An interview with Elizabeth Stark, Cofounder and CEO, Lightning Labs
The keynote speaker at the 16th FIX Asia Pacific Trading Summit discusses bitcoin, blockchain and the tech industry.
What is the greatest transformation in technology you’ve seen in your career?
While I was fairly young at the time, watching the internet and World Wide Web spread was fascinating. I then went on to teach about the intersection of law and technology at Yale and Stanford Universities, looking at how the internet is changing society, culture, and the economy. It’s so interesting to see that there’s an entire generation that has never known a world without widespread internet. I believe we’re seeing the same for the ability to transact on the internet with bitcoin and cryptocurrency, and in many ways it has felt like the early days of the internet.
Sounds like you are a firm believer in blockchain and cryptocurrencies?
When I first heard about bitcoin, I thought it was fascinating, though I was admittedly sceptical if it would ever take off. A few months later, that scepticism faded and I was hooked!
However, I still consider myself a blockchain sceptic. That’s not to say that I don’t think this technology is important, but for so long there was a movement to minimize the importance of bitcoin and cryptocurrency and instead call the true innovation: “the blockchain.” For me what is so special about this technology is we have the formation of new public, decentralized networks that are similar to how the internet developed. In the early days of the internet, many companies also created corporate intranets, but they were not interoperable or connected to the broader network. I view much of the blockchain discussion as the equivalent of the corporate intranets, or just general hype around use cases that aren’t actually feasible.
The beauty of bitcoin is that it has a built-in incentive structure through proof-of-work to keep the network decentralized and secure, along with making public/private key cryptography more widespread, so it’s really not just about a “blockchain” alone.
The true potential of this technology is to create a new financial infrastructure, an internet of value that is open and decentralized, and that anyone can build on top of. This is what I believe bitcoin can achieve.
Why did you create Lightning Labs?
At Lightning Labs, we’re building a software layer on top of bitcoin that can bring it to the next wave of people. We’re making bitcoin faster and more scalable, by enabling instant, high volume transactions. We’re making it easy for developers to build on bitcoin, with easy-to-use interfaces for developers. And we’re enabling interoperability between blockchains, as Lightning can enable cross-blockchain swaps between currencies like bitcoin and litecoin where you don’t have to trust an exchange to trade. In short, we’re creating the building blocks for this new financial infrastructure.
We are building out the Layer 2 of blockchains, but it is also possible to build a third layer, be it a smart contracting protocol or algo trading protocol on top of Lightning itself. I can’t wait to see what other people build on top of our technology, as the potential for new use cases is massive. Check out this talk I gave at the Blockstack Summit for more on the importance of Layer 2 technologies.
The good, bad and ugly of blockchain?
Everything in our industry moves so quickly that it can be extremely hard to keep up, even when you work in the space full time. I see that as a positive sign though, as it means more and more people are getting interested in building this future. Right now there’s a massive opportunity for people to get up to speed and learn about this new technology and where it may be headed. As I like to say, there’s no one in the world with a decade of “blockchain experience” (except for Satoshi Nakamoto, of course). What that means is if someone is motivated to learn about the technology they can start reading any number of resources online and get up to speed fairly quickly.
That said, the downside is there are a lot of people who have gotten involved lately with a “get rich quick” mentality, not to mention many questionable projects and outright scams. Those who will succeed, though, will have a long term vision and understand that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and this technology will take years of hard work to build out.
Tell us about your leadership style and philosophy in life.
As I’ve been involved with open source communities for over a decade, my leadership style is very collaborative. I believe in giving people agency and autonomy, not just telling people what to do. That said, communication is of utmost importance, especially with a distributed team like our own. So I would say my style is a mix of collaboration, communication, and guiding people to work on their passion.
In terms of philosophy, I’m very much a doer. If I see a problem, my instinct is to fix it. I don’t like it when people tell me I can’t do something. When I first started my company, lots of people told me we were crazy or that it would never work. My approach is to ignore what people say and keep on building.
How could the tech industry be more inclusive for women?
First off, it’s crucially important to highlight the achievements of women and people of colour. The more other people can see role models that look like them, the more they will be encouraged to get involved. Second, creating more opportunities to learn, be it on the technology front or the business front. Along those lines, I have been involved in funding scholarships for female software engineers to learn more about the bitcoin protocol with bitcoin developer and educator Jimmy Song, which has been extremely successful in bringing more technical women into the fold. I’m also co-organizing a conference this autumn in California that will feature leaders in the industry giving technical and business talks about their work – who just happen to be women.
In terms of challenges, right now there’s a huge opportunity to reshape the global financial system as we know it. We need participation from all different kinds of people from all over the world, and part of that will be engaging more women in the process. It can be difficult if you’re the only woman in a room, at a conference, or event, as I have often been in the past. One good example was an event I attended recently in Morocco. For the first version of this event four years ago, there were very few women in attendance, and numerous people pointed it out. At this year’s event, it was 52% women, after the organizers made an effort to reach out to female leaders. So, for women who are feeling like they’re the only ones, know that there are many of us out there, and more to come.
I make it a point to refer to great women when it comes to speaking, press, or other opportunities because it’s important that their stories are told. The more a younger generation can see role models, the more inspired they will be to get involved.