Omar Syed of Shardeum On How They Are Helping To Promote Financial Inclusion

Authority Magazine Editorial Staff
Authority Magazine
Published in
9 min readJun 12, 2024

Create affordable financial products. Grameen Bank in Bangladesh pioneered microfinance by offering small loans to low-income individuals who were previously deemed too risky by traditional banks. These affordable financial products enabled entrepreneurs to start and grow businesses, thereby improving their economic status and fostering broader financial inclusion.

Most of us take it for granted that we can open a bank or a credit card. But the truth is, according to the World Bank, close to one-third of adults — 1.7 billion — are still unbanked, and have no access to a transaction account. About half of unbanked people include women in poor households in rural areas or out of the workforce. What can be done and what is being done to promote more financial inclusion? To address this Authority Magazine started a new series about Companies Helping To Promote Financial Inclusion. As part of this series I had the pleasure to interview Omar Syed of Shardeum.

Over the past three decades Omar has been involved with helping large organizations such as NASA, Yahoo, and Zynga build scalable, fault tolerant, distributed systems for mission critical applications. In early 2016 he started Unblocked Inc., a blockchain consultancy company. In 2017 he organized the Shardus project to build a linearly scalable blockchain. Omar holds a B.S. and M.S. from Case Western Reserve University with specialization in Artificial Intelligence. Omar’s long term vision is a world where everyone receives an unconditional basic income based on a stable cryptocurrency so that poverty and hunger are eliminated.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Sure, I was originally born in India and my family immigrated to the US in the 1970s. I grew up in Lakewood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. My father was a mechanical engineer in the US Coast Guard and my mother had the harder job of being a homemaker. Growing up I always wanted to be an architect and design beautiful homes, but in 11th grade I took a computer class in high school and was immediately hooked. I found it quite amazing to be able to specify what I wanted done and seeing it being carried out a million times faster than any human could. I soon convinced my parents to get me a Commodore 64, but we didn’t get any software with it. So I ended up writing my own game programs, a word processor and even a printer driver. Of course, when I went to college I majored in computer engineering. I still find it quite fascinating how many of the significant improvements in our world are driven by faster computers and more advanced software.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Back in 2008 I got interested in understanding how money works after Ron Paul, who was running for president, would often talk about returning to a “sound money” system in his speeches. During that time I read several books on the history of money. I was astonished to learn that for many centuries on every continent people used cowrie shells as money. This meant that there was no central issuer of money and anyone could participate in the economy by just going to the beach and collecting cowrie shells.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

When I was about 10 years old, my family visited the NASA space center in Cleveland. At the entrance there was a slogan that said “For the benefit of all mankind”. It really struck a chord with me and I thought, “wow these people are really doing some nobel work”. I never would have guessed that 13 years later I would be working at NASA. Later when I started my first company, our slogan was “Working to make the world a better place for everyone”, which of course was inspired by NASA.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I would say it is one’s ability to guide, influence and inspire others so that as a team they are able to achieve things which are seemingly impossible. Some leaders I admire from the past are prophet Mohammad and Mahatma Gandhi. From our times, it would be Elon Musk. What they all share in common are the seemingly impossible challenges they faced and the impact they had which could not be done as an individual, but only through their great leadership abilities.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I invented a game called Arimaa that is playable with a chess set and designed to be difficult for computers so humans would still be dominant. In 2004 I organized the first Arimaa challenge match between the best program and human. Around that time I read about a new company called SpaceX and the challenge they were taking on of sending humans to Mars. Out of the blue, I decided to contact Elon to tell him about Arimaa and to see if he would sponsor the Arimaa challenge. I was shocked when he immediately sent me $500 from his PayPal account and told me that he used to play chess, but stopped when he realized that computers would surpass humans.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with a basic definition so that all of our readers are on the same page. What exactly is Financial Inclusion?

Financial inclusion means ensuring everyone has access to the tools and services they need for their well-being. In web3, this means empowering users to decentralized tools that put them in control of their data and finances.

It means that everyone regardless of their socio-economic status is able to participate in the financial system and have equal access to economic opportunities.The recent growth of web3 has empowered users with decentralized services that give them access to a global scale financial system with unbounded opportunities.

What does it mean to be “unbanked”?

Unbanked, in simple words, is not having access to a bank or financial institution to securely hold and manage your financial assets. Web3 and decentralized finance will provide users tools and services for the economic empowerment that cannot be infringed on or impacted by centralized institutions that can mismanage or devalue their assets.

For the benefit of our readers, can you explain some of the typical reasons why a person might be unbanked? Why can’t they just walk into the local bank and open an account? Why can’t they simply open an account online?

Being unbanked or underbanked can be a function of many factors. Barriers to financial services and tools do not just impact those who are not well off. People globally may not be able to access affordable remittance services to send finances to their loved ones in foreign jurisdictions, or are having their savings eroded by inflation in their home jurisdiction. From this perspective, financial inclusion and supporting access to decentralized finance is about providing financial services and tools that actually work for users.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your work to promote Financial Inclusion? Without saying names, can you share a story about a person who was helped by your initiative?

I am currently working on the Shardeum project which is a smart contract platform that incorporates sharding technology to achieve high transaction throughput as just one of its many benefits. One of the goals of Shardeum is to achieve sustainably low transaction fees so that users in emerging economies can have affordable access to decentralized financial services. We hope that once Shardeum is launched it will promote financial inclusion for millions of people around the world. Even though Shardeum has not launched yet, our project has been running community meetups in India and Nigeria to educate users on setting up wallets and interacting with decentralized services. Many individuals have been introduced to the world of web3 through our efforts.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for businesses to promote financial inclusion?

I think people view a poverty-free world and universal basic income as far-fetched dreams, when in reality society has all the tools to make those dreams a reality. I think this starts with companies promoting financial inclusion and educating individuals about their options, where they can start, and how to operate the plethora of financial tools available. Essentially, businesses have the ability to meet individuals where they are on their financial journey, and guide them in the best direction. Excluding entire populations from accessing your tools not only leaves a large portion of our society at a significant disadvantage, but, from a staunch business perspective, limits a company’s audience base. On a personal fundamental level, it’s our civic duty to help lift up others and provide them the proper tools to thrive in today’s world.

You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps Businesses Should Take To Promote Financial Inclusion”?

  1. Make it easier for users to open accounts. A leading mobile network operator in Kenya, Safaricom, revolutionized financial inclusion with its M-Pesa service. By allowing customers to open accounts using their mobile phones with minimal documentation, it provided a practical solution for millions who lacked traditional banking access.
  2. Invest in financial literacy programs. Shardeum has implemented financial education programs in various underserved communities. By conducting workshops and partnering with local organizations, These programs empower people with the knowledge to make informed financial decisions.
  3. Leverage technology to reach rural communities. India’s Aadhaar-enabled payment system uses biometric identification to enable banking transactions, even in remote areas. Banks partnered with the government to integrate this technology, allowing people to access banking services through local agents. This approach helped bridge the geographical divide and brought financial services to millions of rural residents.
  4. Create affordable financial products. Grameen Bank in Bangladesh pioneered microfinance by offering small loans to low-income individuals who were previously deemed too risky by traditional banks. These affordable financial products enabled entrepreneurs to start and grow businesses, thereby improving their economic status and fostering broader financial inclusion.
  5. Form strategic partnerships. Mastercard’s collaboration with the United Nations World Food Programme illustrates the power of partnerships. By providing prepaid cards to refugees, this initiative facilitated access to financial services and digital payments, promoting financial inclusion among some of the most vulnerable populations. Businesses should consider how they can partner with non-profit organizations and NGOs to offer some of their services to underserved individuals in their communities.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

It would be a blockchain based currency that incorporates UBI and demurrage (currency tax). In a world where national currencies are constantly inflating and eroding peoples savings and a future where AI will replace most jobs, I believe a currency with UBI and taxation built into it will be inevitable. I’ve written some papers on this topic and presented the idea at the North American Basic Income Guarantee conference. My guess is that CBDCs will incorporate some of these features.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Yes, I would love to meet with Ron Paul, Andrew Yang or Michael Maloney, since they influenced my thinking about how money works and the importance of financial inclusion.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can learn more about our work at Shardeum at https://shardeum.org/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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