side, so I was hesitant, having always wanted a career where even if I am grumpy and disastrous-looking, I would still have relevance. While I was running the website, I was working towards my accountancy degree and settled on a job offer from KPMG, spending eight years working in mergers and acquisitions.”
At KPMG, Obreahny honed her craft, learning to digest the complex financial and operational delicacies of corporate transactions, while also gaining an insight into the relationship building element of business. “I didn’t just magically manifest myself,” she explains, somewhat disappointingly. “I worked with many extraordinary people. I also met some difficult people, but that was a learning experience too. I realised the importance of not taking rejections and difficulties personally, and this is something I share with the entrepreneurs I work with now. Take, for example, a recent presentation I attended where an entrepreneur was giving a presentation to a room of potential investors. One of them described Fortnite as a game his eleven-year-old son would play. The entrepreneur took this as a slight - that his ideas were childish - but I explained to him that this was the investor’s way of saying that he had a limited understanding of gaming. Sometimes, you need to take a step back to understand what is happening in a room.”
When she discovered blockchain, Obreahny was enthralled. “It immediately occurred to me what the use cases could be in the developing world. I realised that the applications in data reference and transfer of value could be huge.”
The potential of blockchain in the developing world is close to Obreahny’s heart, being herself of Fijian heritage. “I see the issues that my people deal with, particularly as they battle the effects of climate change. I still have family there, and have been overwhelmed by the generosity of the Fijian people.”
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Her first blockchain based startup Early Temple, a smart contract business to business platform that she co-founded was a little too ahead of its time. “It was back in 2014, and businesses were not at a point where they were thinking of adopting this technology. When I learned that Ernst & Young was starting a new strategy group, I decided that was a perfect fit, because there was an obvious knowledge gap amongst businesses that was preventing them from adopting blockchain technology, particularly in the realms of compliance and regulation. Providing a service from a large consulting firm had the obvious advantage of a ready-made implementation and compliance model, so we could just sell the software to businesses.”
Finally, having gained from the considerable experience she garnered at KPMG and Ernst & Young, Obreahny was ready to go it alone, founding Lenox Group as a conscious attempt to make a mark on the developing world. “I was motivated to leave a really good job at Ernst & Young because I could no longer turn a blind eye to the challenges that are facing my people and others in the developing world. I’ve spent a lifetime acquiring this skill set, and want to use it now to do something truly worthwhile.”
Obreahny explains succinctly the important work that her company is involved in. “What we want to do is build technology for government entities and then give it away for free to these entities. There is an economic model, of course, but handing over the technology is paramount. This tech, after all, offers the greatest benefit to countries that are in their developing stages. Providing data integrity is important, and we want to build the rails for capital to move into these countries, thereby making investors feel more comfortable about the movement of their capital which is possible now with blockchain. What we are working towards can serve as a basis of trust for a more robust financial system in the developing world, as there will no longer be concerns about who is managing the data.”
These altruistic goals are a far cry from the blockchain news that makes the headlines and fills the news feeds on Crypto Twitter. Isn’t that a bit irritating? Not at all, says Obreahny. “Some months people are really hyped about Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies, while other months you see Tweets from business leaders saying that blockchain is where we should be focussed - it’s the underlying technology that counts. But the two statements are really the same. When we’re talking about a data reference layer, Bitcoin enables that and, after all, Bitcoin is still the best and most proven use case of this technology. As an entrepreneur, people being excited about something that is close to the work that I do, that can only be a positive.”
Social media noise, data privacy, and fake news are concerns that affect young people today in a manner that was unthinkable even a decade ago. Obreahny managed to get her selfie-focussed self out of her system just as this era was dawning. “I was an early video blogger. I was one of the first people walking around with a video camera, filming myself and putting the result online. People thought I was crazy. Now I can’t really be bothered with selfies and videoing events. I got that out of my system long ago. But what does excite me with Social Media is the democratization of value creation. Everyone now can have a voice and join the conversation. I believe that this will create a more confident workforce, where people are able to realise their abilities.
It is easier now to create and distribute ideas and applications on a global level, and this is surely a positive. As for the negatives, we are reaching a point where we have so much information that we need assistance to determine its quality and reference, and data aggregation tools, which I remember us discussing back in Silicon Alley, will help to negate that issue. The negatives are a natural ebb and flow, and these are issues that can be overcome. The positive far outweighs the negative in my opinion.”
Of course, the advantage of blockchain is in its decentralised nature. Tech giants like Facebook and Google have had to weather a storm of controversy in recent years over how they harvest and use the data they collect. Can blockchain technology be part of the solution, or is it just as vulnerable to bad or negligent actors? “Blockchain records transactional activities, so if someone can connect the dots and trace those transactions back to you or your organisation, then that is a lot of sensitive information potentially. That being said, the idea of owning your own information has come to the fore, where you use the network as the trusted party for transactions. Having more data is a good thing in terms of access to capital, but the operationalisation of how that is governed is where blockchain can work well so that there is no need for a third party to act as an intermediary, which should limit our exposure to data breaches. After all, these breaches often occur due to impaired processes and procedures within centralized organizations.”
Obreahny has spent much of her recent career presenting her ideas in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies. Not everyone can afford to hire a management consultant, which is why Obreahny has penned ‘Blockchain for CEOs: Ten Presentations to America’s Top Boardrooms.’ “A lot of people don’t realize that management consultants help in pattern recognition across a variety of verticals that executives have to deal with before they can implement a technology. In fact, consultants are usually the ones who develop or implement the processes and procedures that govern the regulatory obligations that are initially identified by legal counsel. I see the book as a tool for companies to spark meaningful discussions on issues that go beyond the technology, such as the business and regulatory drivers. My hope is that the book can help companies include the right people in the room from day one, which will get them closer to having their innovation efforts turn into something viable.”
Obreahny is easy company and our hour together zips by. There is just enough time for us to muse on the reasons why the boardrooms of the world are still mainly peopled by men. “As a female CEO, my approach has been to focus on what I can control, rather than what I can’t. I want to help pave the pathway for other women, and I have been blessed to have other women do that for me. At Ernst & Young, we founded Disruptive Woman, which was a network that was women teaching women about technical innovations like blockchain. This taught me that women need a voice and a seat at the table and because women want to really understand what they are talking about before they raise their hands, giving them the knowledge they require is more important than just telling them to be more assertive. I want to bring in women leaders and work with women leaders, and we are already working towards that goal.”