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Meet Xelene | ZebPay Women in Crypto

The objective of our meeting today is to understand your journey. What brought you to crypto, and to ZebPay?

Let’s just say I’ve had a very meandering and serendipitous journey. I think the only deliberate decision I’ve made was to study geology. So, my undergraduate and postgraduate were both in geology, of all things.

After geology, the most natural next step was to work in the petroleum industry. I worked with the Royal Dutch Shell Company for about six years, and did a lot of oil field exploration with them. My work wasn’t much geology, so much as physics. We did a lot of data analysis, programming, statistical analysis, modelling, things of that sort. Not pure geology, but its related fields.

Simultaneously with Shell, I was also preparing for the civil services exams, which was something I’d always wanted to do. Finally cleared them in 2011, and joined the IRS in the Indirect Taxation Department. I worked as an Assistant Commissioner for Service Tax, then GST, for about four years.

I very quickly realized that a government job was not where I wanted to be. It was too monotonous, too steady, too predictable. I don’t thrive in an environment of that sort. It was a very difficult decision, but I did eventually leave the civil services.

Before the IRS, I found anything to do with finance and economics was very boring. When I joined the civil services and was forced to do it, that’s when I realized that it was quite interesting after all. And when I decided to do my MBA, those were the areas I focused on.

At ZebPay, after a very long time I feel like I fit somewhere. It’s a mix of everything that makes me, me. I love working with numbers, but I also love newness and novelty and change. If things aren’t rapidly changing, I lose interest. For me, this is the perfect place to find all of it.

And what does the typical, or well in your case, no-typical day at ZebPay look like?

There’s no typical day. We work in all four corners of the globe, right? And while most of us are working on the India operations, I’m sitting in strategy. I get to work with everyone. My meetings then have to accomodate for all time zones. 

My work day typically starts at 7.30 AM, if I have a call. We’ve recently shifted our leadership calls to the evening, so I can start a little later. I try to then take a break in the middle of the day, which in fact you are currently interrupting. From 11 AM to 3 PM, I try not to take work, while I sort the house out and figure out food for the day.

At 4 PM is when it picks up again, and goes on typically till about 9 PM, depending on who needs what meeting. The rest of my day is then arranged around the meetings that cannot be shifted.

So, no typical day. And the thing is, I love working like this! I hate predictability, I hate having a set routine.

Backtracking for a moment, from that background in geology in your undergrad and postgrad education – have there been any skills which you feel have translated to your work at ZebPay?

I am a huge proponent of the fact that your past background and work experience does not matter. Unless you’re making jet engines, or something which requires technical capability. Most other things, in fact 90% of all other work in the world – it doesn’t matter what you’ve studied.

Having said that, there are a few skills and traits that will hold you in good stead whatever you do. One is deep analytic thought. I’m not referring to numbers here, but being able to look at any problem and being able to break it down to its most basic components. Every process, every task, even this interview you’re doing can be broken down and analyzed for a larger cause and effect relationship. It’s a skill that no one can teach you; you have to learn it for yourself. But it’s applicable across every stream, every discipline, every industry. 

The next is – adaptability and hardwork. In today’s work environment, you have to ensure that you are flexible to adapt to changes- even if you remain in the same role for the rest of your career. And of course- hardwork, I don’t think this needs any further explanation.

The other important thing is emotional maturity. That’s something that is severely underrated when we’re looking to hire people. In fact, it’s underrated across all of life, not just work. 

But honestly, if you have strong analytical skills and emotional maturity, are adaptable to new situations and are willing to work hard, nothing else matters. Everything else can be learned to some degree or the other, as long as you have the willingness to learn.

Xelene and cryptocurrency. How did that journey begin?

The first time I heard of Bitcoin was during my MBA. I’d never heard of it before. I was introduced to it in a very negative way, because most of our professors were very anti-crypto. 

It broke or challenged every single accepted economic theory that exists to date: the reason we use fiat money; the ability of the government to control money supply and velocity. None of that exists with crypto. It becomes a difficult concept to wrap your head around if you’ve grown up around a very traditional school of thought. 

There’s always been a central group of people who could control money, be it gold or coins or paper. From my research so far, this is the first time the concept of decentralized control exists in the context of money or currency. 

To me, it’s a reflection of how we no longer look up to authority. I’m going to take a very basic example here. Five or ten years ago, would you have had the audacity to address your boss by their first name? 

We’re evolving into a more individualistic society, and that’s how I see crypto’s narrative in the larger scheme of things. Whether or not you believe in crypto, to me, reflects your outlook on things in general.

Coming back to the original question, it was a very negative introduction, and I’d decided to just park it for later. There were a lot of buzzwords, ‘blockchain’, ‘cryptocurrency’, ‘artificial-intelligence’, ‘machine learning’ floating around during my MBA. If you desired a good job, you needed to at least be aware of these. 

I was initially looking for roles in supply chain management, found a role at Amazon and later a very traditional Indian company called the Manipal Group. With Manipal, I was helping incubate one of their new ventures in the supply chain management field. While working on that, a lot of our clients asked if they should incorporate blockchain. That’s when I started my research, and that’s when I was hooked. I even wrote a paper about it while at Manipal.

Especially so because during my time at the IRS, one of the biggest challenges I faced was with record manipulation. In the government, everything is run through files, physical files which you have to copy and annotate and sign off on. The scope for manipulating them is infinite. All you need is a little artistic ability and imagination to enable you to forge any document. Putting files into a Word document was even worse, because then you have no control. With blockchain, the possibilities were then limitless. 

At the time, my brother was already working at ZebPay. He happened to circulate my paper internally. Avinash asked if I would consider a position with Zebpay. And here I am!

How far do you think the blockchain industry has to go to become a more welcoming space for women professionals?

The thing is, gender disparity isn’t just about any industry. Whether we want to accept it or not- our society is still designed for, evaluated for and determined by men. I’d like to narrate something. 

Yesterday, we had a leadership workshop, which started with some prework. We had to do a kind of a personality quiz, a personality test. It was not personality per se. The test was how you react to change and that’s where the conversation revolves around a kind of leadership type, something of that sort.

Now think about this. If there are three paths in a broad spectrum, one is a Conserver, kind of like someone who doesn’t like change too much, who fights to maintain the status quo. Right in the middle is a Pragmatist who evaluates on a case by case basis if the change is required or not. The third part of the spectrum was the Originator, someone who does change. Embraces change. You want to see change happening all the time, always challenging the status quo. 

Of everyone in the Leadership team, I was furthest on the ‘Originator’ spectrum. And that’s despite the fact that I have over time, “subdued” my real personality and how I approach things.

I know that if I just answered honestly,  my score would be at the radical end of the spectrum. And the reason for that is, I know as a woman, no one will accept me as a leader if I behave that aggressively. 

I have faced this throughout my career. If there was a man who was exactly the way I was, he would be considered a brilliant leader. But I would just be considered emotional or irrational. And it has kind of forced me to evaluate how I deal with things.

It has forced me to temper myself and tone down my speech. I know eventually, with maturity, most people tend to mellow down things to get the best results right out of the situation. But that’s more true for a woman. If you’re a woman, you are not expected to be aggressive. I know that I am far more aggressive than any of any of the men here in this company at this point.

It’s just that I can’t afford to show it, because it will not be accepted. If I spoke to people the way some of our male leaders spoke to people, it would not be taken well. 

These are kind of some of the things that influence everything that we do as women. And most of what a man takes for granted, we have to think 10 times about. We, ourselves, don’t realize how much more we could have achieved if we didn’t have those unconscious harnesses on us. Most of the time, we don’t even realize that it exists, that it’s there holding us back — because we have never known it to be not there.

We’ve just accepted it as being there.


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