We often talk about the blockchain solutions bringing real-world utility to those who need it the most, but we don’t talk about the brilliant minds building these solutions nearly enough – and I wanted to speak to these founder-builders.
Why? Because many of the innovations taking place on blockchain are built by people who are looking to address problems that have long persisted in communities they care about. And, admittedly, I wanted to better understand how different personalities intertwine (or collide) with different challenges to spur these efforts.
Coincidentally, the first of the Founder Journeys is coming out on International Women’s Day. This is the third IWD I’ve spent at SDF, and I’ve known the subject of this interview, Tori Samples, for around that long as well. At the time of this conversation, she served as Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Leaf Global Fintech, a digital wallet services provider for people crossing borders built on Stellar. Since its acquisition by IDT Corporation, Leaf Global has now evolved into BOSS Money Africa, equipped with even more capabilities than ever to connect its users to necessary financial services.
Much to my surprise and delight months later, SDF announced that Tori would be joining as our newest Senior Product Manager (funny story, this opportunity was unexpectedly born the day we had this conversation). Her initial focus area was a project that would later morph into Stellar Aid Assist, a tool powered by the Stellar Disbursement Platform that can be used by humanitarian aid organizations to quickly and cheaply disburse bulk payments to recipients like refugees and migrants.
But I digress – Tori’s journey is a fascinating one, and this conversation makes me eager to have many more with her in the future. Let’s get on with it!
Tori: I think that finance and technology both right now are about putting tools in the hands of people and making things easier to use. What was controlled previously by middlemen and experts is now done by people in the palm of their hands, sitting on their couch. I think that's a great trend. I think it's all about putting those tools in the hands of people so that they can make their own financial decisions with technology that is accessible to them. It's very exciting.
Having been recently acquired, Leaf now has the backing of a larger parent organization behind us and resources and tools that we didn't have. And so it’s a very exciting time for Leaf to expand its geographic footprint and our product base. We just started a lending program and we have a couple other tools coming down the pipeline for users.
What I care about generally in life is driven by my values. So that works out to be pretty consistent across my personal and professional lives.
I care about access to appropriate, affordable healthcare. My previous life before blockchain was all in the healthcare space. I value equality and advocacy and justice. And I care about the representation and treatment of women and minorities, especially in the workplace. Doing anything that I can to advocate for underrepresented people within the workplace is important to me.
Investing in the people and community around me is important. I think that we have all seen what happens when we aren't able to connect with people in the past couple years. And that's something that in this next season of life, I'm really looking forward to reestablishing.
Be curious, ask questions. That's the thing that amazes me even when I come back to the US and I say I've been living in Rwanda for the past few years. People don't know enough, or they feel like they don't know enough, to ask any questions about it. And so the most typical response is, “Oh, wow. Interesting.” And they leave it at that.
I think that is a shortcoming in our society – we don't even feel comfortable asking questions about each other's experiences within our own culture. And so when you try to port that into another culture, it becomes very difficult to get to know someone if that's your mindset.
So I would encourage people who are trying to make relationships across cultures, but just in general, to remember that people are people are people. It doesn't matter where you are. People's hopes and aspirations and dreams and failures and struggles are similar at a base level. It works out differently, and it looks very different depending on your context. But remember that the person across from you probably has shared experience somewhere in life and you'll be able to make a connection by being curious, asking questions, and remembering to value them and their inherent dignity.
Well, I’m a sucker for being told that I can't do something. I'm always driven by the unknown and feeling like I can jump into something that I know nothing about and learn quickly enough and become excellent at that thing. That isn't possible for everything, but I really enjoy that process.
Curiosity is definitely a part of my life. I'm, of course, like everyone else, subject to putting up blinders on myself. But I think it's been a theme throughout my life. I'll say that one thing that I see a lot within myself and others is the tendency to satisfy curiosity with criticism. The easiest way to look like an expert on something is to pick it apart or to ask questions that downplay it or shoot the idea down.
And I think that when we do that, it's a natural tendency. Which is fine, but we really have to examine ourselves and figure out if the motivation is to genuinely understand by asking those questions, or if it's just to appear like an expert to other people and like we know the flaws in that particular idea or concept.
<laugh> I do it all the time. I hear about something new, and my first thought is, ‘Okay, well, what's wrong with this?’ instead of, ‘Okay, how can I understand this at a deeper level?’.
Advocate. Yeah, exactly.
That's a big question. I think any entrepreneur could look back and identify 10 to 20 pivotal moments that led them to where they are, because it is a mixture of skill and luck and timing. And so there are always moments that kind of shape your trajectory.
But for me, there were some very early ones that made pursuing Leaf possible. My co-founder and I started Leaf while we were in graduate school. I was getting my MBA, he was getting his law degree. We were testing out the concept, looking into doing some market research around the world, and looking into what it would be like to start a blockchain-based financial services provider for refugees in Africa. And we won two pitch competitions – one from Launch Tennessee, another one from Vanderbilt University – that made it possible for us to pursue it.
A colleague at work gave me The Blockchain Revolution book early on, I want to say maybe 2014 or 2015? And I let it sit very impressively on my bookshelf for a couple years, showing everyone how smart I was. I did attempt to read it a couple times, but I was a database designer for my nine to five, and so honestly, I just didn't wanna spend that much more time thinking about databases.
Then my co-founder asked me to do this pitch competition with him a few years later – it was a three minute pitch competition. And he said, “Let's do blockchain. Can you put something together?”
So I researched and got really excited about the potential for the technology applied to this issue that I knew decently well. I had seen blockchain already applied unsuccessfully to a few healthcare startups. And so I really didn't want to jump on the bandwagon. And my initial answer was, “Absolutely not, we're not doing blockchain.”
But the more that I dug into it, the light bulb kind of went off and there became a very clear use case that was motivated by a problem – not just wanting to throw a technical solution on top of it.
One moment that stands out for me personally was the first time that I went to Congo. I had worked in advocacy about 10 years earlier and knew the history of the country, but never thought I'd be able to personally enter it. It was quite difficult for Americans to get in at the time.
And so the first time I went to Congo, I had this moment of realization that I made my dreams come true in a way that I never expected. And now I've been there more times than I can count. I'm very thankful for that. My last holiday was riding motorcycles through Eastern Congo with my husband and, and that's my real life now.
I think Gen Z has already started to make the world a kinder place and I'm grateful for that. I think we needed that. So I think that's a good thing. I see us hopefully being more authentic and kinder, but I also want to see us become more interconnected.
I hope that people are curious about cultures across the world and that we are able to preserve those cultures while bringing them together. And ultimately at the end of the day, I hope that we're driven by justice at a micro and a macro level.
We’ve got some more Founder Journeys lined up for the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned! But while you’re waiting, you can check out Stellar’s vibrant ecosystem of projects and partners here.
And if you’re itching for more video content, you can catch Tori’s interview and other cool series here.