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Wisdom From The Women Leading The Blockchain Revolution With Liat Aaronson of Horizen Labs

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Do not be afraid to take a space and own it. In our industry, gender does really not hold much relevance even if women are the minority. Your drive, creativity and other abilities are far more pertinent.

As a part of our series about Wisdom From The Women Leading The Blockchain Revolution, I had the pleasure of interviewing Liat Aaronson.

Liat Aaronson is the co-founder and COO of Horizen Labs, a spin-off of Horizen to address the growing blockchain for business market. Before that she served as the COO of Selina Hospitality. She also served as a Partner at Marker LLC, a leading Israel-New York based venture capital firm, and she continues to oversee their follow-on annex fund.

Prior to joining Marker, Liat was the Executive Director of the Zell Entrepreneurship Program at IDC. In the ten years of her leadership, she helped grow and develop an innovative venture creation program that allows undergraduates in their final year of study at IDC to experience entrepreneurship hands-on by taking ideas and developing them into funded startups. Many successful companies — including Gift’s Project, Wibiya, Wibbitz, Bizzabo and Argus — were founded out of the program.

Liat holds a bachelor’s degree in political economy of industrial societies (economics and political science, cum laude) from the University of California at Berkeley, an LL.B. and MBA from Tel Aviv University, and an LL.M. in European law from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands (cum laude). She became a member of the Israel Bar Association in 1999, after completing her internship at Kantor, Elhanani, Tal & Co.

Liat attained practical experience in mergers and acquisitions and new ventures as an associate attorney at Naschitz, Brandes & Co., a position she held until joining IDC Herzliya in 2005. There she helped grow the program and the startups that came out of it. Today she remains involved as chairwoman of Zell and is the director of the ZEP Fund LTD.

Liat is a board member at Rewire, Glide, Duality and the Infinity Pension Funds. She is a board observer at Victorious and is a member of Friends of IDC’s advisory board. Liat is also on the advisory boards of SeedIL, Cockpit Innovation Hub, Taglit Excel Ventures, Ramle Innovation Hub, WiSe, Weizman Institute’s entrepreneurship program and Scola, the 81 Unit entrepreneurship program.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the story of how you decided to pursue this career path? What lessons can others learn from your story?

Being interested in technology has been part and parcel throughout my career, from being a mergers and acquisitions (M&A) attorney to a venture capital investor, an entrepreneur educator and an operator of a high-growth technology firm. I am lucky enough to have been around since the beginnings of the internet and I have always kept tabs on its development, from the hype it garnered in the early 2000s to the emergence of blockchain and Web3 today.

When news about Facebook’s Metaverse came out, I became particularly interested and invested in the future of tech. It was also around that time I met my now-partners and co-founders. From there, my passion became blockchain technology and exploring the potential it has to offer in corporate governance, economics and, broadly, how we manage our lives.

When my now-co-founders offered me the opportunity to take on the operations role of our company focused on blockchain infrastructure, it was a no-brainer. I was so captivated by the possibilities this technology offers and the vision of our CEO. Without question, I jumped off the cliff into the unknown and happily embarked on this exciting journey with Horizen Labs.

Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

One of the most interesting projects we’re working on right now at Horizen Labs is our zero-knowledge ethereum virtual machines (EVM). I think it is very exciting because not only does it lend itself to the accessibility of what Ethereum has been able to build, it also showcases the scalability and the privacy-enabling functions of what Horizen and Horizen Labs are known for.

We also have some exciting token launches coming up. I cannot disclose most of the details yet, although this is definitely something to keep an eye on. In addition to using our software development kit (SDK), we are exploring so many exciting use cases.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve had a lot of help from a lot of people. If I can choose only one, it’s my life partner and my best friend — my husband. We’ve been together for more than 30 years and he always has my back. He has been my biggest enabler when it comes to my success. It’s worth noting he and I willingly compromised on a lot of things to allow each other to succeed, both individually and as a team.

What are the 3 things that most excite you about blockchain and crypto? Why?

Crypto, principally, is definitely the most incredible and interesting use case for blockchain. It is simply astounding, from its potential as an alternative to government-run currency to how enthusiastically the public is experimenting on its possibilities. I, personally, eagerly anticipate the results of these experiments.

However, I am much more passionate about what blockchain can do in the long run as a platform for other interesting innovations, like decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs). DAO is a decentralized ledger technology, like a shared spreadsheet, where there are definitive rules on how you upload information. Removing information is not possible. DAO will be a gamechanger when it is used in governance. We will use blockchain technology in our everyday lives without ever needing to know how the underlying technology works, much like email. Take NFTs, for example, which the public usually perceives as a way of collecting art. NFTs actually serve as a proof of ownership. The technology allows for provable ownership, which can be traded on a peer-to-peer level — from gift cards, to care and home leases, airplane tickets, voting, etc. — with participatory governance and macroeconomic layers embedded into these assets.

On that note, the third thing I’m excited about is on the economic side. Crypto and blockchain will allow us to earn passive income by being a contributor to a fully decentralized ecosystem. Because it is operated by different contributing players, we can use the currency to trade securely and allow users to maintain freedom from surveillance.

Notably, blockchain is not the future anymore. It is the here and now.

What are the 3 things that worry you about blockchain and crypto? Why?

Like most tools and technologies, blockchain and cryptocurrency are not perfect. The volatility of the market is always a concern. However, with our experience weathering through these winters before and successfully overcoming them, Horizen Labs is ready to ride this wave securely.

What worries me most are the two major barriers to mass adoption. The first is the mainstream’s poor understanding of blockchain’s benefits. Second, a few clunky technologies cannot fully deliver on the promise of blockchain. It requires great expertise, experience and a whole lot of brain power to come to fruition.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?

Despite being a relatively new entity, we already have Horizen stories about bringing goodness to the world. For example, we have been consulting with some governments about improving voting infrastructure, bringing blockchain technology to a place that allows more participatory democratic involvement.

Personally, I am a part of an entrepreneurship program in Nigeria where blockchain is one of the technologies we are bringing forward. I believe there’s a unique opportunity in developing countries to skip today’s chapter of mobile banking systems and instead go directly to peer-to-peer lending. This will cut out financial institutions as middlemen. The pages are already turning in some Asian countries, like the Philippines and Vietnam. I believe Africa, in particular, is ripe for not only adopting the technology but also making it an engine to drive economic and social movements.

As you know there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share 5 things that you would advise to other women in the blockchain space to thrive?

There aren’t a lot of women in this space, which means there is a lot of opportunity for people to remember you. You can get invited to a plethora of conferences because they are always looking to diversify panels. Although it sounds a little cynical, I do believe it is a valuable opportunity for exposure. We, as women, can seize that opportunity and use it to our advantage.

Second, in my experience, the tech community is very open-minded. I have found being the only woman in the room has been helpful in fostering meaningful discussions. We can use that position to raise awareness on the topics and causes we are most passionate about. By doing so, you will be more motivated to show up, participate and even lead.

Third, do not be afraid to take a space and own it. In our industry, gender does really not hold much relevance even if women are the minority. Your drive, creativity and other abilities are far more pertinent.

Fourth, you must know that being a female in this industry is not a hindrance and you are not alone. Particularly, for Horizen Labs, we are a very diverse organization in terms of gender, geography and race. For example, in operations, legal, finance and in talent, most of my team members are female. I am fortunate to be surrounded by very strong women on our team, including our Chief Product Officer, Rosario Pabst. I find it very empowering to work in such an open organization.

Fifth, and finally, I recommend taking advantage of networking opportunities. There are a multitude of groups aimed at helping women in the industry support each other. It’s also important to get involved in groups that are niche to your interest, even those not specifically having to do with gender. I am a proud member of Facebook Israel’s SheShe program, where I have taken on the mentorship of an aspiring female career professional and the experience has been truly humbling.

Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the blockchain industry?

There seems to be a psychological barrier for women in technology. For some reason, more men are attracted to deep tech projects than women. I believe this is a deeply rooted problem that starts all the way down to basic education. Female students should be supported and encouraged to undertake STEM studies.

Beyond that, there are many roles in a tech company that do not directly relate to technology. From a business function perspective, it does not matter what kind of company you work for. All that matters is that you understand and are supportive of the vision of the company, you believe in the technology and you are skilled within your function (marketing, operations, legal, finance, human resources, etc.). By embarking on this functional path, I believe more women will find their way into technology

The good thing is, at Horizen Labs, we are dedicated to our vision of creating more use cases for blockchain technology. We are intent on making it more accessible for a broader type of user. If you are interested in the next phase of the internet and you want to be part of that movement, then there are a lot of opportunities for females — whether you are already in deep tech or not.

What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?

Whenever I am asked this question, two always come to mind. The first one is from my son’s swim practice. I don’t remember who said this because this is often attributed to multiple people but it goes like this: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.”

The second one is by Gay Hendricks from The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level: “In my life I’ve discovered that if I cling to the notion that something’s not possible, I’m arguing in favor of limitation. And if I argue for my limitations, I get to keep them.”

This second quote has touched my life a few times and, in particular, I believe it touches many women. There is this ‘imposter syndrome’ thesis, which I have experienced throughout my life and especially in my career. It is this idea that you don’t believe enough in yourself and think someone must have made a mistake in giving you opportunities. Research shows it is prevalent in talented, educated women. I also have met men who fall into the same kind of limitation trap. So, really, it can affect anyone.

For a story of imposter syndrome at play, let’s not stray far. I will use my experience in getting into Horizen Labs as an example. In the beginning, I was flustered by the idea of joining a very tech-savvy company while my knowledge in blockchain is very limited. It didn’t matter how much I read or studied. There was still this barrier to entry I just couldn’t cross. Later, I realized it was a limiting factor I imposed on myself when I barely even had time to acquaint myself with this industry.

I started shifting my frame of mind and told myself, “Yes, I might not become a deep, deep tech cryptographer but I understand enough of the technology to know how it actually works. I am capable of explaining this to other groups of people.”

Low and behold, I do often explain the technology when I speak publicly. Every time I get up on stage, I cannot help but think to myself, “Wow, I have challenged those limitations at least one more time!”

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. :-)

I’ve had the privilege of running an entrepreneurship program, instilling venture creation and putting it to practice by coming up with ideas and validating them. We helped young entrepreneurs determine whether an idea had the potential to launch a startup or if they needed to be shelved, reimagined or completely eliminated. Instilling that mindset has been the most important contribution I gave through this entrepreneurship program.

Through that program, and in many other experiences I’ve had, there has been an educational element I find attractive, such as volunteer work with the Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow involving Palestinian and Israeli youth, a project in Nigeria I am working with with the Israeli embassy there. I’ve also worked with Israel’s leading medical hospital, other research institutes and high school programs abroad. Every time I have the opportunity to teach those building blocks of education, I feel I am giving people tools to think about ideas and how to bring those ideas to fruition. To me, entrepreneurship is a way to bring about innovation and a better world.

I may not be creative enough to come up with the ideas myself. However, I am grateful I am blessed with the ability to share the knowledge of how to build those ideas thoughtfully and with rigorous process. I can keep doing that and maybe I can find the magic kernel of doing it specifically for an intended goal.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can reach out to me on Twitter or LinkedIn @liataaronson and also follow @horizenglobal on Twitter or join our Discord community.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Thank you very much. I greatly appreciate it.

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