Q&A with top women in crypto: Maja Vujinovic, founder and CEO of OGroup
For the second installment of our new series of interviews with influential female leaders in the digital asset space, we spoke to Maja Vujinovic, founder and CEO of the OGroup, an investment and ops firm focused on building companies in the digital assets space.
Maja’s previous experience in building mobile payments for a few years in the early 2000s across Africa led her to Bitcoin in 2009/2010. While living and working across Africa and Latin America, it was easy for her to see how cryptocurrencies could potentially benefit such communities. She is well known in the industry for introducing blockchain technology to General Electric and has a strong personal interest in privacy and security following her experience as a child refugee, making her a fierce advocate of all the positives blockchain technology has to offer.
How did you get into digital assets?
In the early 2000s, I was working in mobile payments in Africa and Latin America. In 2009 I read the Bitcoin whitepaper and I saw the potential of that type of solution in these regions. I was already working in mobile payments, so that was an easy transition for me. I could realize the potential of such technology because we were paying such high fees just to pay our own employees and make cross-border transfers.
I didn't buy into the Bitcoin narrative fully for a long time, but I kept participating and surrounding myself with people who knew more than me about this technology. A few years later, I was hired by General Electric, becoming one of their youngest executives, and this gave me the opportunity to actually test smart contracts. I was already part of the Satoshi Roundtable and I had access to many people that were creating these protocols, so I brought them into GE. This allowed me to catalyze blockchain really early. During my time at GE, it was one of just two large global organizations doing anything in blockchain.
The other interest I have in cryptocurrencies is personal. I was a refugee as a child and my identity was almost stolen when I was crossing the border. So I have a passion for financial inclusion and for privacy in general. Blockchain technology can be dangerous in this respect as well, but at the same time I know that if we have traceable identity we would have less suffering in the world, in areas such as sex slavery for example.
What was it like for you, introducing a new technology to a traditional company like General Electric?
I was shut out of the room a few times. I was told that it was absolutely not going to go anywhere and nobody's going to listen. But then I did have support from a couple of really strong execs who I educated about this, and they told me: “don't give up, just keep pushing, because this is the future”. It was definitely hard until we launched some pilots across the company, and people started to realize the potential of blockchain technology.
Could you tell us a little bit about the work that the OGroup does?
OGroup is focused on investments, operations and scale in crypto. We help companies figure out if they have a product in crypto, how can that be scaled or repurposed for an incumbent, or who they should be partnering with, merging with or buying, depending on their balance sheet, to scale out their work. We have invested in about 40 companies in the space. It is a really wide range of businesses, anything from emerging markets, remittances, stablecoins, gaming, to areas such as carbon credits, for example.
What developments are you particularly excited about that could promote the practical applications of blockchain in the coming years?
Based on my work in Africa and South America, I am particularly excited to see the power of stablecoins to keep the stability of local currencies in check for ordinary people. For example, when the value of a currency in an emerging market drops, local people can have stability through stablecoins. It's a very powerful tool. Crypto also lowers the fees of the remittances, and when you don't have much money to send to your family, every dollar counts.
Another powerful development is going to be the play-to-earn economy, which allows people to play a game at the end of the day and earn money. And of course the whole DeFi ecosystem, which has the potential to rewire how the entire financial system works. DeFi facilitates lending and borrowing and it also trickles into financial inclusion and other basic human rights. My worry is that this whole space is an open field for more greed if not intentionally designed to be more inclusive. DAOs, for example, and the voting process create a little bit of a plutocracy where the rich just get richer. We have to call this out in projects, otherwise it won’t change.
If you could give one piece of advice to a woman starting out in the crypto industry, what would it be?
Be yourself, stop leaning in. Create a world where women can thrive in a business and demand it. Do business with a smile on, in a feminine way, and stop leaning into the format that has been created. Bring other women with you, support other women in whatever way possible. It will come back during your life in some way.
What can we do as an industry to attract more women into key roles?
I always call out people who say that “there are no women in this space”. There are a lot of women in this space and there should be more diversity in general for sure, but also people should try harder to find or include them.
I say to women, stop playing small. Be really honest and have the strength to ask for what you want and to ask other women for support. Things are not going to change unless we change them.