Finance and tech aren’t known for their gender inclusivity. Cryptocurrency’s additional layer of mystery hasn’t made it the most welcoming field, either. But Sanja Kon, CEO of Utrust, has been paving her own path in the industry. Utrust, a blockchain startup, supports trade across borders and between businesses as its own “payment ecosystem.” Kon joined the company in 2018 and, two years later, became CEO. As a speaker for a WomenX Impact, Kon spoke with The Tempest about her career as a woman in the field of crypto.

“You would think that in 2021, we would have equally the same number of women as men in key roles in a company, but it’s not the way,” Kon admitted. Among global fintech startup founders, women make up only 7 percent. In the US, women account for 37 percent of the entire fintech workforce. 

But Kon highly recommends blockchain as a path for women interested in finance. According to her, the digital currency industry is already pivoting to focus on gender diversity and inclusion. “I think it’s an amazing industry for women,” she said, suggesting that it’s more diverse than traditional areas of the tech industry.

Blockchain, most typically associated with the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, has often been shadowed in mystery. Essentially, it serves as a digital record of transactions and, as a result, is the foundation for digital currency, aka cryptocurrency. But although blockchain technology was released a decade ago, it’s continued to cast a shadow of confusion and uncertainty.  

But despite the widespread skepticism, Kon believes that anyone interested in the field can start learning on their own. “I think everyone should really start educating themselves,” she said. Kon, herself, was not always in cryptocurrency. In fact, most of her career has been in marketing and e-commerce. She has been a leader and executive in large corporate companies including eBay and Virgin. In fact, she was PayPal’s head of marketplace, based in London, when she learned about blockchain. When Kon began to research the other side of her work in e-commerce, UTrust caught her attention.

“I really wanted to bring a layer of innovation,” Kon said. “While I was advising them, I fell in love with the project, with a team with a vision,” she added.

Between her work at large corporate companies to Utrust’s start-up environment, Kon admits “everything has advantages and disadvantages.” Her experience in corporate helped her to build skills in leadership and organization. To Kon, it was a “safe environment” to grow as a leader. 

“When I moved from PayPal into a startup, it was difficult for some people to understand: why would I leave a secure place? But my intuition was telling me that that was the right thing to do for me because I felt excited. The most important thing for you to do is be excited with what you do,” Kon said. “Passion is recognizable. When I hire people in my team, yes, we look into skills but skills can be built. Passion cannot be built.”

She admits that a startup company, like Utrust, brings with it a lot more pressure. “You always have the pressure of finding mentors, fundraising, finding investors for your company, and at the same time politically continuing to grow the company,” she said. In exchange, “there’s a lot of more variety and you really see the impact of your actions on a daily basis,” she added. 

She also emphasized how important work culture and mentorship are to combating gender disparity, saying, “I was really fortunate because my co-founders at Utrust are all men and they really believed in me.”

Mentorship is a big theme throughout Kon’s career path. Kon, herself, has volunteered as a mentor, both within her former role at eBay and for the Young Women Network. The most common piece of advice she gives to other women is to continue growing a network and finding mentorship among women in your industry, two or three years older than you.

“It’s really important to have a support system and find maybe other women that have been in your shoes. It’s your next step and you can learn from them, how they did it and surround yourself with other women that are where you want to be now,” she said. As a speaker for WomenXImpact, she is looking forward to the event which is expected to take place in Bologna, Italy later this year. 

“Italy is a place where there’s a lot to do in terms of giving more power to women, giving them a voice, giving them a place to thrive and share their ideas. Unfortunately, I think it’s really as much behind other countries,” she said, comparing it to her experience living in the UK. Kon was born in Croatia but, at the age of five, moved with her family to Italy where she grew up. 

However, as a young girl in Italy, Kon did not have a lot of mentors herself. “I was born in a family and in a culture where women are not supposed to grow up and be successful leaders,” she said. “Growing up, I never had a role model […] no one taught me the process for growing my career or learning, or even for creating wealth.”

It wasn’t until she began working in her industry that she found like-minded people and managers to look up to. In the past eight years, she has also invested in a business coach. “It’s about investing in yourself, in your education–really believing in yourself, even if you don’t have anyone in your environment that is successful,” Kon said.

“Your past does not equal your future,” she emphasized. “It’s our power to take in our hands, our destiny–and just don’t be afraid to explore.”

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  • Helena Ong is a freelance writer and journalist from San Francisco, California. In the past, she's worked at San Francisco Public Press, World Policy Journal, and NBC4 Los Angeles. She graduated from Pomona College, where she served as Production Editor for her college newspaper, The Student Life.