In many ways, Vanessa Slavich is just like her alter ego, Wonder Woman. By day, she is a Partner at cLabs, working on Celo, a proof-of-stake network focused on building an open financial system for the 5.6B smartphone owners around the world. She leads cLabs’s Experience Team, focused on awakening the Celo movement inside every individual through storytelling, design thinking, user research, community, communications, events, and more.
She’s also an avid triathlete turned yogi who has completed several Ironman Triathlons and marathons — a few of which while undergoing cancer treatment.
Previously, Vanessa worked for Apple and Square growing the early iOS team at Apple and helping Square scale from 70 to 2,000 employees. She has also had a hand in designing diversity and inclusion programs. Most notably, a computer science immersion program at Square called Code Camp.
We sat down with Vanessa to talk about user research, demystifying crypto and the power of design to create meaningful social impact.
On what drew her to blockchain
“I attended a blockchain for social impact event a couple of years ago. I have since learned there were different camps in crypto: get rich quick, libertarians, and social change.”
“I was really interested in the latter. Having worked in diversity and inclusion for a number of years, it was exciting to see a fresh perspective on how you could approach the challenge differently with a whole new system.”
On building an inclusive global financial system
Currently, she leads the Experience team at cLabs, the team initially behind the development of the Celo Platform. In this capacity, Vanessa helped start one of the most extensive field research programs in emerging markets in the blockchain industry.
Celo’s vision is guided by a mobile-first approach and aims to understand the various challenges and opportunities users encounter with crypto-based financial products and services.
To date, Celo has conducted field research/pilots in 8 countries, including Tanzania, Colombia, Argentina, Sierra Leone, Mexico, Brazil, the Philippines, and Kenya. These are markets with a large unbanked population, high inflation rates, payment friction but at the same time have high smartphone adoption and a crypto-favorable regulatory climate. By centering on the needs of users in emerging markets, Celo believes the resulting system will be more decentralized, usable, and resilient.
In these resource-constrained environments, connecting to crypto networks such as Bitcoin and Ethereum can be challenging. To overcome these limitations, Celo introduced novel cryptographic techniques that enable their users to connect to the Celo network with minimal data requirements through an “ultra-light” client. This client is over 17,000x lighter than other blockchain protocols.
Some lessons she took away? “There are a lot of nuances when working in a different culture. How you set up this space can make a difference in the quality of the interview and the insights you’re getting,” she adds. “Be mindful of how you show up like how you sit at the table. For example, if you sit across a table, the responses you’re going to get will not be as expressive versus sitting on the corner of the table, alongside the participant.”
Nothing can substitute on-the-ground knowledge. “A key aspect of doing research is hiring a Fixer; someone local who helps recruit participants, organize logistics, and speaks the language.”
On fostering a culture of innovation
Vanessa’s role is continually evolving. cLabs is a Teal organization that practices its own form of holacracy, a method of decentralized management and organizational governance, wherein roles are defined around the work, not people. In addition to design and research, she is focusing on other verticals including organizational design, communications, and community.
The team is pioneering a governance model by using the Teal management approach. Without the constraints of traditional management structures, Vanessa believes this approach can foster better employee engagement, individuality, interconnection, and authenticity as Celo continues on its path towards decentralization.
Her recruiting chops still come in handy. Early on, she designed cLabs’ culture interview process that emphasizes ‘culture add’ rather than ‘culture fit.’ “There were some technically strong engineers that we passed on because it was clear they would be adverse to our culture and way of working. In a company where there is no management hierarchy to address interpersonal issues, mutual trust, and shared vision are key. I think it has helped us out to build better products because we’re aligning with the same kind of mission.”
“A new employee recently joined and remarked that he’s never seen a startup of our size (80 people) with every person aligned to the mission — so I think it’s working!”
How storytelling can enrich blockchain
For Vanessa, the power of storytelling cannot be understated. It’s a powerful tool for recognizing, communicating, and inspiring the humanness in design.
“Blockchain and crypto are so complex that being able to humanize it in a story makes such a difference,” she said. A lot of things get lost in the technical jargon and misnomer. “By connecting to your purpose, you can make your products more tangible and bring people along with your journey. It will be difficult to get people to use the technology if they don’t understand what it is, or why it should even exist.”
“Tell a story from the very beginning. Investing in research as early as possible is integral to understand who you’re serving and the ultimate success of a product. Those early insights can inform that critical decision-making you’re making early on that will shape your product’s usability.”
Some of the most important (yet to be done) work may lie with entrepreneurs and developers. “At Devcon, I did UX audits for Ethereum developers and it was startling to me that everyone I met with had never thought about who their users were and what their needs were.”
For blockchain technology to truly take hold, it needs to be applied to products that people use. “For someone coming from outside the industry, there are so many layers of abstraction with the terms that we use and the way we talk about the technology — it is hard for people to wrap their heads around. The important work of demystifying it, that is what is going to lead to adoption in the long run.”
On building a global movement
“There is value in putting a face to an organization and meeting people in person where they are,” she adds. “We are hiring community managers in different markets around the world. Last September, we held a hundred events in a hundred days in 35 countries. Obviously, with COVID-19, things are different right now, so we’re launching an online event series.”
Most notably, Celo held their Prosper Retreat last fall, a weekend that brought together leaders in blockchain and social impact from over 20 different countries to envision, ideate, and build a financial system that creates prosperity for everyone.
“In the process, we have created a grassroots community of people aligned with Celo’s mission and purpose. Since the retreat, we have gotten way more back than we could have ever imagined. We find this collective energy of people working towards the same vision, with different perspectives and approaches. It has created a container that is the goal of every diversity initiative and already there are projects, events, and collaborations coming out of the first retreat.”
The 2nd Prosper Retreat has gone online, April 17–18. If you’re interested in social impact and blockchain, this event is not to be missed
On dealing with uncertainty
Vanessa is no stranger to uncertainty. In 2011, she discovered a rare tumor on her back known as a Desmoid Tumor. She named it Ursula, after the sea witch in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. (Read Vanessa’s blog documenting her journey.)
“In 2018, I went from racing Ironman Triathlons, to undergoing a massive surgery, after which the tumor, half of my lat muscle, a lot of skin and some bits of bone were taken away. When I woke up six hours later, groggy and resting on a bed at Ohio State University, the plastic surgeon informed me that I probably wouldn’t swim the same ever again — this was crushing.”
Six months later, as soon as the wounds healed, she was back in the water. “It taught me that the mind can overcome any doctor’s diagnosis.”
“Ursula has taught me a lot in this process, most importantly how to deal with uncertainty. My key sanity measures include (the list is long!): community support (I’ve been relatively public about the process and have had so many people offer support and love), spiritual reading, poetry, yoga, physical therapy, psychotherapy, acupuncture, massage, exercise, journaling, art-making, nature, music, and a home-cooked meal. I now have a toolkit for whenever I feel off-balance, and I leverage different tools depending on which symptoms arise.”
On tapping into your alter ego
When she thought about making the pivot in her career, the question of grad school kept coming up again and again yet often pushed aside.
“Imposter syndrome is still very real. I have this alter ego of Wonder Woman. When I did my first Marathon and Ironman Triathlon, I wore a Wonder Woman running outfit. It’s like my power costume,” she confessed.
In 2016, she went back to school to study Interaction Design with a focus on social impact at California College of the Arts. “What were the chances that when I went to the Accepted Students’ Day, a guy was sitting next to me doodling on a post-it and handed it to me. It was a picture of Wonder Woman. So I quit Square and finally went to grad school.”
Years later, she still has the post-it on her vision board — a gentle reminder to follow your dreams and your purpose.