Harvard in Tech Spotlight: Sheila Warren, Head of Data, Blockchain, and Digital Assets at the World Economic Forum
I spoke with Sheila Warren, head of data, blockchain, and digital assets and member of the executive committee at the World Economic Forum. Sheila is also on the advisory board of the World Bank and OECD, a member of the Bretton Woods Committee, and on the boards of the ACLU, TechSoup, and the Equal Justice Society.
Sheila studied economics at Harvard. When she graduated, technology was a much less developed field, and most people entering the field were computer scientists or marketing specialists. Big finance, including investment banking and consulting, was the most common field for new graduates. Sheila went to Harvard Law School and after graduation, worked on mergers and acquisitions advisory for more traditional, non tech companies.
Sheila had always been interested in philanthropy. While at Harvard, she was on the board of the Phillips Brooks House Association. So, after her time on Wall Street, she joined a law firm focused on representing charities in San Francisco. Many of her clients were part of the now last generation of big technology billionaires, including the founders of eBay and investors like Peter Thiel. Sheila and her team worked on developing new models of charitable giving for these people to better be able to give back. In updating and rewriting best practices for a rapidly evolving, technology powered era, Sheila worked closely with the Treasury Department and other policy makers.
After her time in law, Sheila built a SaaS product called NGOsource focused on international giving. In this process, she became familiar with all aspects of product leadership from design to user research to sprints. TechSoup, the company where NGOsource had been incubated, then asked Sheila to join them as General Counsel. There, Sheila was exposed to charitable organization education, better understanding how new technologies could be applied to charities to help them be more efficient and metrics driven. She learned tons about building impact oriented products. Civic tech is fundamentally community driven, so it does an incredible job of understanding customer needs, a key foundation to product development that Sheila has carried with her since.
Around this time, Sheila became concerned with GDPR and data protection for the charitable giving organizations she was working with, in over 200 countries around the world. So, she began exploring blockchain from a wide range of angles from traceability to liquid democracy to bail. She began speaking about it and working more closely with companies and groups involved in the space. The World Economic Forum then asked her to join their team founding their blockchain group. She joined 3 years ago and now heads their data, blockchain, and digital assets team, which she created.
Sheila shared her advice for serving on boards, lifelong learning, storytelling, and finding cultural alignment.
As a board member, aim to truly serve the organization. The role of board members is often glamorized by the media. In reality, a board member’s role involves many routine, banal processes, like providing audit related guidance. It is important to recognize that you are first and foremost on the board to serve the organization. It is not about what you can get out of the experience and instead about how your unique knowledge and connections can support them.
Diversify your information consumption. Sheila is constantly reading about a wide range of topics from social justice to the future of work to power systems to sociology studies to public health systems and more. Learning about technology alone is not enough: contextualizing technology is crucial. Be mindful of adjacent spaces and realize that everything is fundamentally interrelated. Visualize these connections through a diverse array of information sources from mainstream media to industry specific journals to Twitter to geopolitical publications.
Don’t explain; story tell. Storytelling is a very underrated skill in technology. Explaining a concept as an educator is often conflated with but is in truth quite different from storytelling. Storytelling involves synthesizing, rather than merely describing. To this end, Sheila has found parables and metaphors helpful to meet people where they are and make the message resonant for them. For example, when she introduces blockchain to people, she starts with an example of Venmoing someone for drinks after a happy hour. She explains that blockchain could meaningfully reduce the friction in this process, eliminating the need for each individual’s bank to talk to each other. Ultimately, people do not care about what the innovation is; rather, they care about what it does and how it will change their life.
Similarly, on the Money Reimagined podcast, Sheila focuses less on the more technical topics like Bitcoin price fluctuations and instead talks about the anthropological construction of money, diving into the history of money, what its value means, and the implications of dollarization on societies globally.
In storytelling, you need to identify the hook and repeat this message multiple times in different ways to get that key takeaway to stick with your audience in a meaningful way.
Follow your curiosity. At Harvard, Sheila took a wide variety of classes from women’s history to music to French literature. Throughout her career, she has explored a wide variety of fields from law to nonprofits to civic tech to policy to blockchain. Oftentimes people are told to follow their “passions,” which can feel quite intimidating. Choosing and sticking with one major passion is daunting, if not impossible. Instead, figure out what you are consistently curious about and use curiosity as a motivator. This interest driven exploration can maintain your energy and excitement about your learning and work even in the face of challenges and failures.
Be open to new possibilities. Looking back, Sheila would tell her younger self to worry less about what her career would look like. Technology evolves so quickly that many of the products and spaces that Sheila has worked on throughout her career were not even in existence when she graduated! Planning too far in advance could have unnecessarily narrowed down her options and limited her potential.
Figure out what environment you thrive in. Throughout her career, Sheila has found that the culture of the company has played a larger role in her experience than the subject matter or work itself. While she loved the work she did at law firms, the industry’s culture and working style was fundamentally not aligned with how she worked best.
Changing the culture of a company, especially as a newer or more junior employee, is very hard, if not impossible, to do. Understand what environments you thrive in and ensure the culture at jobs you take on are aligned with your preferences and instincts.
Don’t obsess over sunk costs. If you realize an opportunity or an industry is not the right fit, have the courage to move forward. While the leap can seem daunting at first, the time opportunity cost of staying can be far more insidious.