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Money is not apolitical

Why Coinbase should evolve its mission

Harry Alford III | 11/17/2020, 3:44 p.m.
Companies can’t source diverse people if diversity cannot thrive in the workplace...
Harry Alford is Co-Founder of humble ventures, a venture development firm accelerating tech startups in partnership with large organizations and investors. Harry Alford

Show me a company where people can be heard and respected for their differences and I’ll show you a team that will go through walls together.

Coinbase CEO, Brian Armstrong, recently published a post, “Coinbase is a mission focused company,” drawing a line in the sand for its activist employees. He and Coinbase won’t take a stand on anything that’s outside of building “infrastructure for the crypto economy.” This includes broader societal issues. Armstrong wrote, “we don’t engage here when issues are unrelated to our core mission, because we believe impact only comes with focus.” Not allowing employees to take on activism outside of Coinbase’s core mission is essentially telling them to not bring their full selves to work and ignoring major crises in the country like systemic racism. His note sparked a firestorm. Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, pushed back:

Bitcoin (aka “crypto”) is direct activism against an unverifiable and exclusionary financial system which negatively affects so much of our society. Important to at least acknowledge and connect the related societal issues your customers face daily. This leaves people behind.

I imagine Armstrong sold his early hires on the mission to disrupt the financial system. However, I, like some others, believe Armstrong’s mission focus violates the spirit of cryptocurrency, specifically bitcoin. Coindesk’s Emily Parker stated:

“Armstrong would like to have it both ways. He wants to be apolitical about the disruptions that make him uncomfortable, but political about Bitcoin’s mission to disrupt the world. This position is not only somewhat incoherent, it undermines the core principles of Bitcoin.”

I’m unsure of the breakdown in diversity at Coinbase as I don’t think their numbers are public. What I know is, the ones giving him praise are the ones I’d expect. Investor Paul Graham applauded the position and predicted “most successful companies will follow Coinbase’s lead.” Bitcoin is an engine for inclusion, but the crypto industry is anything but inclusive. Brian’s message is counterintuitive to inviting more into the space and the future of innovation. It’s a blind spot.

Companies can’t source diverse people if diversity cannot thrive in the workplace, beyond the diversity of the workforce. If no one is challenged and everyone believes the same thing — that is a monoculture. A few reasons why a monoculture is disadvantageous:

-Can create environments that are not set up for the success of minorities, women, or other groups.

-You can’t source diverse people if you can’t support an inclusive workplace that allows for that diversity to exist and thrive.

-Fair talent practices come into question. Claiming meritocracy and pay for performance culture assumes that everyone is equally prepared.

In the current environment, “shut up and do your job” without talking about social issues is tone-deaf at best.

-Monocultures don’t survive certain types of antagonists and external forces.

More exposure to destruction because of conformity.

-Increased innovation risk.

-Future-focused ideas don’t come from the usual suspects.

Armstrong’s stance makes me question his perspective, Silicon Valley, and the greater tech industry — smart yet privileged, a little blind, and perhaps purely believing in a meritocracy. Maybe it’s Armstrong’s intention to get rid of dead weight, instill fear, and social signal “who is with us and who isn’t.”

When employees weren’t comfortable with the new direction, Armstrong sent a letter telling them to get in line with a new company “culture shift,” offering those unwilling to do so a “generous separation package.” It’s wholly to Armstrong’s advantage to offer a severance package. Either his workforce agrees, become ostracized, or voice exit. As of today, about 5% of employees (60) have decided to take the exit package. Regardless, what remains is a monoculture.

Coinbase is poised to help evolve the global financial system so that it’s able to be more inclusive for the greater good yet to date they’ve maintained a very narrow-minded mission focus.

Leadership is acknowledging this snapshot in history, committing to be a part of the solution, and engaging employees to make that happen. Recognizing societal issues your customers face daily and evolving the company mindset to genuinely value and seek diversity enables you to do your job better.

Future consequences are inevitably shaped by present actions. Having different voices and experiences valued at the table will make Coinbase, and any company, stronger. Coinbase can continue to grasp tightly to its initial mission or expand it to meet the circumstances of today and tomorrow.

Thanks to my brother Thomas Alford and Ajit Verghese for ideating on this topic with me.

Harry Alford III is co-founder of Humble Ventures, a venture development firm accelerating tech startups in partnership with large organizations and investors.

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