Maggie grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago and studied at Northwestern University. She grew up dancing, singing, and doing musical theater. She always loved storytelling, and today she has made a career out of storytelling with blockchain technology. By saying yes to everything, trying new jobs, and working hard, Maggie moved her way up at IBM, and then transitioned to the startup world. At Consensys, she is working on a small startup, Cellarius, which is creating a storytelling platform for artists and writers with blockchain technology. She wants to empower women and artists globally to share their stories with the less barriers to entry than traditional media.
Maggie what did you study at Northwestern and did it relate to your career now?
No, I changed my mind while at Northwestern. I always enjoyed storytelling so I started at the Medill School of Journalism. I thought it would be a fun to find data and present it to the world in a compelling format. During my freshman year, I had a teacher who said you have to be one person at work (to get certain hard hitting stories) and one person at home, which didn’t sit well with me. Having this in the back of my mind, plus my first year courses, and some reflection on the business internship I had done the summer prior to college, made me realize journalism wasn’t a career I wanted to wake up and do every day.
After my sophomore year, I did an internship in brand management at Abbott Nutrition International for the PediaSure brand and was the company’s first undergrad hire (it normally only hired MBA interns). That summer I worked with Brand Managers from all over the world and learned how a brand’s story was essential to maintaining an international identity. I realized that beyond a good product, its story and people’s emotional connection to it is a part of building, innovating, and growing a sustainable business.
What was your first job after college?
I had never heard of consulting and finance before college, but I felt like it was what everyone did at Northwestern. I ended up interviewing with IBM, it went well, and the travel sounded exciting so I became a consultant. As a consultant, I also took on a lot of extra work with business sector leads and sales teams. My typical week was working extremely late hours at the client site and on all day Friday and Saturday with local Chicago leaders. It is kind of crazy to work many Saturdays, but I wanted to provide the most value to IBM, my clients, and team. Within a year and a half, I was a lead on a project and gained a lot of responsibilities. This was not the norm for someone my level, but I said yes to everything and not everyone does that, and it is why I moved up so quickly. Yet, working these hours and traveling every week started taking a toll on me both mentally and physically so I decided to make a change.
I moved into IBM Watson to do strategy for a portfolio of brand new products, which became IBM Watson Financial Services. Our team was labeled as a “startup within IBM,” which honestly meant we had to figure out how to get things done in ways they hadn’t before. When I first started, I was both nervous and thrilled to be working on a new business with a new role and new problems to solve. I ended up doing everything from market research, to product management, to design thinking, to marketing, to presentations for C-level executives, to sales, and more. I had to be a catch-all, and I really enjoyed wearing these multiple hats. I also worked on a larger financial services strategy initiatives, which is how I learned about the industry I am in now — blockchain. One day during a meeting, a person in the room kept bringing up how exciting the tech was so I figured I should learn more and started reading The Blockchain Revolution.
Tell us about your transition into working with blockchain?
About halfway through the book, I was hooked on the vision and impact of blockchain. Although I didn’t understand all of the technical aspects right away, I understood it promoted financial inclusion, privacy and data ownership, and peer to peer value exchange. I “fell down the rabbit hole” as blockchain people like to say. Although I was still working in Watson, I started building a Blockchain for Financial Markets strategy presentation at night (which ended up being presented to the GM of Blockchain). All of this work was once again becoming unsustainable, and for many reasons, I determined the corporate world was no longer for me. Plus, I knew the time to join the blockchain movement was now so I got my resume ready and started interviewing again. I ended up finding someone on LinkedIn who worked at ConsenSys, a group of blockchain startups out in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. We met for coffee, and a few interviews later, I got a job doing strategy work. Excited? Absolutely, I had that “get into your number one college of choice feeling” all over again.
Starting at 200ish person company that was a decentralized, non hierarchical organization was and still is the complete opposite of the very large, corporate, hierarchical organization of IBM, and I totally embraced the flat culture and autonomy. At Consensys we build infrastructure, applications, and best practices on blockchain that will create value for and empower more people that aren’t benefiting from current societal and financial structures. Joseph Lubin, who also co-founded the Ethereum blockchain, runs it as a venture production studio that incubates a lot of smaller projects covering use cases such as identity, music rights, energy markets, supply chain, real estate, and science fiction storytelling. Yes, science fiction storytelling is a blockchain use case, and that’s the project I currently work on. It’s called Cellarius.
Can you explain what blockchain is and how it can be used to empower individuals?
The blockchain is a distributed ledger that records transactions happening on a peer to peer network. This probably sounds like tech jargon so let’s turn that jargon into something you know about today. Think about Google Sheets (a sheet = ledger). You open the Google Sheet, invite multiple people to it, and everyone can work on it at the same time. Every time a person updates the sheet, people see the new these updates in real time in matter where they are in the world. The blockchain is like a global spreadsheet that updates in real time with people’s transactions and everyone on the network sees these updates. However, instead of this Google Sheet being owned by Google, each person owns a copy of the sheet. On a blockchain network, since everyone has a copy of the data, it is not erasable or hackable.
This peer to peer, distributed ledger that is shared by everyone is what allows me to send a bitcoin to my friend Ariana without it having to go through a bank or intermediary because the network validates the transaction–not the bank. Blockchain is a new system of record keeping as well as collaboration and sharing resources with a network of participants instead of all of this being controlled by one entity.
How are you applying Blockchain technology to storytelling with Cellarius?
We’re trying to rethink these outdated, limiting models for making art and telling stories with blockchain. Cellarius is a community driven and highly collaborative science fiction story. Written works, art, and other media explore the relationships between AI, humans, and the full spectrum of technology in between. We’re asking creatives of all levels and mediums to contribute to the Cellarius story to tell whatever stories they want to share about the future. The blockchain allows Cellarius to be an open platform that enables peer-to-peer, decentralized, content creation. Right now, we are in accepting applications for our alpha and getting feedback from potential users to build a better product. So if you like futuristic storytelling, art, fiction, fashion, music, etc., we want you to be part of the community, whether you create or a consumer.
Plus, we are releasing our first anthology of 13 science fiction stories on December 11, 2018. It’s titled Whose Future Is It? This series of shorts will hopefully delight many readers and show people the possibilities of stories they could create on the platform.
To learn more about our plans and check out some of our content:
How does this platform allow more freedom for storytelling?
We believe that science fiction is for everyone, and we regard that idea as a challenge as well as a guiding principle. When we think of science fiction, many think of Terminator, Blade Runner and other dystopian stories as the status quo, but there’s a lot of other positive science fiction stories out there, and we want to be a place for positive futuristic outlooks. As a woman, I also think a lot about how women are portrayed in media, how many female creatives are empowered in their workplace and as freelancers, and how many females are the leaders of current media companies. It’s sort of crazy that even though Mary Shelley is known as the mother of science fiction, this list only has a few ranked for Greatest Science Fiction Writers.
What is really compelling about this platform is how it can usher in a truly diverse set of stories since it’s a global open platform, and the content curation process is not in the hands of a few people within big publishing houses and Hollywood. We are hoping to be a platform that is accessible and rich in diverse stories, styles, and perspectives.
What advice would you give to young adults trying to find a job that includes their passions?
It is important to realize when you get bored or are feeling stuck in a rut and use that information to catalyze you to do something different. This doesn’t mean quit when you are bored, but if you are not happy with your situation, it’s time to think about the next step. Figure out what you want to be learning, write your goals down, make an action plan, send out emails, search the Internet, and don’t be afraid to make phone calls. You have to put in the work to find something new–at least for me, it just didn’t happen. A lot of it is hustling. I was working a full-time job, doing blockchain stuff at night, and interviewing for new jobs. If you want to make a change, you can. Everyone has their own level of comfort with changes though so it’s also important to take the time you need to make a change that is right for you.
I would say until I found blockchain, work was just work, and although challenging and sometimes exciting, it didn’t inspire me as much as I am now. I want other women to know that sometimes it takes a couple of role or job changes and a bit longer to find out what will excites you. That’s what I think your 20s and even 30s is about. It can have a lot of ups and downs, twists and turns, but keep asking yourself, what will make me happy, and how do I get there? By changing things up, even if the next job isn’t still spot on, you find continue to learn about what does and doesn’t work for you.
Are you interested in women’s empowerment in the technology industry?
Yes! I am incredibly interested in women’s empowerment. Blockchain is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and it’s like we’re at the early days of the Internet. Therefore, now, is the time to get involved if you want to shape the future of how we will connect, coordinate, and exchange value. Being a woman in this space, I use my voice to remind the blockchain community that we cannot just talk about diversity and inclusion, that we need to include, welcome, and build applications with them. I also mentor a few women at ConsenSys and always make time for anyone that wants to talk with me. I want to make sure everyone can approach me.
Specifically, day to day, I give advice to women about how to negotiate, how to handle work life balance, how to handle difficult interpersonal situations that may come up as well as just be a cheerleader for all of them. We need more cheerleaders for each other!
What does it mean for you to be powerful?
I have been thinking about this a lot. I think it means having confidence in yourself, in your abilities, in your decision making, and in the value that you can provide to a job / team / project, and using that confidence to empower others around you. When I say confidence, I don’t mean that you have to be the loudest person in the room. I actually think quite the opposite. The workplace can bring up many difficult situations with people getting upset and trying to goad you into yelling, raising your voice, or reacting, but a quiet confidence doesn’t fall for these situations and as Michelle Obama says, “when they go low, we go high.” It can be very tough, and I actively check in with my emotions and physical when I am in intense situations. Power is also not compromising your values and ethics in challenging or trying times. My Leadership and Ethics Professor from Northwestern said “I didn’t teach you to do the easy thing, I taught you to do the right thing”– that’s powerful. I think you should never sacrifice who you are, your integrity, or doing the right thing to do what is easy. Power is kindness and using both (confidence and kindness) to actively lift up people with you — it’s not a competition, we’re stronger together. Instead of having one woman at the top, I want more women to be empowered. I always think, women wouldn’t have to “lean in” if there were more of us at the table.
Blockchain is a new way of looking at the world, and it could create a shift in society. As technologists, creatives, and powerful women, we should work to ensure all humans are thought of inclusively as technology progresses and moves forward. A technological change as big as this is also bound to affect the humans working within the space, and we need to make sure the humans are cared for as much as the tech. I want to be that person that’s there for others and helps people feel empowered to be happy and thriving, without feeling like you have to do something unethical.
Beyond storytelling and bitcoin, how do you see blockchain empowering people?
It will empower people around the world, whether it is making real estate investments more accessible or being able to leave the middleman out in financial transactions. Understanding this technology and working with blockchain is a challenging environment, but I look forward to the challenges. For many systemic and other reasons, women have not been included lot of shaping technology and science, but we can make sure to involve more women in this new decentralized world. I am here to make sure women have a voice in influencing it.