A blockchain CEO was told women can't make it as leaders. She now has millions in funding

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A blockchain CEO was told women can't make it as leaders. She now has millions in funding

During her MBA studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Hope Liu refused to join the Women in Management club.

The former UBS executive and current chief executive of a blockchain company had been working in finance for six years prior to her MBA program, and did not feel the need to join a society dedicated to increasing opportunities for women in business.

"I felt that, as a woman, I didn't want to be treated specially. I wanted to get the same opportunities as other guys," she said.

Liu did get plenty of opportunities. She received $20 million in funding for her start-up, Eximchain, which says it is building a public and scalable blockchain that ensures privacy for businesses. The technology would allow the proof of a transaction to be made public, but the details would only be seen between the buyer and seller.

Despite her experience at MIT, Liu's time traveling the world to pitch her start-up idea prompted her to recognize the need to advocate for gender issues: She was frequently questioned about her ability to lead because of her gender, she said.

One influential man told her male employee — in front of her — that she would "never be able to make it" because she is female, she recounted.

The lack of gender diversity is particularly problematic in the blockchain space, she said. At a blockchain conference she attended in Japan last week, just two speakers in a group of 42 were female, she told CNBC.

That experience is not unique to Asia. An article in The New York Times this year looked at "blockchain bros," highlighting the significant gender disparity in the industry in the United States.

Blockchain technology is seen as having tremendous potential for the economy and society, and applications can attract significant investments.

Women, however, are not reaping the benefits of the potentially disruptive technology. Some studies estimate that women reportedly make up just between 4 and 6 percent of workers in the blockchain space.

Building communities

Yuree Hong, a marketer specializing in blockchain based in Singapore, is determined to change that.

Her blockchain community, S/HE Blockchainers Asia, invites only female speakers, but opens its doors to everyone.

While many blockchain events draw few women, at least 30 to 40 percent of the attendees at Hong's events are female, she said. Hong explained that having female speakers encouraged women to participate.

Hong told CNBC she began to study blockchain technology more deeply last year, attending seminars and events where she frequently found herself the only female, or, at best, one of a handful in events of about a hundred people.

She tried to look for communities with better gender ratios, and, when she couldn't find any, she decided to start her own in Singapore last year.

After about six months, the group has more than 500 members and has hosted events in Singapore, Seoul and Ho Chi Minh City.

Hong wants to challenge the perception that there are few qualified women in the blockchain space. In fact, when she first told people she would only invite female speakers, "people told me it is going to be difficult."

She was pleasantly surprised to find it was "not difficult at all," Hong said, and she has invited women from a variety of roles in the blockchain space — including Liu.

Blockchain conference and community organizers are taking note of the gender imbalance.

Last week, Singapore-based blockchain conference De/Centralize, which had been criticized for having only a few female speakers on its roster, partnered with Hong's S/HE Blockchainers Asia and offered discounts to her community.

Kenneth Bok, a De/Centralize organizer, told CNBC via email that the conference had found it challenging to get female blockchain experts for the conference. He said the goal was to have female speakers make up a third of the roster next year.