“How We Can Use BlockChain To Vote” With Portia Mills
I had the pleasure of interviewing Portia Mills, VP of Marketing for Netvote. Portia helped turn around an unprofitable tech start up, which helped lead to a successful exit. A few years ago, she started up a boutique consulting firm and have since helped several companies with messaging, branding, market research, and go to market strategies. There’s a large orphanage in rural Haiti that has access to the grid and is better off in general due to Portia’s efforts at navigating the complex system of NGOs, the UN, and government bureaucracies there.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I joined the Netvote project relatively recently after being introduced to the team by a colleague with whom I worked at previous tech company. I’ve always had a passion for people and their stories. That’s what led me to study Comparative Literature at Cornell and ultimately into the marketing world.
I became fascinated by how technology can positively impact people’s lives — particularly in scenarios where post-industrial technology has failed to live up to the task — after a year-long stint of volunteer work in Haiti. A Forbes article entitled “Babble Rouser” about the founder of Digicel, a global cellular service provider with a footprint in Haiti, got me to thinking long-term I needed to work for a similar company. I subsequently studied the subject at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Since receiving my masters in international relations and economics, I’ve gone on to help a variety of business-to-business tech companies at various stages of growth.
Netvote is the first opportunity I’ve had to fully integrate my passion and education with my professional experience. I am delighted to be helping promote and build what promises to the first real solution to the age old “voting problem”.
Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
I’m leading marketing and helping with business development for Netvote, a blockchain voting protocol. The voting problem is a fascinating one because it’s really as old as group decision-making systems themselves and is relevant far beyond governmental democratic processes. Sure, we vote on ballot initiatives and elect representatives and our leaders — if we are fortunate enough to live in free democracies. But even China holds elections. Many of us also vote in corporate shareholder elections, in PTAs, unions, at school, for awards, for sports leagues, within nonprofits, and in other group decision-making systems in our everyday lives.
For much of history, people had to be present to cast a ballot, raise a hand, or shout their preference. But showing up doesn’t guarantee the ability to make a free and fair choice or that a vote will get counted fairly and properly. What’s more, the problems around voting have become more challenging as global electoral systems have expanded. Traditional e-voting hasn’t solved the problems. Instead, e-voting is still expensive and has created an even bigger problem by throwing into question security — which can further disenfranchise people.
Blockchain is uniquely qualified to solve many voting problems but will only do so if a protocol is designed in a way that takes into account scale, security and identity protection, transparency for the purposes of audit, and the uniqueness of each electoral system. Netvote is doing this by building an open-source, polychain voting protocol. The implications are free and fair voting in even the world’s most challenging voting scenarios in both non-government and government elections.
When it comes to political elections, for example, Netvote can help enfranchise expats whose ballots rarely count except in the case of close elections; military and government personnel who vote for democracies while deployed in service of their country; disabled voters who have trouble reading ballots or getting to polling stations; voters in remote locations or those who can’t afford to take a day off work to cast a ballot; and voters in electoral systems with limited means for holding and auditing elections.
What are the 5 things that most excite you about crypto? Why?
Technology meets Innovation meets Economics. The most revolutionary of the blockchain projects will necessarily be at the top of their game in all three spaces.
The possibility of disintermediation in supply chains, financial transactions, real estate, social networking, and voting. The greatest financial cost and risk in transactions like these comes from reliance on middlemen. Blockchain cuts them out making it less expensive and safer to exchange goods, money, property, and ideas.
Privacy & Security. The innate nature of blockchain will help prevent the kinds of incidents we recently witnessed in the Facebook hearings.
Trade in ideas and cultural goods. Blockchain has the ability to assign monetary value to deeply held cultural values such as a vote, a piece of artwork, a play, the integrity of a mineral’s origins, and more. Foundations could, for example, establish endowments in cryptocurrency that are directly tied to the very mission they seek to promote. Imagine if the Carter Center bought into Netvote’s project: in addition to being able to donate the utility tokens needed to run an election, every time democratic systems flourish — if blockchain voting takes off — the foundation could benefit and in turn be able to extend their mission.
Getting out of the technology dark ages. Technology has promised many things but it has brought about just as many problems, as we all know. Ultimately, technology doesn’t solve people or political problems. Nevertheless, I’m an optimist and believe one day we will be able to use technology to improve our lives but not be hyper focused or reliant on it. Blockchain is different enough from what’s come before that I’m hopeful for a bend in the road toward a brighter future.
What are the 5 things worry you about crypto? Why?
Disruption by definition can be painful. Many businesses and individuals resist it. Technologists need to understand — and don’t always — that for adoption to happen we need to work within the existing infrastructure to ultimately transform it and accommodate natural resistance to change.
Bad actors and over-regulation. Unfortunately, not every blockchain project is thoughtful and not everyone buying and selling cryptocurrency has the best of intentions. A few bad actors can cause a lot of damage, which could lead to innovation-killing regulation.
Over-promise of technology. We often look outside ourselves for answers to problems technology simply cannot solve.
Unintended consequences. Economists often warn of the law of unintended consequences when it comes to things like regulations. I think this applies especially to blockchain given the fact that this technology has the feature of underlying crypto economics.
Something we can’t imagine. The unknown unknowns.
What 3 things would you advise to someone who wanted to emulate your career? Can you share an example for each idea?
Find and follow your passion. This requires lifelong learning and dedication. The jobs you take along your career path may or may not align with your passion. But keep your hand in it somehow, as a volunteer, through education and reading, and by building relationships with people who have similar passions. I went to Haiti to volunteer in development after my first professional job. It was fun, scary, and helped show me where I needed to aim my career.
That said, work hard at any job you take. Any job. There is no “perfect job,” especially at the beginning of your career and often throughout it, which is why it’s called “work”. People will admire and reward hard work. But even if you are in a situation where your work doesn’t pay off that way, there’s still something to learn. Your ability to “get the job done” will come in handy throughout your career and ultimately be respected by your peers and managers. My first job out of college was at Neiman Marcus. It didn’t use what I’d learned in undergrad about the violence of post colonial systems but I learned customer service, which has certainly come in handy.
Be a problem solver; it’s the path to becoming a leader. I learned this from working for and with former military folks for much of my career (there are plenty of these in the security technology space, where I “cut my teeth”). If you uncover a problem, don’t bring it to the attention of your superiors without at least one possible solution, preferably several. Your managers will respect your perspective without seeing you as a complainer and will appreciate your willingness to help. This work ethos builds character and gets rewarded in the long run.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
Bill Gates. He obviously helped usher in the dawn of the first revolution in computers and software. We are at the early days of the blockchain and protocol innovators like Netvote and others will face similar challenges as Gates and his competition did in that earlier era. I also admire the work that he and his wife have pursued in global healthcare and education in the wake of Microsoft’s success.