In pursuit of ethical cryptocurrency

As a lawyer for Yahoo in 2007, Denelle Dixon watched as her company came under close scrutiny for its mishandling of users’ personal information. Watching Congress grill her bosses left a deep impression on her that “you have to really be thoughtful before you take steps to unleash new technology on the world.”

This month, it was Dixon’s turn to testify before Congress about perhaps the biggest lightning rod for criticism in all of tech: cryptocurrency.

As CEO of San Francisco’s nonprofit Stellar Development Foundation, Dixon has emerged as one of the leading public advocates for a greener, more ethical and approachable cryptocurrency industry, which is taking shape now in The City.

In very simple terms, blockchain is a way of recording information that is nearly impossible to hack or change. Blocks of coded information are added to form a permanent, chronological record that different parties can use. Cryptocurrency is digital money that is tracked via a blockchain, which records transactions in a shared ledger. Bitcoin was the first and the biggest cryptocurrency, using blockchain that is created using difficult math puzzles that require a lot of computer power and electricity. Other cryptocurrencies such as Stellar, the cryptocurrency Dixon’s foundation supports, don’t require as much electricity.

The world is on a learning curve about the whole thing right now. Public perception of cryptocurrency is changing before our eyes. A VISA survey last year found that while a quarter (27%) of Americans own cryptocurrency, two-thirds (64%) are either curious (12%), skeptical (8%) or unengaged (44%).

The jury of public opinion is making up its mind, and Dixon is making her case to Congress, the International Monetary Fund and on the blog of the World Economic Forum.

Digital currencies have become a punching bag of tech, with a Cambridge University study finding Bitcoin consumes more energy than Argentina, and a well-known San Francisco tech figure flaming the entire industry on Twitter recently.

But Dixon may be the diametric opposite of the “planet-incinerating Ponzi grifters” that Jamie Zawinski, the founder of Mozilla and proprietor of the DNA Lounge nightclub in SoMa, roasted Jan. 3 on Twitter.

She’s an idealist. As an 8-year-old growing up in Gilroy, she dreamed of becoming the first member of her family to go to college so she could become a lawyer and fight domestic violence. She has grown up to be an interesting blend of lawyer, techie and nonprofit leader.

Dixon and her partner, Harvey Anderson, the chief legal officer at HP, formerly known as Hewlett Packard, have been at home in Oakland with five boys in the house for the past two years. When she needs a break from work and all that togetherness, she goes for a run or reads. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald are favorites.

But if you want to see Dixon get excited, ask her about cryptocurrency’s ability to help refugees get resources, or for immigrants to send money home. That’s when large eyes widen beneath her thick mane of light blonde hair. International money transfers for ordinary people are a focus of her foundation, and deeply meaningful to her.

That’s not usually how people think of cryptocurrency. Popular opinion is that the industry is “people who already have lots of money making lots more money,” Dixon says. Much of that may stem from the first impressions made by Bitcoin, the Facebook of cryptocurrency, which blazed trails and burned through resources. Bitcoin “miners” use huge amounts of electricity on computations, but other cryptocurrencies use different methods. Stellar’s process, based on agreements between developers, uses far less energy.

Dixon is charitable toward the early forerunner of cryptocurrency. “Bitcoin was the early days. It brought everything together,” Dixon says.

Now, as cryptocurrency matures, it must evolve, she says. “As an industry grows, it’s incumbent for you to change it.”

She is working hard for that change. The 105-employee Stellar Development Foundation, based in Hayes Valley, supports developers and users of the environmentally friendly Stellar cryptocurrency. The foundation helps with tech, business and community assistance, and the public advocacy that is Dixon’s passion.

That work has been happening away from foundation’s offices in San Francisco, Brooklyn and Austin for the most part for the past two years. Dixon misses her team. “We used to have lunch together every day,” she says, a bit wistfully.

And the foundation needs her, says Jed McCaleb, who hired her. McCaleb, a co-founder of both the foundation and the San Francisco blockbuster cryptocurrency Ripple, says, “I started looking for a CEO almost two years before Denelle joined SDF. I spoke with a number of people about the role, but couldn’t find the right fit until I met Denelle and we really hit it off. As an organization, we needed to grow and mature to take Stellar to the next level and I thought that Denelle was the leader to do that. And if you look at the organization today and how far it’s come, there’s no question that was the right call.”

She is also a leader of The City’s cryptocurrency scene, advocating for a new focus and perception of cryptocurrency. Crypto startups in The City, including Chia, NEAR, and MobileCoin, have created environmentally friendly cryptocurrency with a focus on company values. Those companies want nothing to do with cryptocurrency’s bad reputation.

“Crypto bros annoy the hell out of me,” MobileCoin’s CEO Joshua Goldbard told The Examiner, of the churn-and-burn day traders scrambling for profits and haughty developers who preach about the future of money. Also a Bay Area native, Goldbard says his company’s environmental priorities are a selling point in the politically aware Bay Area. “The fact that we’re green is one of the signature reasons people want to work with us.”

Asked if she thinks San Francisco can give cryptocurrency a more ethical direction, Dixon says, “ I think so. I’d like to help make it a hub of crypto for good.”

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