Passion trumps fear. If you believe something and believe in yourself [mainly that you’re confident learning and adapting], pursuit of something new and different isn’t scary. You don’t know until you try. As long as you stay comfortable asking questions and being wrong, you’ll often learn, grow, and progress faster.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Karyl Fowler. Karyl is the CEO and Cofounder of Transmute, a decentralized app engine for enterprise teams. In a world of DLT purists, Karyl is a proud DLT pragmatist. By integrating enterprise cloud infrastructure and blockchain technologies, Karyl believes we can build better businesses and secure a more just collective future.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the story of how you decided to pursue this career path? What lessons can others learn from your story?
I remember sitting at my college graduation wondering what kind of job I could get with the main skill I learned from my liberal arts background: the ability to critically consider multiple aspects of a situation. Shortly thereafter, I landed my first job at a biotech startup — my initial exposure to wearing multiple hats at once and creatively solving big challenges with very limited resources.
That first taste of entrepreneurship gave me the understanding that business was far more than just sound science and technology — it was creative, it was challenging, and it was perfect for me. It ultimately lead me to business school and several subsequent tech startups, from healthcare to semiconductors and everything in between. That’s when I knew startups were my home. I couldn’t even imagine working in a fully established corporation at this point.
By the time I made the leap to founding Transmute, it was less of a career path decision than it was an emphatic belief in decentralized technology. Specifically, when Ethereum launched, I dove down the rabbit hole and developed a sincere belief that this might be the only time in my lifetime where a technology had the potential to disrupt socioeconomic and business norms in a way that could level the playing field for everyone. The catch seemed to be in the feature of immutability — that these new smart contracts [or codified law] are immutable, which means an enormous burden on the early inventors and implementers to “get it right.” In my mind, we have the opportunity to out-engineer or engineer away bias and archaic ideas in these new contracts, but it matters greatly who is at the table redefining them since they represent a lasting future of how we negotiate and interact with each other and businesses.
I think as many women and minorities as possible should be at the table, ensuring diversity of thought is the basis of these revised contracts which [hopefully] support more equal opportunity and a wider range of values. That’s why I quit my job to run Transmute full time.
I think the biggest lesson is that passion trumps fear. If you believe something and believe in yourself [mainly that you’re confident learning and adapting], pursuit of something new and different isn’t scary. You don’t know until you try. As long as you stay comfortable asking questions and being wrong, you’ll often learn, grow, and progress faster.
Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
Transmute of course! But in all seriousness, Transmute ID, our first product is the culmination of over two years of exploring digital identity and specifically addresses challenges of identity management in the developed world.
Early in our company’s journey, another founder who has a successful venture pioneering decentralized identity in the developing world voiced an opinion that drastically shaped how I thought about our business opportunities. This opinion was basically that [and I’m paraphrasing], “the market opportunity for blockchain is only vast in the developing world where central authorities are weak and corrupt. There is limited opportunity in the West because this isn’t a concern.”
The more I reflected on this and observed the onslaught of data breaches and identity theft that has encumbered Western enterprises, governments and citizens over the last decade, including the injustices arising from many businesses blatantly productizing their own consumers, the more I disagreed with this assertion.
The recent introduction of data privacy regulations like Europe’s GDPR and California’s CPA are a testament to the changing tides, introducing expensive/tangible consequences for mishandling or misusing customer data. On the other hand, in our own product research, we found some major pain points in how enterprise systems and processes handle [or don’t handle] identity proofing today.
Transmute ID is a hybrid identity application that augments existing enterprise processes, connecting critical business systems to decentralized identifier functionality to power more secure and transparent transactions, from supply chain to healthcare. Transmute ID bridges the gap between the scale currently afforded by centralized public cloud providers, popular IAM or SSL solutions solutions to the superior security benefits of distributed ledger technologies.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There’s frankly been far too many to name; I’ve been shaped and propelled by countless brilliant friends, family and mentors along the way, and I’m just getting started. I have a truly awesome network. If I must narrow it down, I’d probably highlight the following:
All cliches aside, my dad insisted I learn to negotiate for myself and my interests early on. Whether I was negotiating my allowance or my rights as an intern, I learned to enjoy it and view it as a core part of any job. Given the data showing women aren’t as keen to negotiate, I feel immensely grateful for this.
One of the lead investors at the very first start-up I was an early hire for became a close professional mentor. The details of that failure weren’t what I expected. Our tech was sound; it worked, and we had the engineers to execute. It was my first exposure to “commercialization” as a strategic practice and skill. It was also my first exposure to business ethics. With his support, I came away with a strong sense of ethics, a deep appreciation for transparency vs privacy among teams, and a sound view about the fiduciary responsibility to investors as CEO.
A professional mentor turned dear friend, Kathleen Baireuther. I met her early in my career, while going through business school. She’s the first female I had the pleasure of working under [not in an internship], and she was the first person to make the value of soft skills tangible for me. Soft skills aren’t just social or sales skills. She expanded my ability to think critically, zooming in and out from the big picture to ensure the macro and micro of any deal were examined. I still call her regularly today to use her “funnel brain” to help identify my own blind spots.
My colleagues at the job I left to run Transmute were especially helpful. I worked in semiconductors, a very old, predominantly male industry. And I’m not an engineer; I oversaw the business development and sales for our bioelectronics unit where I had my full genome sequenced and expanded my interest in the quantified self — and also learned to care a lot about who owns and controls my personal data. This team, particularly my boss, John Hamma, empowered me to do new things within an old industry — like bringing our marketing into the 21st century — and genuinely appreciated my regular negotiating. I started Transmute while working on this team, and when it came time to make a choice, John told me a story about when he had a similar decision and didn’t make the leap. He didn’t exactly regret it, but it felt like another sign. And now I feel like I still have a team of advocates in semicon — ready to help me succeed.
Early in my first journey as Transmute’s founding CEO, one of our closest advisors, serial entrepreneur Josh Kerr, helped tame the imposter-syndrome I was facing by defining the most important aspect of my role. He said, “go find people way smarter than yourself and convince them to work with you on this mission.” Defined in those terms, I harnessed a confidence I haven’t looked back from. Also, our team is stellar. 🙂
What are the 5 things that most excite you about blockchain and crypto? Why?
Hopefully my number one is clear from former answers, but the disruptive socio-economic implications — aka leveling the playing field for a more equitable future is my primary drive for being in this space and ensuring it flourishes.
Secondly, I’m absolutely obsessed with our work on decentralized identity. I’m excited that personal data is at the forefront of the political and business conversations. People are starting to care and question our conceptions of identity — especially how it’s defined and by whom in the digital sphere. Given DLTs offer the opportunity to adapt those conceptions and establish better, more fair and secure digital identity practices, I think the timing is perfect.
Similarly, a third and fourth excitement of mine is how the idea [and technical implementations of] decentralized identity is already disrupting ownership and changing business models. For instance, there are companies who use smart contracts on IoT devices, so you only pay for what you consume — creating a radically new kind of ownership. There are companies disrupting the “gig economy” by bringing this concept to established business models. For example, building decentralized identity into their shipping systems so that as reputation emerges in the future, perhaps a trucker will work for multiple shipping companies at once, or a lithography technician at a semicon fab can travel around as she’s needed for different projects at different foundries. The business landscape is changing, and I’m excited.
Finally, 2018 has been incredibly validating. Transmute as a company are not decentralization purists. We’re pragmatists, and after studying how other infrastructure tech was adopted in the enterprise (like cloud), we believe blockchain is following a similar trajectory. It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t totally displace the need for centralized cloud providers and on prem solutions. It will augment these where it makes sense and where it is mature enough to do so today. I think this year has shown we are not the only ones who think this, so I anticipate accelerated experimentation and adoption in 2019 as a result. The future is increasingly hybrid.
What are the 5 things worry you about blockchain and crypto? Why?
The signal to noise ratio is definitely number one. As we saw in the Fall of 2017, crypto is over-hyped, even as I believe token-powered incentives and systems are here to stay. But, Satis Group mentioned a stat at SXSW last year that blew my mind as a founder trying to build real tech: that 2–4% of ICO projects that raised $50MM or $100MM had active github repos. That’s insanity! The result has been a landscape of confused customers and investors who have a tough time figuring out what’s real — regardless of how much code/tech you have.
Which leads me to number two: the education curve in this space is quite steep — on all sides. For the companies, all the noise has really pushed us to find nails with our hammers, which is positive. We aren’t selling blockchain, we’re selling real solutions for real problems within the enterprise. That said, the residual noise means we have a longer “consultative education” period to selling these solutions. It’s a necessary component, but it’s easy to get stuck in this phase, and I am hopeful that with the emerging standards, especially work like we see W3C, the DIF and IEEE putting out now, a common vocabulary and understanding will be established — easing the burden on companies to do all of the educating up front.
My third fear is actually the lack of thought diversity defining standards of use. We need decentralized identity standards to be as universal and interoperable as the digital identity standards that preceded them — likely more so because blockchain might be disrupting centralized and on-prem systems, but it won’t ever get rid of them entirely. There are more, disparate systems now that must connect; we need standards that comprehend apps built across heterogeneous environments. We’ve seen a fascinating new politics emerging in the standards working groups we sit on where leading organizations really only care to make things work for a single protocol. This is beginning to change with enterprise adoption, but it remains a concern.
A fourth fear is that there is rampant misunderstanding of how incentivization works in the blockchain space. We get significant interest from teams wanting to build an app for supply chain with token incentives, but to achieve the goal/actually solve the problem they voice, tokens are simply not needed. This is a result of my first fear.
My fifth fear is a bit of an older one given that 2018 brought more regulatory clarity and I believe more is coming soon; it’s also a U.S. specific fear. Securities regulation has rapidly become one of the most compelling economic development levers for countries who are racing to understand and embrace the technology. In the U.S., I hope we can establish a clear path that ensures the benefits of the technology can be fully realized on shore. Competing in innovation has long supported our international diplomacy, and I don’t want to see us get behind here.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
Positive impact on the world is a top priority at Transmute. One of my favorite stories is when we helped Habitat Texas expand their access to donations during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. My family was stuck on the coast during the storm, and I knew the local director, so we were able to rapidly build a website and open an ether wallet on their behalf. They actually received around $30K in donations [major thanks to some awesome organic reddit marketing by some crypto folks, one who’d both paid off their home in crypto gains and lost it in the floods]. I can’t find those reddit posts, but Habitat committed to continuing the effort and even had us add the ability to accept Bitcoin. You can still donate here.
As you know there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share 3 things that you would you advise to other women in the blockchain space to thrive?
A friend and mentor of mine, Allison Clift-Jennings, CEO of Filament, is an enormous advocate for underrepresented and diverse populations in business. She told me that persistent visibility was the antidote against bias. I genuinely believe that, so my first piece of advice is to remain consistently and persistently visible in your local tech community and the community at large. Eventually your “seat at the table” will become the norm.
Secondly, share your particular interest or project loudly and proudly; don’t censor your personal values, ethics or character from it, either. This will help you find your tribe. Others will begin to ask questions or give feedback that helps shape and improve your idea or product. And eventually, this is how you’ll find your co-founders, first employees, investors, etc.
Lastly, always make the whole pie bigger — not just your piece. Once you’ve got your tribe, amplify their successes to achieve more together. I’d actually say this is universal, gender-neutral advice.
Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the blockchain industry?
I’ll echo my earlier sentiment that blockchain technology is disrupting socioeconomic and business contracts in such a way that more equitable contracts can be redefined in their place. For me, this alone is an exceedingly compelling reason that as many women as possible should get involved in rewriting the contracts that power the future we want to live in.
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.” — Durant, often misattributed to Aristotle
I’m quite invested in the idea that we can rewire our brains — as in, train neural patterns that better serve our goals and wellbeing. I often write ideas I want to instill in myself in places I will see and read them regularly (e.g. mirrors, phone screen, front door, etc.). This one has been a long time favorite because it reminds me of how to make those changes; sort of meta, but it’s helpful for me to remember that progress is a conscious decision that can be broken down into small, bite size actions that can be trained into habits that help drive success. This is how I try to approach my own life and how I try to lead my team at Transmute.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement I would start is already in motion. I’m obviously a huge proponent of women’s rights, and I care immensely about who owns my data and how it’s monetized. I aim to further both of these movements and be part of bringing diverse voices to the table in tech to help and demonstrate to the enterprises that currently rule our lives that there is real business value in empowering users to own and control our own data. The first, most obvious benefit is minimizing their risk and responsibility. The second is business process efficiencies that can be realized when auditing “who has access to data” and “who is responsible for said event” is seamless and automated. And the third being the built in reputation systems that build over time and encourage actors within the system to play by the rules; this sort of transparency allows quality comparisons to be more easily made.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!