Stephanie So spoke candidly to Blockleaders about using Economics to bestow a whole generation of students with the necessary life skills to excel in life, and also about her innate desire to build a better future for the next generation through the power of blockchain technology.
It is difficult to see the road ahead because as the wise Yoda said Always in motion is the future. We as humans work to craft a stable and secure future both for ourselves and for our loved ones. We want a legacy that can be remembered and enshrined for all the right reasons.
But this future does not come easy. Building our tomorrow requires a lot of hard work today.
Tomorrow's world is one where blockchain technology has enabled a radical shift in the way we do business, where new revenue streams and novel monetization schemes have become a reality.
Stephanie So is helping to craft that future world through her work in the blockchain space, today.
Idealistic v pragmatic: The duality of a great woman
At first glance, idealism and pragmatism appear to be two opposite concepts. Yet, this is how Stephanie introduces herself on her LinkedIn page. I was intrigued by this dichotomy.
"I think of being idealistic more in the context of being creative, and being able to see a future that I want. Pragmatism for me means that we can't assume we'll get to that future without hard work. Figuring out what needs to be done in order to get there, figuring out what barriers may need to be overcome."
"So it is a combination of understanding what I want, and then setting up the pieces to get there."
This question led to wondering what Stephanie's life goal was. Although she has achieved a lot throughout her lifetime, there's always something else, something new to do or learn.
"My life goal at this point is to build the basic foundation for the generations to come. To preserve freedom and individual potential."
On Stephanie's past in higher education, and her move to the blockchain space
Before diving into the world of blockchain, Stephanie enjoyed teaching economics to some of the brightest minds at American universities. Stephanie had finished graduate school in economics (where she met her future husband), with a healthy mix of respect and skepticism for economics as a field. Her academic path gave her access to economic data, methods, and colleagues, while her background in policy allowed her to cross to other departments repeatedly, often because she wanted to understand the challenges of translating theory to practice. Stephanie's experiences very much suit how she approaches blockchain today.
"I taught Economics for a long time, almost twenty years. I taught at the undergraduate level, which was tremendously satisfying because they hadn't yet had a lot of exposure to Economics."
"Economics is an incredibly useful way to frame the world. It provides a mental rubric to assess problems in any situation, e.g. to remember to think about costs and benefits, market conditions, etc. Taking stock of the entire picture and being able to pick out which features are most likely to be important to decision-making becomes second nature. The field of economics is also full of cautionary tales and lessons learned, which appeals to my desire for efficiency: understanding the literature can save a lot of time. Being able to teach generations of kids how to use what's in the economics toolkit was very rewarding indeed."
"I felt that helping to prepare young people for making future decisions was the best way to leave a legacy, and then blockchain came along."
The awareness of blockchain heralded a new stage in Stephanie's career.
"I now feel that we're at a pivotal time. I feel that Geeq (Stephanie's current project) has an opportunity to put in place the safeguards and the platform to provide exactly the kind of society that I'd like to see survive."
"I also feel that if society does not work hard enough, we might just lose that opportunity to take control of what's happening."
"There was no hesitation, really. Once I realized the possibilities offered by this technology, that was it. I had to let go of education and dedicate myself to blockchain."
"Geeq's basic service is a public good, which is a public infrastructure for Blockchain-as-a-Service. What we do is bring a secure network to validate transactions very, very cheaply, and that enables broad access for people, which is what I really care about."
"On top of this platform, we invite everyone to be creative about building their own apps. What we give them is the knowledge that their own data and their client's data is secure, and that it's really cheap to provide services. I think we're setting up a really vibrant marketplace where costs are negligible."
"The Geeq Project came about after some research that John (Conley) was doing, on whether or not protocols really guaranteed that distributed ledgers were secure and incorruptible."
"I am personally interested in privacy, and in people's right to control their own data. That's an issue I've cared about for a very long time. John was developing this incredible technology, and I could see what this tech could do. This is actually because of my health background."
"My main interest in policy is health policy. I've been watching people trying to transform medical records into digital health records, and I've seen inefficiencies that derive from not being able to share data. At the same time, I have a keen appreciation for privacy issues. For instance, I follow the field of Genetics, and when people give away their genetic details, it has implications not only for themselves but for their families, it is a rather scary situation."
On how blockchain can promote and support mental health
One of many of Stephanie's facets is her advocacy for mental health. To this regard, I was interested to know how blockchain technology can help and support this rather important issue.
"I've always been passionate about removing the stigma around mental health issues, because having a barrier to being able to talk about what's going on makes people feel restricted, almost prisoners. I think that is a terrible situation which leads to people walking around guarding secrets and hiding their conditions."
"I believe blockchain could help mitigate some struggles around mental health, because people would be able to transact with security. They would be able to share what they want to share, and know they can maintain their privacy until they feel ready to share certain details about their life or condition. To me, that's absolutely key, to remove those worries."
"I believe security and sharing are both key issues in mental health."
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Stephanie's a woman of many facets, and I do know that her husband is quite keen on dishing up some delicious stuff both for his family, friends, or whoever else might just drop by.
As it turns out, Stephanie confessed she does little cooking herself, as kitchen duty is proudly done by her partner. But this light-hearted thread of the conversation led me to find out that while cooking may not be her forte, hospitality certainly is.
"We love opening the house to all our friends," Stephanie said. "You should come and visit too!"
With that invitation gladly accepted, we moved on to a different topic.
On Geeq's consensus protocol
Blockchain protocols work on a basic principle: Validating data through agreement among nodes. This agreement, referred to as consensus, varies from implementation to implementation, but its core idea remains the same.
Stephanie is one of the founding members of The Geeq Project, so she can speak with authority on its consensus protocol.
"The Geeq Project is end-user oriented. One important idea is that incentives are better aligned when end-users actively are able to police the blockchain. When you think about it, end-users have ‘skin in the game’ when it comes to making sure the blockchain is honest. They’re the ones who have to be willing to memorialize their transactions in the blockchain."
"If you, as a regular person or an enterprise user, know there is any possibility the nodes generating consensus may be dishonest, and you have no way of making sure there is a blockchain generated by only honest nodes, then why would you be confident enough to use blockchain?"
"Geeq provides a (user) client interface that enables regular people to see whether a node has been completely honest or not. Then they have the ability to choose to interact only with those nodes and rely on only those nodes’ completely honest ledgers. So it is a completely different approach from any other protocol."
On the relevance of blockchain in today's world
Blockchain tech has become a synonym with evolution and advancement, through cryptocurrencies and many other applications. The importance of this technology cannot be underestimated.
I was curious to hear Stephanie's take on the importance and relevance of blockchain.
"Blockchain is the first step towards making people accountable for what they do with your information. And there are many things that can follow from that."
"For example, if there's accountability, you encourage good behavior and innovation toward new ways to create value. So instead of simply taking your information and capturing you, because they know every single thing about you, etc., you can ask ‘what can you do for me?’"
Stephanie's parents were born in China, but she is a first generation American, born in upstate New York. This raises interesting questions about her family background and ancestry, so I was keen to know more.
Stephanie has been to China once, and this experience was revelatory in many ways. The tale goes thus.
"My mother’s parents brought their young children with them to the United States, because my grandfather had been invited to do research here for one year. They never expected to stay permanently. Then there was a civil war in China and they did not go back. In a similar twist of fate, my dad had always assumed he would attend university in China. Those plans were disrupted at practically the last minute as well, and he ended up coming to school in the United States."
"For many years, no one in my family visited China. There must have been painful memories and issues surrounding these circumstances. In any case, as I was growing up, we didn’t really talk about it. It wasn’t until I had children myself that I decided we all needed to learn more about the Chinese side of my children’s heritage. We took the kids to China for a long trip and managed to travel near where my grandmother grew up. It was an eye-opening experience for us to discover all that had been left behind. It wasn’t until that trip that I really started to appreciate just how hard my parents and grandparents had worked to build a life for all of us in America.."
"The experience definitely gave me a sense of pride, that great things are possible.”
And that's exactly the knowledge I wanted to extract, that feeling of pride in the achievements of one's ancestors. Stephanie was able to take a glimpse on what her family had done and accomplished, from before she even existed, and she was proud to belong to such a lineage.
Personal drivers are perhaps some of the innermost feelings that a person can have. These vary greatly from person to person, of course, hence the diversity of this world.
I wondered about Stephanie's motivators, and she was more than happy to discuss.
"The one true line throughout my entire career is that I always wanted to work for the benefit of people who might not necessarily be able to advocate for themselves."
"For example, I went into disability research as soon as I realized the classical labor economics model, which was being tapped at the time to produce policy recommendations about disability benefits, very likely had assumptions embedded in it (about how people chose to work) that glossed over all the important details about why it is difficult for some people with disabilities to work in the first place. Why would you do that?"
"There is nothing sacred about a classic model except it’s great not to have to reinvent the wheel. That doesn’t mean it will be appropriate to use for the next problem you care about. That’s the way I approach blockchain technology as well. Which parts of blockchain are essential that will work for every occasion? Which parts do you have to be able to adapt to solve different problems?"
"Technology today is developing so quickly. From the inside, it’s easy to get excited about its potential. Those in the know always manage to get their voices heard and they frequently are the ones who get to make all the decisions. On the other hand, I’m acutely aware there are a lot of people who don't know what's going on, but who are going to be very much affected by the decisions that are made now."
"I don't want technology to become something that's only understood by the very few. I’m shooting for the happy mix where experts do the part only experts can do, but transparently, and in the service of providing something that everyone can then figure out how to use for their own benefit."