Leaders Series: Helen Disney at Unblocked
Issue 49— April 23, 2018
Helen Disney is the CEO and Founder of Unblocked.
Helen has spent the last four years building Unblocked, a company focused on curating blockchain technology events, education, and information. She’s been in the ecosystem for the last four years, and most recently worked on the launch of the Distributed Ledger Foundation which was announced at the Hedera Hashgraph launch in Times Square, NYC.
How did you get into the cryptocurrency and blockchain industry?
At the very end of 2013 I was asked by a friend if I wanted to be involved in organising a conference for the Bitcoin Foundation. I had no real idea what bitcoin was, other than having read a few articles about it online, but I had just closed down my previous business and was ready to jump into something new so I took a risk on what sounded like interesting and intriguing phenomenon and I have no regrets. That was how my journey into cryptocurrency and blockchain began. I had come from a background in public policy think tanks and the media so I could immediately see that there was a great need for education and better communication in what was then a nascent industry. The topic was — and is — fascinating but it is often hard for the average professional person to unpack the terminology and see the value.
Through obsessing over cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology in person I gradually came to feel I could teach others. Yet I couldn’t find the kinds of events or information I wanted for myself — or that was being asked of me by others in my network. That was the genesis of my company and led to me setting up Unblocked Events at the end of 2016 to share knowledge of how these amazing new technologies were going to impact on business and society.
What did you do before you got into this?
I spent most of my previous career working in or with public policy think tanks and in the media. I founded and then spent 15 years running a social enterprise which acted as a network hub linking together policy experts globally to share best practice in reforming welfare systems and promoting innovation. The innovation part was where I initially crossed over into the fintech scene but I also saw growing connections between blockchain and other policy problems I worked on like healthcare information, climate change, intellectual property protection, clinical trials and so on.
What problem is your company, Unblocked, solving?
The aim of Unblocked Events is to make Blockchain and distributed ledger technology accessible for a non-technical business audience. We arrange regular blockchain events focused on industry verticals including healthcare, energy, the creative industries, and the voluntary and public sectors. We intend our events to be inclusive and accessible to all, whether you are a complete beginner or an entrepreneur showcasing what you are building. I believe the developments going on in this space can help us fix a wide range of entrenched social and business problems that will enrich society in many ways and I am passionate about helping people build the companies and non-profit organizations of tomorrow.
Talk me through a day in your life — what are you typically working on and what does that look like?
My day is usually divided up between working on different aspects of upcoming events. This can range from identifying speakers to meeting with potential sponsors, working out practical details or marketing the events, which involves quite a lot of writing and content creation. Once a week I have the joy of interviewing a leading thinker in the blockchain industry, which I love as it is always so interesting to meet people in this space and hear more about the cutting edge projects they are working on. In between I also juggle my non-profit policy work which includes being on the advisory boards of the British Blockchain Association and the Distributed Ledger Foundation. In any spare time I get while traveling to meetings or even in the bath, I tend to read about what’s happening in the field as there is always a new development in blockchain and nowadays it moves so fast it’s often hard to keep up, even if you are working within the industry itself. And last but very much not least I try to spend time with my family and do a bit of yoga, as work-life balance is very important.
What are some ideas you’re excited about in the blockchain space, and why do you think they’re transformative?
The key areas I am currently focused on are philanthropy, healthcare, the environment, and the creative industries. I love blockchain projects that have a good business case but also some kind of social goal such as helping refugees have access to a portable healthcare record or supporting whistleblowers who want to report workplace harassment. I am also very interested in the rise of the next generation protocols and in whether we can achieve inter-ledger activity between blockchains as I think this will be key to adopting the technology especially in the public sector.
What’s been the most interesting or inspiring experience you’ve had in your journey through blockchain-land thus far?
Every single day in this industry has been an amazing rollercoaster ride. I will never forget being involved in my first bitcoin event in Amsterdam in 2014 and being exposed to the incredible ideas and thinking that led to the creation and subsequent evolution of bitcoin.
Most recently, I have been honored to be invited to get back into the policymaking world. In the UK, I was asked to give evidence to the new UK All Party Parliamentary Group on blockchain and in the US I was delighted to help announce the formation of the Distributed Ledger Foundation in New York City in front of a huge audience. It’s inspiring to see how many people are now getting behind cryptocurrencies and blockchain — everyone from the taxi driver to the most senior politician is starting to wake up to how transformative this technology is going to be.
As you think about this industry, what do you think will happen in the short term that will blow people’s minds?
In the short term, I think lots of very bright minds are working on scaling, interledger activity and taking the underlying platforms more mainstream with the opportunity to then build other applications on top of them. I suspect sectors outside of finance may actually move more quickly than the banks and financial institutions and blockchain projects may also launch in developing countries faster than they do in the West.
What changes do you think cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology will accelerate in our world?
I think the biggest shift enabled by blockchain is putting more control in the hands of the individual consumer.I hope we will see greater empowerment of individuals to influence both how the public and the private sectors operate. We may be disappointed to find that not every citizen cares that much about their data or wants to be in charge of their own data but for those who do, the rise of distributed applications is going to change every aspect of our lives — our ability to monitor and be involved in our own healthcare, our environmental impact and energy use, the transparency of our charitable donations, our ownership of our creative outputs and our access to information and media we can trust.