the interview: Shira Frank
Shira has an extensive background in turning entrenched ideologies and systems on their heads, especially in the complex landscapes of international politics. Previously Deputy Director for J Street, she partnered with the Obama Administration to transform the way the U.S. government engages in the Middle East, as well as to clear a pathway for the Iran nuclear deal. Shira has also consulted for companies seeking to repurpose military drone technology for public-good causes such as combating elephant poaching and revitalizing First-Nation economies. Most recently, Shira founded Maiden, a global user research lab for emerging economic technologies, out of a belief that reinventing finance is the fastest way to bring about systemic change. She is also an advisor to the MIT Digital Currency Initiative.
I always love to start by asking people what sparked their initial interest in crypto, so let’s start there, at the beginning.
From a very young age, I saw how power could be manipulated and abused. Before age 12, I grew up in a cult in the rural mountains of eastern Oregon and northwestern California. I came into the world understanding that the game was broken and that vulnerable people were being exploited because of the ways the rules were operating at the bedrock of our social, economic, and political systems. As a result, I’ve been obsessed with abuses of money and power my whole life. In the first chapter of my career, I focused on moving money more efficiently and equitably. I thought the problem was that resources were fundamentally poorly distributed, and so the answer was redistributing the flows via philanthropy. Everything seemed simple and clean in those early days. When I quickly realized that philanthropy was not enough to fundamentally shift the landscape, I dove into politics. That extended my focus beyond just money to the redistribution of power as well. I was in politics for most of my career. Eventually, I realized that even highly strategic combinations of money and power were not going to be enough to redesign broken systems in time and impact the existential problems we were facing as a civilization. After over 15 years of working, in May of 2017, I quit and took a step back. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew that I needed to take a break. I really wish everybody was taught that it’s okay, and sometimes professionally intelligent, to quit. At the time, I was working on a governor’s race in Colorado and one of the donors was a young businessman who was leading the crypto meetups here in the early days. When he told me about crypto, I saw the opportunity to change the entire definition and story of both money and power. Crypto (it seemed) was something that could not just redirect or reorganize systems, but could literally redesign them. After coming up against the limitations of philanthropy and politics, I felt that crypto was where I could have a more fundamental impact.
Absolutely. Obviously, there’s been a huge run up in crypto in the past six months or so. People are very excited about a lot of things. As a counter perspective, what are your concerns regarding how the industry is or isn’t developing?
I think we have a limited time-bound opportunity. We’re not going to have forever to redesign the foundational plumbing of our financial system and to have DNA-level impact into the new design of global financial flows. I think that clock is running now. It started in earnest the moment that China started researching (and now testing) a digital yuan and accelerated when Facebook announced Libra (now Diem). People with power in our current systems are already leveraging this new technology to solidify and expand their existing power. That’s the clock we’re up against.
“I don’t think enough people realize that the most likely outcome is that this technology gets exploited by current actors to solidify their power. If we don’t want that to be the case, then we have to play this game very strategically. We still have a window, partly because digital-currency technical expertise is scarce. The people in the world who understand how to build and secure these systems, who understand the nuance and complexity, are limited and many aren’t willing to work for legacy institutions. So, we have a little bit of an edge right now, but we have to start playing offense.”
Actually, we needed to start playing smarter offense years ago. That said, I think we can still catch up if we mature our culture and industry now. Part of playing offense is engaging in pre-emptive foundational user research now, rather than 2-5 years from now, when it will be too late to mitigate systemic threats to this technology’s potential positive impact.
A relevant corollary would be the death of third-party cookies. We're on the brink of left-leaning digital platforms killing the efficacy of digital marketing in favor of the user having control over their data because the veil has been raised on what Big Tech has been doing with that data, simply for cash. This awakening for the consumer took nearly 15 years to acknowledge, and just as long for researchers and decision makers to adopt a different reference point to data ownership and virtuous advertising. This largely came from the remnants of the dot-com boom and the need to sell more through largely nefarious tactics and public oversight. Right now, we're at a pivotal turning point in digital currency and we can choose to lead the conversation without a decade's worth of "what should have happened.”
What are some offensive tactics that the crypto industry can employ to prevent some of the negative Web 2.0 outcomes?
Offensive tactics for the crypto ecosystem today are ones rooted in the awareness that this is a unique point in time when we are still designing the protocols and solidifying the technological frameworks. Going on offense means spending a little bit less time focused on how to 10x or 100x our personal/company’s individual market share and instead growing the entire pie by 1,000-10,000%. We can do that by leveraging this particular time to meaningfully address the arbitrary rules and inequities hard-wired into our current financial system and instead create systems that would be powerfully adopted by billions.
“I see too much excitement about getting rich and thinking that the revolution is inevitable. Revolution is the least inevitable thing, actually. The persistence of the status quo is much more likely. That really worries me. We have to understand that we’re up against time, and we need a strategy.”
Going on offense means doing something very different today in terms of how we design, build, and test digital currencies. It means aggressively pursuing the new and novel information—especially related to users—that can help draw the map and guide us towards actualizing a truly new financial system. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to chart a path to our desired future, and the less prepared we will be for setbacks and attacks from incumbents who are disinterested or opposed to our goals. The clock is ticking. Public policy and market pressures are continuously acting on the shape, direction, and implementation possibilities for digital currencies.
It is critical that neutral user research is actively funded to keep pace with the ever-more-quickly expanding digital-currency ecosystem. The industry as a “market” is moving full steam ahead and yet as a “public good” it is years behind schedule in doing any kind of rigorous user analysis. Every additional month that goes by where the industry is attracting increasing capital and public attention, but neutral, rigorous user research is not yet informing the technologists, policymakers, business leaders, and overarching narrative, the less and less likely it becomes that any of us will be able to take advantage of these technologies to build a new financial system.
What else concerns you about the industry?
The pervasive lack of connection to everyday people in the industry is alarming. From a mainstream standpoint, product-market-fit is at zero and the branding, communications, marketing, UX/UI, and narratives behind these technologies are barely ready to onboard eager and aligned early adopters, let alone to act as a bridge for mainstream global users. Even the largest crypto companies employ very small user research teams and they’re doing very little foundational user research. They’re mostly doing evaluative user research of their current product, but nothing resembling the global, open-source, rigorous discovery user research that is required to unearth and investigate the deepest pain points in our system that this technology can solve for. If you want mass adoption, this kind of research is essential.
In China, we know that discovery user research teams are fully integrated with technical research teams. Users aren’t an afterthought, they are the source code. At places like Google and Amazon, you hear the same thing: that foundational user research begins in earnest at ground zero, well before they ever build, test, or deploy new systems. For some reason in crypto, we haven’t felt enough of a drive or incentive to engage these best practices.
Perhaps it’s because people are essentially minting their own money, and because prices keep going up, there’s money in the system to keep building and hiring and the industry has been able to survive without achieving substantial product-market-fit beyond early adopters. The measure of our success should start to become bound by verifiable instances of this technology changing people’s lives. If we don’t know what people need, that this technology can solve, how will we ensure it ever creates solutions at scale to existing inefficiencies and inequities? You don’t map your way to a new and better system by shooting blindly and eagerly in the dark. You do so by knowing the landscape and charting your course accordingly.
“We need to inject the wisdom of real human problems, needs, ideas, and potential into this technology. In 10 years, when we’re stuck at the application layer, it’s not as possible. Protocol layer decisions are being made now and that’s exactly where we need to connect the technology to human beings, at the DNA level of this technology.”
I totally agree. Switching gears a bit, what did you learn as Deputy Director of Development at J Street, which is one of the fastest growing and most effective political lobbying groups in the U.S., that you’ve carried into your current work?
So much, but I’ll keep it just to one or two things. The first thing, which really formed the basis of Maiden’s strategy, was the power of a non-oppositional ideological approach. In the U.S., for 40+ years, there had been a very successful lobbying effort that had cemented a narrative for everyone in the White House, Congress, and the State Department about what being pro-Israel meant. What “pro-Israel” meant was unquestioning support for the Israeli government. That’s a totally false equivalency because Israel can (and does) elect governments that are very self destructive, that act in ways that harm Israel’s long term survival, not to mention in ways that directly threaten U.S. foreign policy goals. If J Street had tried to change the game with an oppositional ideology, telling U.S. elected leaders that they should instead be “pro-Palestinian” or that they “shouldn’t be pro-Israel” that would never have worked. Instead, we had to figure out how to change the narrative from: “pro-Israel = support for the Israeli government” to “pro-Israel = pro-diplomacy and pro-peace.” We had to get the entire system of people running for Congress to accept a totally new narrative. It took six years to start seeing the engines run on this new narrative, which is not actually very long. In the process, I really learned that large, corrupt systems can be transformed quickly, but that it’s usually done by knowing the rules of the game that your opposition plays and playing those rules better and towards a different end.
Understanding the power of a non-ideological switch, not going head strong against existing narratives but rather changing the meaning/flow of existing narratives, that is leverage; that is how transformational change becomes achievable in a short period of time.
For crypto to be broadly adopted, we will similarly need to create new stories--stories that are based both on verified user research and on a deep and sober analysis of the legacy-system players that are aligned against our values. We will need to play their rule books better and smarter than they do and towards totally different ends. If we hunt now for the clear narrative levers that are powerful enough to rewire present-day financial paradigms, I have no doubt we will be able to ultimately design and drive new financial feedback loops towards new systemic outcomes.
“We need to go about understanding the rules of the game and how they adopted their stories to begin with. Only then can we turn them on their head. I have a lot of hope because my past experiences inform my belief that this is not impossible, it’s worth trying. It’s not a fool’s errand to think we can transform the rules of our global financial system. It’s within our reach.”
I love your understanding of how to effectuate a mindset shift. I would love to better understand your involvement with the MIT Digital Currency Initiative. I believe you're working on CBDCs, which is something I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about myself.
Maiden is focused on neutral, rigorous user research and MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative (DCI) is focused on neutral, rigorous technical research. About 18 months ago, I started to get concerned that user research wasn’t going to get the support it needed from within the industry in time to impact protocol-layer designs. I met with DCI and we discovered that we both believed that for this technology to scale effectively, a ton of missing data and knowledge needed to be acquired in an open source, non-product-specific way and rigorously analyzed and synthesized for the whole community. DCI was already at the forefront of producing and sharing foundational technical research around issues of privacy, security, and scalability, and Maiden was gearing up to do the same around users. So, we decided to explore collaborations where Maiden could conduct user research alongside the technical research questions DCI was investigating for the industry.
Separately, it became clear that DCI itself needed to grow quickly in order to serve the industry well, both in terms of advancing CBDC as well as ensuring Bitcoin’s long-term security. For DCI’s CBDC research in particular, we knew we had a limited window to effectively communicate to central bankers that privacy is an asset and not a liability and to make sure they had the data needed to make key policy decisions. DCI needed to be ready to meet this opportunity. Since I had experience effectively growing strategic operations quickly, I was happy to join DCI as a strategic advisor as well.
What do you think is lacking in CBDC research today?
The rigorous technical research is in its infancy and the user research is simply missing. All the while, financial inclusion is a commonly stated CBDC goal for major central banks. How will this lofty goal be realized if there are no relevant data sets available to technologists or policy makers about verified use cases for increasing financial inclusion, or about key cash-to-digital currency-migration patterns/enablers, or about the potential risks of various CBDC design choices on our most vulnerable communities?
The need for global user research now, to inform protocol-layer designs for CBDC, is critical. If user research is only done after-the-fact, at the application layers, it’s too late. There will already be harmful assumptions and costly dependencies baked into the base layers that are hard (or even impossible) to correct down the road. People’s needs and behaviors should be firmly in the minds of developers and policy makers if we want to design effective systems at scale that perform better than our current systems.
“To realize CBDC’s potential, we need to iteratively test and validate the architectures themselves, and not just behind a computer screen, but on the streets and in the daily lives of diverse communities around the world.”
The unintentional consequences of protocol-level decisions made in the early days of the Internet are a cautionary tale that don't have the luxury of ignoring. Ads became a driving business model for the internet, but what if we had researched the potential risks of the choice to make everything free to users and explored alternative strategies and designs? I’m not sure we could have entirely prevented surveillance capitalism, but we would have certainly identified some of the more likely risks and been in a better position to mitigate the worst harms to our social, psychological, and political systems.
Pre-emptive risk mitigation is one of the areas Maiden is exploring both with DCI and on its own. Right now, for CBDCs, we need to better understand the possible impacts on everyday people of protocol-level decisions and experiment with how we might preemptively mitigate the gravest risks.
The protocol level considerations are so important because whatever central banks choose is going to be ossified for decades. Speaking of the importance of user research, what was the genesis story of Maiden?
In 2016 / 2017, the crypto ecosystem was a small community. I realized I was witnessing the emergence of this powerful technology at a time when women, people of color, and people who had historically been disenfranchised by our political, financial, and social systems (which is most people in the world, right?), had access to a modicum of power. We’ve had technological and financial revolutions before, but they were not at times when previously disenfranchised people had a seat at the table or any access to the power that could shape their evolution.
“The genesis of Maiden was about taking advantage of this moment in history when we are able to redesign the rules of money and power and how our systems operate to make sure that we actually design a new story with the intelligence of people who were left out of designing the old systems.”
I didn’t know exactly what that would look like but I was introduced to one of the top Ethereum engineers at the time, who also happened to be a global educator and speaker as well as a transgender psychotherapist. We sat down for coffee and I told her my idea. She’d made a lot of money in crypto already and had been looking for a way to transform the culture. That day she said: “I’m a yes. I don’t know exactly what we’re doing, but I’m a yes.” She funded Maiden so we could stay neutral and pursue our vision. So that’s the genesis story: just two people having coffee, but also this huge idea about redesigning systems. I don’t think we do that enough for people, just believe in them, at that level. The political donor that got me into crypto did the same thing for me; he took me aside and said: “This is important; I believe in you and you should know about this thing. It’s called Bitcoin.” It’s something I always try to do for other people. Choose to say yes to someone. That’s what we need to do for each other if we want to actually see new leaders rise up.
I love that. Along those lines, what advice would you give to founders or operators in our community? Perhaps for people working in crypto specifically.
We need to be incredibly humble. We need to welcome rather than ignore or wash over divergence. Crypto culture is also far too focused on realizing individual freedoms, with too little parallel focus on designing for collective intelligence. We need to be looking inward to our own culture and our own leadership styles and our own personal motivations, fears, and limitations. If we don’t get our own culture and intelligence and rigor in order, and if we don’t learn to seek out and integrate diverse perspectives to our own, there’s no way we’re going to be able to scale any of these values or resources into the world. It’s the most important thing. Also, if we’re not a good bit more scared of the opposition and a good bit more humble about how hard this is going to be, we’re not going to have the opportunities to fight the battles we need to. Finally, I think in any space, people are starved for meaningful relationships. Crypto is a long journey. We’re talking about trying to change financial systems, so you have to be building relationships for the long term. Be generous, be available to people that want to be connected, be in the community. It’s not as restrictive as the legacy financial sector where you often need to have certain pedigree or degrees to rise. Build relationships, but build relationships with people who are not ego-driven. Beware that there are a lot of egos and there is still a massive amount of sexism, racism, and blind hype, as well as dogma, masquerading as virtue, in the space.
“Remember that this is a creative blank canvas. Don’t think the story has been written. It hasn’t. Don’t think DeFi is already defined to be X, Y, or Z. It’s not. All of this is still unfolding. Take creative license and be willing to follow your visions and to let it change. Maiden has played with 25 different business models. Be willing to keep refining.”
What work or accomplishment would you say you’re the most proud of?
On the personal side, I wrote a marriage contract to myself in 2020. That was an incredible accomplishment, to be able to identify the lifelong vows to myself that I was willing to make. That level of love and respect for my own well being and the fact that I would know myself enough to know what vows I should make. That was a big deal and really changed my sense of place and feeling of being at home in the world. On the professional side, when we went to war with Iraq, in 2003, I felt powerless. I had done protests as a younger kid and I knew protests weren’t the way to stop wars. But there was nothing for me to join or lead in 2003 that could counter the drumbeat to war in Congress. In 2015, when we pushed the Iran nuclear deal through Congress, with J Street, that was an incredible feat. It took so many years and so much organizing and so much strategy in such a coordinated, thoughtful, and intense effort. It could have failed at every second. It was against all the odds. To do that, and ensure we didn’t go (and still haven’t yet gone) to war with Iran, which would be absolutely devastating to the Middle East and the world, feels pretty damn important.
Wow, that’s really powerful on both the personal and professional side. As someone with a varied background, I’d love to know what you think the common thread was throughout all your experiences?
It comes back to the little person in me who wondered why the system was working the way it was and why it didn’t seem to be working well for most people. The thread coursing through my life has always been trying to figure out what dynamic is most powerfully at play in a given system and being curious about how it might work better for the system as a whole. That led me to money, which led me to money + power, which led me to digital currency and the potential full-scale redesign of both money and power. The next stage in my career? That will have to be about intimacy, which is likely an even more fundamental dynamic driving the world. We don’t have enough of it and it’s making things very toxic and dangerous. Ultimately, I would like to study how to systematically generate more healthy intimacy in our world and to leverage the power of intimacy at scale. The thread for me will probably always be about understanding the forces in the world that drive our systems to operate the way they do, and then about healing and transforming those forces so that our systems evolve with ever-increasing sanity, beauty, and purpose.