How do we lower the barriers to people of color having access to strong education on blockchain? How do we train people to better qualify for this space flooding with job opportunities?
Holding annual competitions like "Battle for Crypto” that actively teach students how to buy, sell, and trade digital assets in an engaged learning lab is one step forward.
A discussion between Ripple software engineer Nathaniel Rose and Dr. Ali Emdad, Executive Director of The National FinTech Center, developing expertise in blockchain. You'll hear how committed both are to education equity and making a difference in the diverse workforce of the future.
Lauren Weymouth (00:00:00):
Welcome to season four of All About Blockchain. This is Lauren Weymouth and I lead the University Blockchain Research Initiative for Ripple. UBRI contributes grants and collaboration to universities to accelerate understanding, adoption, and innovation in FinTech blockchain and cryptocurrency and we discuss successes coming out of this program on the show.
We've had the privilege of collaborating with Morgan State University for over three years. One of my favorite people to work with is Doctor Ali Emdad, associate dean of Graves Business School and founder and executive director of the National Center for the Study of Blockchain in FinTech. The center serves as a hub to support, facilitate, and enhance cross-disciplinary collaboration in blockchain, cryptocurrency, and other FinTech-related technologies, at Morgan, and also at other historically black colleges and universities, HBCUs.
We're also welcoming Nathaniel Rose, senior software engineer at Ripple and co-lead of our Black at Ripple, employee resource group community, to lead the conversation with Dr. Emdad. Now Nate is wicked smart neurotech researcher who's perfect for this conversation because he advocates for education equity, having directed the National Society of Black Engineers for over five years and co- founded the Bay area chapter to aid students with STEM skills, giving them the edge to pursue future life endeavors. Nate, thanks for participating today.
Nathaniel Rose (00:01:21):
Thanks Lauren. Quite an intro right there. Glad to be here. Uh-
Lauren Weymouth (00:01:24):
Well, I'll turn it over to you
Nathaniel Rose (00:01:26):
Great. Dr. Emdad, do you have a preference Dr. Ali, Ali, Dr. Emdad?
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:01:31):
Uh, Ali is fine.
Nathaniel Rose (00:01:32):
Ali, where do we find you today? Are you in Baltimore?
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:01:35):
Yes, I'm, I'm in my office at,Morgan State University, I'm really honored to be here with you and Lauren, to discuss, what we are doing, at Morgan and all the other HBCUs.
Nathaniel Rose (00:01:47):
And we're glad to have you here. And so there there's a ton to cover. So if you don't mind, I wanted to jump right in Ali about the work you're doing, specifically with Morgan State University. A special shout out to Monique, a famous comedian who is an alumni from there. You've been at Morgan for over 20 years. When did you get first turned onto blockchain?
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:02:05):
I've been at Morgan, Nate a little bit longer.I joined Morgan in 1990 and created the Information Science and Systems Department, and then moved on to become the associate dean in the, business school. in regard to the crypto and, FinTech, and blockchain, in, 2016, 2017 timeframe, I noticed that our students, at Morgan we're really,interested and showing a lot of energy learning about, the, new asset class, the crypto, market.
And they were gathering in, informally talking about, where to invest and, learning from each other. what, what the crypto, evolving crypto market was about. we decided to assist the students and support them, and provide additional resources for them, in 2017 we created the course in, blockchain the first at any HBCU, to provide that, fundamental knowledge,, to students who were really curious about it. And they wanted to go a little bit deeper. And, later on in 2018, uh, we offered some, national, panel discussions.
We brought in, some experts, from around the country. And I was so, surprised to see so many students pack the amphitheater, uh, learn... They wanted to learn about, this, this blockchain, the new, technology behind crypto, and they wanted to learn about FinTech. So we, we became really encouraged by, seeing students wanted to develop their skills in this area. then, gradually we started, offering some programming forum and, the students became leaders, created the, the first blockchain club at any HBCU
Nathaniel Rose (00:03:45):
Really interesting. I'm sure there may be some 10 year old wallets with Bitcoin in there for you that you may have been possessing.
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:03:52):
Wouldn't be surprised if you see some, yeah.
Nathaniel Rose (00:03:56):
That open arms embracing of the space and the community actually is what drove the adoption of this tech across programming for the HBCUs. How has UBRI helped in supporting that effort?
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:04:10):
In 2018 we, approached, Ripple. we, noticed that Ripple is interested in supporting universities in education and research in this space. and we, proposed that Morgan should be one of those universities within that group. And Ripple was very receptive to the idea.
We became part of the UBRI network in 2019 by receiving some funding from Ripple, that supported us, in our initial efforts to launch our activities and programs,, for the Morgan campus, as well as a number of other HBCUs.
Nathaniel Rose (00:4:47):
That HBCU blockchain network, roughly how many schools are participating in that now?
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:04:52):
in April of 2019, we offered the first summit invited, all the HBCUs and 34, universities, sent their representatives, faculty and students to come and participate. So we had a small gathering of 100, about 140, faculty, and, small number of students about 20, 25 students. basically each faculty we asked to bring in the student leaders with them so that they can go back and, promote the blockchain and FinTech education and research on their campuses. That was, the beginning of our activities with HBCUs and it started, growing, to, to a total number and right now, we are approaching 60 different universities that come to our events on a regular basis.
Nathaniel Rose (00:05:40):
We had the chance and opportunity to see what you were building with the Battle for Crypto. It's your annual competition, and that teaches students how to buy, sell, and trade crypto in a learning lab.
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:05:51):
Nathaniel Rose (00:05:52):
So the student winners averaged about 140% return on investment. Was that somewhat surprising to see that right off, the right off the back?
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:06:01):
It was,considering that, it was a small amount of, funding that we put into each wallet. each student received $200, in crypto. And, they were given about two months to work, create, their portfolio and decide which ones they want to trade, which ones they want to hold. And, what they needed, to learn, was, the important part of it. we considered it extremely, educational.
We always considered this the Battle for the Cryptos, the an experiential learning activity for our students, uh, and in the initial, round, only 20 universities we had participated, with about ultimately about 30 students. But later on in the second round we had more universities, participated and within two days, 100 students signed up for the competition. And the top three winners received, some cash prizes and, the option to continue using their their wallets that was with Binance US, the, the first two, rounds of the challenges that we had. And, we consider that that was a very innovative most of the, these challenges are done using, simulation, programs and not many have ventured into the actual real money area.
So that the students feel that the, there is a pressure to learn. And, there is a pressure to, to actually perform, and maintain a high yield, and, many of them, really learned a lot, and they continue to, to work in this, in this space. And they building on what they learned during these competitions.
Nathaniel Rose (00:07:37):
That was actually my follow up questions to see how many students continue, post competition. it seems there's a bit of a shift happening in financial competency where the crypto space feels more accessible than maybe Wall Street trading, eighties, nineties time period. Is that your same impression?
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:07:54):
Absolutely. we noticed for instance, making it accessible to all majors. It's not just, the finance students that really perform in these areas, anyone that is interested in learning and wants to build on that knowledge through a hands-on experience, is given a chance in these, challenges that we have. And for instance the top four, students that came out of the competitions, one of them was an architecture major.
Mathaniel Rose (00:08:24):
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:08:24):
Another one was a PhD student in environmental science. These students really, you know, they exemplify what can be accomplished, if they put their energy into learning something that can cross from the traditional to the new platforms, asset classes.
Nathaniel Rose (00:08:43):
The competition for battle for crypto. Do you think it's starting to address the disparity and awareness of blockchain and crypto, because there's still a gap between understanding the, the space?
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:08:55):
I think, we don't consider it enough. We need to, to be vigilant about it, because learning is power. We have to make sure that our students learn as much as possible, and they go into this space, with, information and education so that they know,, what are the fundamentals, and understanding, the nature of each digital asset, why they invest in it, what are the, the pros and cons of each one? so any amount of, education is gonna be helpful and, we don't consider it, you know, we've accomplish,our tasks. it's, we are just beginning and to close the financial gap and learning. we need to continue, to work with, major partners in this space, bringing, innovation, that would, empower our, marginalized communities.
It's something that we strongly believe. And, this crypto challenge is just, an example that we can accomplish, piece by piece layer by layer some of these, remove some of the obstacles by providing the information and opportunity for our students to learn.
Nathaniel Rose (00:10:02):
As the space still continues to be agile. And quite accelerated, when it comes to the shifting in tooling, do you see battle for crypto looking to adopt new mechanisms like uni swap different ledgers that might be, up and coming that's become the standard, maybe within only the past six months.
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:10:22):
Right. The, you know, we, some of the things that we do is, to provide diversity of topics for learning. there's no shortage of topics in this space.
we believe that the, the faculty have a have to play a role in it because they are the, they, we consider them train the trainers, as an important tenant, in whatever we do so that they can go into the classroom and expose the students to all of these new topics and new technologies. so what is, you know, we consider defi as one of the, important, and strong areas that our students need to learn about, so it's a, it's a challenge, that we, have accepted that to constantly, make sure that we have, the most current information in front of our students, so that they go either join a team at a company, or they venture out on their own and become, entrepreneurs.
Nathaniel Rose (00:11:12):
let's shift gears. I know your team administers a call for proposals when it comes to the HBCU blockchain network. What are you looking for in those proposals? What sort of assessment do you identify when it comes to the research and the educational projects. Who wins, what schools are, have been particularly strong in the past rounds?
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:22:16):
We make sure that they they understand that the top quality publishable papers are the focus that, eventually they create a body of knowledge, that is technical, addresses, the economic,and sustainable environment.
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:23:47):
And we, we also deal with the regulatory aspects of blockchain and FinTech. we address, various issues. for instance, supply chain, is a huge area that, has been, the focus of research, using blockchain in that space,, at North Carolina, A and T doctors, Juan Lee and Reen Park, did, the paper that got published in, journal called sustainability.
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:25:12):
They, they studied the effects of, blockchain technology on supply chain, sustainability and performance, Dr. Juliet Ilu and Maisha Williams at Morehouse, they did study of blockchain investment in on the COVID 19 pandemic, for instance, very innovative, view, then we have Dr. Angelino, Vicezia, from, Spellman did consumer adoption of FinTech and got recognition at different forums. there are others, that have done really, great job.
Nathaniel Rose (00:12:40):
Your team's also hosting the webinars topics around CBDCs, asset tokenization, and using blockchain to improve federal services. one conversation actually that stood out to me and my team was the Fin Techs role in building generational wealth, in the black community, which featured Kai Shafiel, the head of crypto at visa, which is really interesting. What were some of the key takeaways and examples from that discussion that resonated?
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:13:08):
the discussion was really on, stressing the need for, paying attention, to this, to the marginalized communities, the unbanked and underbanked communities have been neglected. we considered it important to, to shed some light, and discuss what needs to be done. for instance, we believe that, before even we talk about generational wealth, we need to talk about financial literacy.
Nathaniel Rose (00:13:32):
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely.
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:13:33):
And we need to say that without it, holding on the wealth that is passed on from one generation to the next would be at risk. you know, the statistics, are very, very telling, and they say about 70% of, where wealthy families lose their wealth by the next generation and 90% are losing it the generation after that. And why is that, this is, troubling because, you know, not every child,of wealth is given a roadmap that they need to follow exactly to maintain and grow the wealth that is passed on to them. so what we believe that in the, in the communities, underserved communities, we need to start the, financial literacy at a young age. K12 is not, too early. It, it is actually the place that we have to start and build, the understanding that,the young people need to master to learn and to appreciate that, In order to achieve, they have to have the discipline and they have to understand what is wealth, what is debt, how to deal with all of this. it takes some, consistent programming and, offering of programs that, that address the issues.
To take it a little bit further, what is the role of the, the FinTech community? We talked about it, and he said, "Come up with programs that are not so much based on the algorithms of the past. The loan processing and,, access to funds for, for young entrepreneurs, for instance, are there any, new platforms, any new, FinTech companies that make it easier for, uh, the, minority community to have a access to these, resources?" So, it was, a, a beginning conversation. we touched the tip of the iceberg on, on this, topic.
Nathaniel Rose (00:15:17):
That resonates quite personal with me, from what Lauren mentioned before. I did some work with the National Society of Black Engineers, which looks at matriculation for STEM majors in K through 12 into the industry for big tech. Um, has your team explored that for financial literacy when it comes to K through 12, or do you know of any programs that is looking to target that, initiative directly?
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:15:40):
We have started programming in that area and, at the college level Morgan and some of the other HBCUs I know, we have mandated, as part of the general education that all students must take a general education, one credit hour course on financial literacy. And through the FinTech center and other programs, other, um, funding, that we have available, we are reaching out to elementary schools, middle schools, and to high school students to provide, these kind of training. And, and offer the educational opportunities for them to understand financial ramifications of their decisions.
How to, to distinguish their decisions, good decisions from bad decisions in terms of, financial outcomes. so putting, putting information and, case, use cases in front of the students and, bringing, leaders from the financial community to talk to our students, at different stages, from elementary to middle to high school to college. You have provided, the essential, opportunity for learning that is gonna be sustainable, not just, you, you touch one, age group and you leave it at that. So, it's again a consistent and, continuous process that we have to focus, on expanding and making it a widespread kind of activity at all of our HBCUs, not just at Morgan.
Nathaniel Rose (00:17:07):
Yeah, that pipeline is key to the success of that financial literacy for underrepresented individuals. What role do you see crypto or blockchain playing in that effort? And do you see this evolving in the next 10 years or within the future for incoming students seeking to leverage the space to achieve this?
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:17:26):
Crypto adoption has been very gradual.technological developments have been fast, but the adoption has not been as fast, during, due to certain factors. but on campuses we've seen the energy building up, uh, and students, uh, the staff also are interested and the communities around, uh, HBCUs are interested.
In some of our events, workshops, we've noticed that our, community, we have,we have a organization it's called Morgan, Community Mile. Through their efforts we've been able to bring in the, the neighborhood, folks and they come into our events and they are extremely interested in learning about crypto.
We also see that crypto is just one of the asset classes. And there are, there are other areas that our students show interest in the context of FinTech. data analytics is important for our students. We just recently launched data analytics, a series of data analytics, analytics workshops, and 165 students signed up. that was the capacity that we could accept. Now, We are organizing additional workshops. So the overwhelming, acceptance of new technology, learning all of these, would be an indication for us that our students want to be in the forefront.
And they want to leave the university with the requisite knowledge that they make them not only marketable, but also a functioning member of, whatever company they join, to contribute, uh, to the mission of that, organization.
Nathaniel Rose (00:18:57):
One new webinar that you produce with DFINITY, it's a nonprofit organization was on the building of an equitable internet. So you discuss, biased algorithms, which is a huge topic right now, cloaked websites, digital, redlining and pay to play advertising. what solutions were offered in that talk for folks who weren't able to attend.
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:19:18):
We just touched some of the most, salient points, that the existing internet is controlled by, mega companies that run all aspects of the software, the data. They own the data, the networks are controlled and so that DFINITY with the internet computer and the platform and the protocol and the language for development of programs offers, the potential for, bringing, the internet access to a larger group of, developers. And, removing that control from a central, group of companies and distributing that to, to a smaller, more entrepreneurial company, company base.
The increase in the availability, we talked for instance you know, a large number of Americans right now don't have access to, to broadband. about 20 million Americans, don't have access to broadband. How can we talk about, equal access to, resources when they can't even,connect to the internet? So there are some of the prerequisite,actions that need to take place. The role of the government, the role of the, private, corporations and, tech companies. All of these things, play, an important part in creating the equitable internet.
Nathaniel Rose (00:20:38):
The blockchain and crypto communities is flooded with new opportunities. And because of that, there can be some nefarious activity going on, right? How are you handling educating new students, but also protecting them from the potential, nefarious projects may be produced because of the acceleration of this space?
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:20:58):
Again, the best thing we can do is to provide the information we, bring in the experts, through webinars, through workshops, to provide the information that is needed, to educate and increase the knowledge, of our students.
Nathaniel Rose (00:21:14):
Yeah. This might be identical to the dot com bubble. back then in the late early nineties, just to make sure that your students are aware of the potential risk with certain projects. what sort of curriculum is your team approaching around non fungible tokens? it's quite interesting the use cases that we're seeing when it comes to ownership from the music industry, real estate, and venture capitalism. Have you begun to inquire or explore this space as well within your coursework?
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:21:41):
Nate, we have, we have worked with, Hyperledger, foundation and Chainalysis, which is another leader in this industry to develop some training workshops on how to how to teach the development of NFTs. So a workshop is coming up, in March and April, it's a three part workshop, and it's open to all HBCUs and we are gonna be promoting it, as such. And the goal is that, by the end of the workshop, participants should be able to create their own NFTs. And the use case that we have is art.
it's one of those areas that we have received a lot of requests and a lot of interest is, generated on that, so we decided to put that as part of our, curriculum as part of the FinTech Center's, offering in the spring semester. And I'm sure that it's gonna be, already we know that some of the HBCUs have, pledged that they want to use the content of that curriculum that, we developed for this, workshop in their courses and they have, volunteered to teach that,in the fall semester. After they go through that themselves, they're gonna use that, for teaching the concept of developing NFTs, uh, on their campuses.
Nathaniel Rose (00:22:57):
Yeah. I'm sure the 2021 craze around NFTs may be have accelerated that coursework for the spring.
One last question for you which is really, this partnership around academia and industry, what is the ask from academia to the industry that will assist with empowering some of your initiatives and enabling your students?
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:23:19):
Great question, Nate. I think it goes to crux of the success if we work in a vacuum, we won't be able to accomplish, uh, our goals. We have to work with the industry leaders, to bring in the innovations in this space, share that with us. not only their, treasures, but the experts that they have to work with us in developing programs that we can offer to our communities.
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:53:55):
The HBCU community is hungry for learning. they want to be able to participate in frontier research and they have been doing it. They have the intellectual capital to do it and we need the support of companies, like Ripple that has been very, very generous with their support since 2019.
so for us, it's a sustainability issue to make sure that the other leaders in the industry come forward and support our efforts so that we can continue, working with, all the students, develop talent, create the pipeline from K-12 all the way to college, for these companies that are gonna be needing diverse and, young talent.
Nathaniel Rose (00:24:31):
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:24:32):
... that is coming out of our universities.
Nathaniel Rose (00:24:34):
Doctor Ali, it has been a pleasure. Thanks for joining us today.
Dr. Ali Emdad (00:24:37):
I'm grateful for the opportunity. Thank you, Nate, and thank you, Lauren.
Lauren Weymouth (00:24:42):
Well, thank you, Ali, for being a pioneer in the industry and lowering the barriers to people of color having access to strong education and research during their academic years and also access to industry to better qualify for increasing jobs in the field. and impact doesn't have to end after graduation. Junior talent can continue to be supported when joining companies like Ripple who have employee resource groups. Ripple's Black community creates programming and opportunities to connect, learn, and support one another.
Thank you, Nate, for helping our podcast celebrate Black History Month and for championing this episode. We loved having you both on UBRI's podcast, All About Blockchain, and listeners, we appreciate your ears and your time. Your comments on my LinkedIn and feedback to UBRI@Ripple.com are so very appreciated. Until next episode.