Sheila Warren is the head of Blockchain, Data and Digital Assets at the World Economic Forum. She’s also the co-host of CoinDesk’s Money Reimagined podcast. Over the years, she has had a fulfilling professional life, teeming with a rich diversity of experiences, including being a Wall Street lawyer, a product builder and even engaging in philanthropy. She skillfully integrates all these different areas of expertise in her day to day life.
Being the head of a team that is made up of 95% women, she holds the message of women empowerment close to her heart. Having worked hard to get to such an important position in an industry that is traditionally seen as being male-dominated, she actively tries to create more opportunities for women. She envisions a world where every individual will have equal accessibility for all the roles and positions that they are qualified for.
In her conversation with The Voice Of Woman, she has shared many inspiring words to encourage women all across the world.
You were a Wall Street lawyer, what made you change over to philanthropy and NonProfit tech?
I began my career as a Wall Street lawyer, but I was always fascinated by philanthropy and the notion of giving back to my community. Before my Wall Street experience, I didn’t have any other corporate experience. I had worked in non-profits, domestic violence shelters, museums and I had been a lifelong volunteer.
So, changing over to philanthropy and NonProfit tech was a very natural transition for me. My years on Wall Street as an attorney taught me quite a bit about how a big business operates and that’s the knowledge that I have taken with me throughout my entire career.
Finance and Tech are traditionally seen as a man’s domain. As a woman, were there any challenges that you had to face?
Now, Wall Street law, finance and tech are often seen as men’s domains or as being very male-dominated. As a woman and a young lawyer, I certainly faced challenges in being taken seriously, by clients and superiors, and also in finding my voice. In developing the confidence to battle things like imposter syndrome and to really reflect upon my expertise and the skills I brought to every situation.
When I unlocked that expertise and confidence, it enabled me to be a better advocate for my clients, as a lawyer and after leaving the law, an advocate for those who I feel I need to be a voice for around the world, including my current position.
As a member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum, what are some of the significant changes that you have noticed in the position of women in developing countries?
At the World Economic Forum, I spent a lot of time in the global environment. I worked with leaders from countries all around the world, from some of the strongest economies to emerging economies. Over the time that I have been a professional, for over 20 years now, I have seen significant changes in the positioning of emerging economies. And women, in those developing countries or emerging economies, as well.
I think that part of this is led by technology. In the notion that if you have access to the internet and the will to learn, you can learn how to do things like code. There’s a growing awareness about the importance of developing these kinds of skills. And they are often accessible, including to women in places where they can’t get a traditional education.
I have friends in war-torn countries, who have developed coding schools, specifically designed to enable women and girls to earn a livelihood. And those skills are transferable all over the world! So from your kitchen table, in an emerging economy, you can be working with a distributed team, halfway around the world, many, many, many miles away!
There is a power and an acceleration to the connectivity that a lot of us are experiencing and that is ever-increasing. That means that what affects one of us, affects all of us. That also means that we can empower citizens far away from our current geography, in ways we never could 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago.
How do you envision the impact of blockchain in the future?
It’s probably not surprising that, as head of Blockchain Digital Assets, I am quite bullish on blockchain and it’s future impact. I do think that blockchain is something that will soon become ubiquitous.
Over the next decade or so, I think the many systems that today hook and decentralize tech stacks or systems will actually have a connection into a blockchain.
But I also think that we will stop talking about blockchains, in the world and society. It will be taken for granted as almost an invisible layer of technology that enables us to connect more powerfully with each other. I think we will see a fundamental shift in intermediaries or middle-men and the business models around such businesses that a blockchain will support.
Although it won’t be the only reason we see some of those systems begin to change. This pandemic has highlighted the inequity in society, one that we were all aware of and can no longer ignore. The virus has shown us that if any of us are vulnerable and ill, that can spread very quickly to all parts of the population. And truly, no one is immune and no one can escape.
Digital currency has taken over the world, which has exposed us to malpractices and data theft. How can we protect ourselves?
Digital currency is something I feel very positively and strongly about. There is a perception that cryptocurrency specifically, and I’ll specifically say Bitcoin, is a danger to society and is used by criminals to conduct illicit activities. And while that’s true, it’s a very small piece of the overall picture.
What cryptocurrencies can do is enable peer-to-peer engagement around money. Just like the internet enabled us to share content very quickly, to people all over the world seamlessly, at a fractional cost, the same thing can be true of money. And you can imagine a world in which we could engage in a direct, seamless transaction with any individual who has a digital wallet, anywhere, at any point in time and what that might empower.
Something I am excited about is the concept of micropayment. Right now it’s inefficient to send pennies, in the United States currency, to anyone. But imagine if you could do that for free. Those pennies could quickly add up. As I always tell my daughter, if you put the pennies in your piggy bank, someday you’ll have a dollar and that dollar can grow into more and more.
I think digital currency will change the way we think about intergenerational wealth transfers. Those who are entering the job market today have very different opportunities that I had when I first entered the job market and joined Wall Street. There’s much more uncertainty, anxiety and students coming out of universities are saddled with ever-increasing, sometimes crushing, debt loads.
Digital currency can provide a new investment vehicle for those entering the next phase of their lives, transitioning from being young adults to being householders. We think we’re going to be seeing new ways of harnessing and creating wealth that digital currencies, cryptocurrency and blockchain technology lead and drive.
We are on the verge of an economic crisis. What do you think would be the role of women in reshaping and strengthening the economy?
My view is that women are critical actors in reshaping and strengthening the economy. Part of what this pandemic has unleashed is an economic crisis, that is unprecedented not just in the scope, but the global nature of it. In the past, maybe one country would have a crisis, but we had others in the globe that would support and almost kind-of buffer the downfall. Now, we are faced with a global economic crisis of the kind that we have not seen before in our lifetimes.
Women are the prime drivers of economic decisions in households, regardless of the economy and social status. Women are the primary consumers, they make decisions about education and all these things are universally true. So, as we begin to crawl out of this economic crisis, there is no question that women are going to be critical drivers in helping to grow the economy.
I am concerned about reports that women are beginning to leave the economy in droves. In part, this is because of the lack of childcare options, in certain countries. Here I point to the United States, which is my own experience. When governments don’t support issues such as paid family leave, childcare, universal preschool, etc. women far too often bear the brunt of it.
If women leave the economy, not only are we losing out on their creativity, capacity and what they have built over their careers, but we are also losing role models to the next generation. I think one of the worst things that could happen is that we could be set back about 50 years, to a time when the economy was dominated by men.
That is certainly true for some industries and the top of many other industries, but overall women are gainfully employed throughout the world. This crisis challenges all of that.
You are on the board of the Equal Justice Society. Do you feel women of colour often have minimal access to education and healthcare opportunities?
I think a lot about the access of women of colour, women at lower income levels, disadvantaged women, etc. to education, healthcare and other opportunities. There is no question that as a society we are deeply stratified. There are the haves and the have-nots, as sometimes termed.
Even in this pandemic, the top companies and the top-earners have made magnitudes of more money, while we are seeing other people lose their jobs, healthcare and in some cases, even their homes.
This is an unfair setup for society and is not sustainable. It particularly causes the burden to fall upon single mothers, and within that, single mothers of colour. For the United States, single mothers are predominantly women of colour who are at a lower income level. That is not the case universally, but those are the statistics here. So, for a single mother who is working multiple jobs, or in some cases, even not, losing her job is a very different proposition than a dual-income household.
Part of the work I do, both in my professional role and through board service, is to focus on opportunities here. And one thing I look at very clearly is where can the law be a tool to help enforce equality and where might bias be playing a role.
I look a lot at implicit bias, which is a set of assumptions we all bring to the table, based largely on how we were raised, that enable us to make decisions and create stereotypes. It helps create a quick frame around how we think we are being or not being inclusive.
In the tech industry, we have seen examples of teams consisting of one demographic building products. They simply don’t reflect the realities of most of the world.
We also see this in healthcare, where a lot of medicines, vaccinations and other treatment plans are based on a certain demographic: middle-aged white men. As a woman who is entering a time in my life when healthcare is more of a concern than before, I find this very troubling.
We simply have to take advantage of the data that exists and ensure it factors into things, whether it is customized treatment plans or a more holistic view of our society and how we can equally take care of the members in it.
This is why we say that representation matters, in every sphere. It matters in the political, technology, academic and every sphere you can think of. It is deeply, deeply important to ensure that a diversity of perspectives are always considered.
This is one of the reasons I am so proud and grateful to work at the World Economic Forum. Part of what we do is create multi-stakeholder communities, designed specifically to not favour one voice over another. Our communities are very large, taking a lot of time to build and achieving consensus can be quite challenging.
But we feel that is extraordinarily important to surface tensions that exist, such as between economies, and also bringing together the civil society, the academy, public and private sectors, to think about giant global problems. Because only then can we craft effective solutions.
What according to you is the best way to empower women?
The best way to empower women is to give them the opportunity. At one point, I was asked about how one goes about finding and sourcing more women into positions in technology and my answer, without meaning to be trite, is: just hire them!
There’s no question that women exist, who are qualified for almost every position you could imagine. It’s a matter of how much effort you are putting into finding them and how important that is to you.
In my case, the best candidates who have applied for my open positions have been women and therefore, I simply hired the best candidate. But it is also important for situations where candidates are not applying for whatever reasons, that you ensure that you have proper pipelines to create those opportunities and to make people of colour, lover income-level and those who didn’t graduate from elite institutions aware of the opportunity.
And once they are included on a team, to ensure that you have a culture of inclusion. Are you mentoring these women to ensure that they have success within their role within their new organization? What do you think about promotion, be it in the academy or a business? What is the path you are laying forward for people?
Getting people in the door is not enough. You then have to create an environment where they are comfortable taking risks and making mistakes that they can learn from. It is something I try to do very hard on my team.
Please share a message for young women across the world through The Voice Of Woman.
I would encourage all young women to think big, dream hard and really ensure that you are following their curiosity. I have had a very varied career in my life. I have been a lawyer, product builder, been in philanthropy and I now work in blockchain technology.
If you had asked me at any point in time, the previous three years if I thought I would be doing what I was doing, I didn’t even know what I was doing existed. But what I did was follow my curiosity. Because your curiosity indicates what your passion is and your passion is where you’re going to be willing to put in the hours and hours and hours of sweat and hard work it takes to excel.
So, be true to your curiosity, check-in with yourself and I wish you all the very best!