How two curious and technologically savvy SHA students forged Cornell Blockchain

SHA’s entrepreneurial bent and a fascination with Bitcoin led a pair of Hotelies to found a university-wide blockchain club for undergraduates.

By: Karen Gross
Group photo of Cornell Blockchain members cheering and standing behind the Nasdaq podium at the opening bell, with Cornell Blockchain on the wall behind them and on the podium in front of them

Cornell Blockchain members opening their inaugural conference by ringing the Nasdaq bell, April 11, 2019. Photo by Libby Greene/Nasdaq

Joe Ferrara ’19 grew up in a bustling family that encouraged initiative and inspired adventure. The fourth of five children, he loved to make people happy, often cooking meals and baking treats for his siblings and parents. “I really loved seeing people smile and I really liked providing the best experiences for people,” he says. As a teenager, Ferrara spent his summers slinging pizzas and bussing tables, envisioning a day when he would run his own business. “I was really full force on the restaurant industry. That was my thing.”

So it was hardly a surprise to anyone when Ferrara transferred to the School of Hotel Administration as a sophomore in 2016. It’s what happened after he got there that not even he could have predicted. “The summer before I got to campus, my brother started telling me about Bitcoin,” Ferrara remembers, referring to the mysterious cryptocurrency that was creeping into the public consciousness and verging on a dramatic rise in value at the time. “I really didn’t know what it was, but it caught my attention.” When he began to understand that the powerful part was not Bitcoin itself, but rather the underlying blockchain technology, Ferrara started asking questions around campus. “No one could really explain it,” he says. “At the time, Bitcoin did not have the best reputation, and some people would question the technology or even laugh until I talked about what blockchain could do.”

Ironically, the support Ferrara sought was actually hiding in plain sight. Unbeknownst to him and most other students outside of the computer science realm, Cornell had already established itself as an academic leader in blockchain and cryptocurrency research. The university is home base to the Initiative for Cryptocurrencies and Contracts, known as IC3—an international consortium involving top computer science faculty and graduate students at eight leading worldwide institutions.

Ferrara would come to learn about that by accident. In the meantime, his curiosity and relentless enthusiasm spread rapidly among some of his friends and neighbors in Flora Rose House, one of whom was Lynette Ban ’19, who’d also just transferred into SHA that fall. “He lived on my floor,” says Ban. “His suite and my suite became really close friends. “He told me about mining Bitcoin, and basically in my head, from what I understood, he was plugging a machine into a wall and then making money out of thin air.”

That fantasy—inaccurate as it was—was tantalizing enough to draw Ban into Ferrara’s Bitcoin orbit. He began teaching her what he had learned on his own about the emerging and complicated technology underlying the cryptocurrency. Ban, a former actuarial science student and a daughter of an electrical engineer and a computer scientist, caught on quickly. “The more I learned about it, the more I wanted to try to understand this new concept,” she says.

Experts and students converge to form a campus-wide blockchain club

The Cornell connection clicked unexpectedly as a result of Ferrara’s digging. His hunger for information had him frequently scouring the internet in the hunt for news and advice. “I was reading a tweet from this guy and I thought it was interesting,” he says. “Then I looked up his bio, and it said he was a Cornell professor.” In fact, it was Emin Gün Sirer, associate professor of computer science, co-founder of IC3, and one of the world’s most respected voices in the blockchain space.

“We had no idea,” Ban says. “Cornell literally had this organization of professors and grad students researching and developing blockchain protocols, but there was no undergraduate organization. That was an opportunity waiting to happen.”

What Ban and Ferrara envisioned was a campus-wide club: one that would welcome students from all academic backgrounds, anyone who might want to learn more about this burgeoning field. They approached Sirer and asked him to serve as an advisor. They also connected with Eric Hu ’20 (A&S), a biology and economics major who had likewise become curious about Bitcoin and was trying to establish a club. At the time, Hu didn’t know much about SHA or its students. “When I came to Cornell, I didn’t understand the concept of hospitality,” he says. “But what they teach is so much more than I thought. It’s one of the coolest schools out there.”

headshot of Emin Gün Sirer
Emin Gün Sirer

Sirer, who had tried unsuccessfully to establish a blockchain club himself a few years earlier, was also impressed. “I was a bit surprised,” he says. “I would have expected somebody incredibly technical with a computer science background to come to me and instead I had these students from the Hotel School come in and they showed great interest in the area. They were quite savvy.”

By the fall of 2017 the new club, Cornell Blockchain, was established, with Sirer as advisor, and ready to hold its first meeting. The timing could hardly have been better. “There was a growing excitement about the technology. The price of cryptocurrencies was going through the roof,” Ferrara recalls. “We were expecting 30 or 40 people, but 120 showed up.”

And as Sirer read the room at that first meeting, he learned something about the nascent field that he hadn’t really considered. “I was expecting maybe 80 percent computer science or electrical engineering students. But it was all over the map. Hotel School students, bio students, business students, and philosophers. You name it,” Sirer says. “It was my first indication that this area was truly interdisciplinary.”

Hotelies as entrepreneurial, adaptive, open to new technologies

What gives the field such broad appeal is its essentially decentralized nature. While many of us think of blockchain in hard-to-grasp  terms involving cryptocurrencies and coding, fans of the technology argue it’s a platform that will ultimately make everything we do—from banking to buying real estate to mapping a supply chain—more efficient and more transparent. “Every new technology brings with it some hardcore tech, but also a different set of values,” Sirer says. “The values embedded in blockchain technology are all about democratization of business, opening new fields for new startups, pushing aside people who are incumbent, and creating space for newcomers.”

From that perspective, the fact that Cornell Blockchain was successfully launched by a couple of Hotelies makes a lot of sense. “Business management is part and parcel of the skills taught in the Hotel School,” Sirer says. “The students there tend to be entrepreneurial. And they also tend to be quite adaptive and quite eager to pick up new technologies.”

Statistics bear that out. SHA’s graduates are all over the place, working in a wide range of areas including real estate, financial services, and technology. Data from the Class of 2018 reveal that just 27 percent of graduates landed in what’s considered “hospitality,” which is what the school is best known for outside of Cornell. On campus, it’s also known for producing highly skilled professionals whose business education is bolstered by a curriculum that emphasizes communication, service, and interpersonal skills.

In its own way, Cornell Blockchain reflects a spirit that Cornell as a whole works to promote: an open-door approach to education, no matter what your background or where you spend most of your time. “I think this is really an example of that,” Hu says. “First of all, a lot of people who are interested in the blockchain space aren’t computer science majors. Here, in the club, you have students from every single college and every major. Some might be working on code, others on marketing, and some on the technology’s implications. Everyone adds to the story.”

Putting Cornell front and center in the blockchain space

Ban and Ferrara’s SHA experience was put to its most challenging test in the spring of 2019, when the club organized and successfully staged its first Cornell Blockchain conference on the Cornell Tech campus in New York City. Not only did they manage to bring together some 250 academics and industry leaders to address the vast potential impact of blockchain and cryptocurrency; they were also invited to open the conference by ringing the Nasdaq bell.

photos of (left to right) Lynette Ban ’19, Emin Gün Sirer, associate professor of computer science, and Joe Ferrara ’19 standing behind the podium at Nasdaq
(left to right) Lynette Ban ’19, Emin Gün Sirer, associate professor of computer science, and Joe Ferrara ’19

“I’m so proud of this,” says Sirer, still moved by the memory. “We were the first blockchain institution to open the NASDAQ, to press that button. It was one of the rare moments in my life where I felt so high. It was absolutely awe-inspiring.” So was the accomplishment of his young protégés, Ban, Ferrara, and Hu. “They’re fantastic. They’ve done an amazing job of putting Cornell front and center in this burgeoning area.”

Lynette Ban ’19 standing outside Nasdaq in NYC with her name and Cornell Blockchain on the digital signage
Lynette Ban ’19

The two Hotelies are now working full time at blockchain startups. Ban began her career on the business development team at TQ Tezos, an entity created to support the Tezos, an open-source blockchain platform for assets and applications. She recently moved to CME, a derivatives exchange and clearinghouse. “I am hoping to learn more about what they are doing to explore blockchain merging with an aspect of finance—derivatives—especially since they have launched a Bitcoin Futures platform,” she says. Her unlikely background often elicits a surprised reaction from people she first meets. “In the beginning, it’s like, ‘Why are you here? That makes zero sense,’” she says. “But once I explain to them what the Hotel School taught me and the experience I bring, they agree that it’s actually really cool and way better than the traditional route.” On her own time, Ban has been learning to code.

Joe Ferrara '19 standing outside Nasdaq in NYC with her name and Cornell Blockchain on the digital signage
Joe Ferrara ’19

Ferrara works at AVA Labs, a Cornell-based startup co-founded by Sirer that’s building a completely new, high-performance blockchain structure. In a field overflowing with brilliant technical minds, Sirer says Ferrara’s ability stands out. “As a tech person, I’m very lucky to be surrounded by some very talented engineers,” he says. “They grasp problems quickly and they figure out how to solve them. But Joe is all about human processes. He’s incredibly good at talking to groups of people and describing a technically difficult field with effectiveness and enthusiasm.”

After graduating this spring, Hu, the club’s president for the 2019-20 academic year, took a position in investment banking at Evercore and feels confident his blockchain experience will be put to good use. “More and more, companies are looking to work with the technology, and want people who know something about it,” Hu says.

Ferrara and Ban remain connected to the club as advisors. Working at Sirer’s startup keeps Ferrara connected to Cornell. And SHA is a badge of honor for both. “It’s a self-starter environment,” Ferrara says. “I felt like I was in a place where a lot of people were doing a lot of different things. You really wanted to be a part of this excitement and energy. So when blockchain captured my imagination, I was really motivated to go out there and see what I could do with it.”

“On the business side of things, we learned everything you learn at a traditional business school,” Ban adds. “But what really makes the Hotel School extremely special is that every class is focused on providing excellent service. And I think every business is about providing a service. How can we make your company successful and our company successful? The Hotel School teaches that. And I don’t think it’s taught anywhere else.”

Cornell Blockchain today

Xavier Lu ’22 (Computer Science/Eng) and Brian Kim ’22 (Linguistics/A&S) are the new leaders of Cornell Blockchain, which includes 40 undergraduates who represent nearly every undergraduate college at Cornell and a wide range of majors.

headshot of Xavier Lu ’22
Xavier Lu ’22

Helping out with Cornell Blockchains’ annual conference “ended up kick-starting my journey into leading the club,” Lu says. “Bitcoin and blockchain technology fascinate me. It is such a new field with tons of potential.”

Although the shift to a fully remote fall semester has been a bit bumpy for the club, Lu says, “we’ve been successful in transitioning the core components of our projects to a collaborative, virtual setting.” Using LinkedIn Live, for example, club members are working on transforming its series of interviews with leaders of blockchain-enabled businesses from transcribed Q&As to live, interactive events. Club members determine who to interview based on topics they want to explore and on suggestions from the club’s faculty advisors Sirer and Cornell Law Professor Robert C. Hockett.

headshot of Brian Kim ’22
Brian Kim ’22

“Last semester, a lot of club members were interested in blockchain protocols and off-chain interactions, so we set out to look for experts in those respective fields,” says Kim.

“The beauty of blockchain technology is that it spans diverse industries,” adds Kim. “The shared passion for blockchain ends up being the ‘glue’ that brings together traditional finance firms, large software companies, and startups focused primarily on blockchain projects.”

In addition to revamping the club’s speaker and educational events, Cornell Blockchain student members are prototyping a central bank digital currency (CBDC) in partnership with Hockett, their advisor, says Lu. “CBDCs are digital forms of fiat currency, inspired by Bitcoin but different in a sense that it is issued by a central institution and has the legal tender status declared by the government, all while maintaining the perks of a blockchain-based digital currency: low transaction time, low processing fee, and implicit anti-money-laundering features,” Lu explains. The club’s R&D team will develop a prototype using languages such as JavaScript, while the advisory team will focus on the operations and strategy sides of implementation.

“I got interested in blockchain technology because of its broad intersection with law, business, and computer science,” says Kim. “I was blessed to be part of a community that shared my passions. Passion led to more engagement, and that eventually led me to develop skills that ended up translating into leadership roles in the club.”

All Nasdaq-related photos used in this story were taken by Nasdaq photographer Libby Greene, April 11, 2019.

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *