Leadership

IBM's blockchain team is led by women. Here's why that's a big deal for Silicon Valley

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In the male-dominated world of cryptocurrency, IBM is going against the grain. The company's 1,500 member blockchain team is led by Bridget van Kralingen, senior vice president of global industries, platforms and blockchain. Meanwhile, the actual blockchain development was led by IBM Fellow Donna Dillenberger.

With the tremendous surge in bitcoin's popularity over the last year, blockchain, which is the platform behind bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, has received renewed interest among large corporations and smaller entrepreneurs looking to cash in on the digital gold rush. IBM is one of a long list of companies that have now built their own blockchain platform.

However, the company's predominantly female leadership lies in stark contrast to other blockchain start-ups, which are overwhelmingly run by men. It also makes the company an anomaly within a fintech industry that remains heavily male-dominated. However, van Kralingen, who joined the company in 2004, notes that promoting women to leadership positions isn't a new trend at IBM. The company's CEO, Ginni Rometty, is the most visible example.

President and CEO of IBM Ginni Rometty
Joshua Roberts | Reuters
President and CEO of IBM Ginni Rometty

Dillenberger agrees. "I've worked with extremely, and many, gifted technical and creative women," she tells CNBC Make It. "We were just having a design meeting this morning with our female lead for security in blockchain and she is brilliant."

Dillenberger was tapped as the company's lead blockchain engineer when she became an IBM Fellow in 2015, which is the highest technical honor at the company. Out of 370,000 IBM employees, she is currently one of just 99 Fellows. In IBM's nearly 107-year history, there have only been 289 Fellows, five of whom are Nobel Prize winners.

How IBM hires

Van Kralingen says IBM was "intentional" in choosing who would spearhead the blockchain platform development. The company focused on skills-based hiring because leaders realized early on that it would take a diverse group of talent to make IBM an undisputed leader in blockchain technology.

"[By focusing on skills] we've been able to get a really extremely high-caliber, smart, capable, energized team," van Kralingen tells CNBC Make It. The company's blockchain platform has received various accolades and was ranked as the No. 1 blockchain industry leader.

Dillenberger notes that blockchain has many uses outside of cryptocurrency and she highlights food safety as an example. Using a cellphone, a farmer can scan the exact moment a food is planted, harvested, packaged and distributed, onto the blockchain platform. This comes in handy when there's a food recall because a company can quickly pinpoint where things went wrong. This leads to greater transparency and trust among businesses and consumers, explains Dillenberger.

In fact, it's this social justice aspect that makes blockchain development so appealing to her. Dillenberger points to the 2008 Chinese milk scandal, in which six infants died because plastic was added to baby formulas and milk. She says that tracking food production through blockchain would help companies and the public avoid these types of scenarios.

"I'm an IBM Fellow," she adds. "I'm expected to push the boundaries of the frontiers of science and math and technology."

Lack of women in blockchain

However, most women are not given this opportunity. An analysis of the top 50 blockchain companies found that just 16 percent are founded by and/or led by women.

The reasons behind the gender disparity are varied, but women overwhelmingly point to a "blockchain bro" culture that caters exclusively to men. In January, the North American Bitcoin Conference featured 84 male speakers and three women, while the post-conference networking party was held at a Miami strip club. And this isn't a one-off, according to Tavonia Evans, creator of a token coin built on ethereum blockchain technology called $Guap.

Evans tells CNBC Make It that this blockchain bro culture further alienates women in tech and admits that she's skipped blockchain conferences due to a lack of female representation

"There's a level of intimidation in getting into this space," says Evans. "Women like myself have to work harder to create an entryway to get in."

Why diverse leadership is so crucial

Since blockchain is still a relatively new technology, it gives businesses the opportunity to diversify their rankings from the beginning. Frans Johansson, diversity expert and author of the "Medici Effect," notes that this is a crucial step if a company wants to be innovative.

"You're at a competitive disadvantage if you're not diverse," he tells CNBC Make It. "So those that push for it early on will succeed much more quickly." IBM has had a long history of innovation, he says, due to its longstanding diversity efforts that stem back to the '90s. "Diverse teams can make things happen faster and with less resources," adds Johansson.

The 'bro' culture is changing

Although various reports highlight this gender imbalance in blockchain, Dillenberger notes that she has personally never experienced a blockchain bro culture. However, she says that she was lucky enough to have parents who fostered a love for STEM at a young age and to have worked with "powerful" women in the tech industry.

"My first mentor, my first leader at IBM, was a female and she was gifted," recalls Dillenberger. "My second was a leader that everyone looked up to, not just females."

IBM's senior vice president of blockchain says as much. Though there is still much more work that needs to be done within the tech space, van Kralingen says that the blockchain's gender divide has narrowed. At J.P. Morgan Chase, the bank's blockchain development team is led by Amber Baldet and at Accenture, Iliana Oris Valiente leads the consulting firm's global blockchain innovation division.

Van Kralingen adds that she strongly believes the appointment of women to leadership roles will continue as more and more women become pioneers in the blockchain industry. "I'm very, very confident of that," she says.

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