Breaking The Mould: He Yi, Co-Founder And Chief Marketing Officer, Binance He Yi, co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Binance, is setting out to change the world (really) in her new role as the head of Binance Labs.
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This year, I have met He Yi on three separate occasions- at the Binance Blockchain Week in Dubai in March, Binance's fifth anniversary celebrations in Paris in July, and over a Zoom call from our respective kitchens in Dubai in early August.
The last of these encounters proves that the life of a Binance co-founder is not only about glittering affairs; however, I should be forgiven for assuming so, because, over the same time period, fellow Binance co-founder and CEO Changpeng Zhao – more popularly known as CZ- has been globe-trotting and meeting nation heads in a bid to secure permissions from their respective financial regulators- i.e. facilitate mass crypto adoption. And so, the proof that some seriously hard work is required to maintain what is reportedly the world's biggest cryptocurrency exchange is in witnessing Yi keeping up with a pace that is as frenetic as the one she pursued back in 2017 when she joined the startup. "After you, I'll have another interview, and then one more one-on-one," she tells me, as we talk at about 8pm in Dubai. "I usually have breakfast at lunchtime, and lunch at dinner time."
Binance, which is a combination of the words that mean crypto and safety in Chinese, has lived up to its name during the significant drop in crypto prices throughout the first half of 2022. There have been no reports of Binance cost-cutting, laying off staff, or something even worse- to the contrary, Binance has been focused on the future by, among many other things, being on a constant hiring spree, as well as by appointing Yi as the head of its venture capital and incubator arm, Binance Labs. With US$7.5 billion at its disposal, Binance Labs already supports more than 200 portfolio projects (which include success stories like Web3 trailblazers Polygon and FTX), and it enjoys a 2,100% rate of return on its investments since launching in 2018. And now, with Yi at its helm, it is expected to do even better. "I want to build the standard for the Web3 industry," Yi explains. "I think that people have a lot of anger about our industry and that's normal, and so, we need time to build the right standard and to make people understand what's really true about this industry. For me, Web3 is a symbol, it's more about sharing- like your community and users make you successful, so you can and should give back to them. That's Web3 for me."
In Web3, Yi continues, the growth of a company does not depend on funds it raises from venture capitalists (VCs), but on the power of one's community. "It's about this relationship change, and for that reason, I think that smart public chains are more efficient ways for people to raise money for their businesses, as opposed to getting it from VCs," she says. "So, we need to let people know how this industry functions and what kind of people drive it, and we need to make them understand the logic behind blockchain. For one billion people to start really using it, you need to understand the technology behind it." And when asked about the kind of startup founders that can count on the support from Binance Labs, Yi describes them as "people who know that the sign of a really good business is making the world more efficient, making people save money, or helping the world to become better." She adds, "I'm leading Binance Labs, because I'm one of oldest OGs in this space, and so, I know a lot of people, and I know this industry. Secondly, I have a good gut feeling to recognize the right person, and thirdly, I have a clear vision of our industry, and what we want to build in the future."
At this point, I'm becoming increasingly interested in what the woman sitting across my Zoom screen is actually about, and to be more precise, and where her unshaken belief is coming from. To begin with, Yi seems to be capable of placing absolute trust in a person or idea when her inner criteria are met, and even though real world parameters might be showing the opposite. For example, in 2017, Yi was enjoying a good employment package at Chinese mobile video sharing tech company Yixia Technology, when CZ, her former colleague from Chinese cryptocurrency-to-fiat exchange OKCoin, invited her to join his fledgling startup: Binance.
"We were preparing for an initial public offering, and at that moment, CZ wrote a white paper for Binance, and began to raise money, and he asked me to do some consulting work for them," Yi recalls. "A lot of people do consulting for startups and ask for a percentage or a token, but I did it for free because I believed in CZ- he was ambitious, hard-working, and so I believed that he could be successful." And when Binance began to take off, Yi found herself drawn back to the enterprise. "When they raised the first $15 million, CZ called me and said, 'Tomorrow, binance.com will launch, and we will grow, so join us,'" she remembers. "And it was a difficult situation for me, because I had a better-paying job, but then, I told him that I didn't want his company to be successful only in China, but that I wanted a bigger challenge. It was already 3am or 4am in the morning, and it was just an offer over the phone, but I finally said yes."
However, Yi's belief in Binance was tested the very next day. "The next morning, I had just quit from my current job at the time, telling them that I wanted to start up a business with my former colleague, and I went back to my desk only to see the 50% crash of BNB coin," Yi recalls. "That was a very interesting moment. But I had run exchanges before, and I knew these things could happen, so in a month, I joined Binance." Patiently working one's way through difficult situations might be not only Yi's best career tip, but also her advice for overcoming fears of fluctuations on the crypto market as it stands today.
"People make a lot of drama about prices dropping, but the trust factor is always so important," she says. "At that moment in 2017, I knew that I trusted myself and CZ, and I knew that money was not important for me, but what I wanted to do in life. I knew that I'm good at branding, marketing, operations, but that I didn't have a tech background, so I needed a partner. I cannot be successful just by myself. Since I wanted to take on a global challenge, I knew that CZ was the best partner for me. Although the offer that I had from him looked worse at that very moment, I still accepted it, as I knew that we could build great things together."
And the rest, as the saying goes, is history. However, much before Yi demonstrated her belief in Binance, she had to learn to put this strong faith in herself first. "My mum didn't believe that I could be successful," she says. "When I was a kid and I would tell my mum that, when I grew up, I would go to another country, she didn't believe that. I'm from a small village, so when I talked with my mum about going to another country, how could she believe that? Growing up, I've got my power from two places- reading and the internet."
Source: Binance Labs
Originally from a prefecture-level city in the southwestern province in China, Yi was born into a family of teachers, and for the most part, she was raised by a single mother, as her father passed away when Yi was only nine years old. "It was a poor family, but the good thing is that my family gave me a good base in reading and learning," she says. "My mum hoped that I would be a teacher, because in her mind, women should be teachers or assistants, but never bosses. So, I think that the internet has changed that a lot, as women of my generation have started learning about inspirational examples from around the world."
Before Yi entered the crypto world in 2014 by joining a fintech enterprise in the realm, her career trajectory by then had seen her take on roles as varied as a university professor, a psychological advisor, and a host for a travel television show. "There were a couple of times in my life that I was trying different types of jobs, and trying to find out who I was," she recalls. "I always challenge myself- one example is how I fought to get the job as a television host, because when they asked me what was my advantage, I said that I knew how to do my own makeup, so they would save money on that. That got me the job. And then, I was not a famous television host, but I was still somehow known, and no one believed that a television host would go into a crypto startup, because at that time, people thought that crypto was a scam, but I did do that."
And today, Yi is firm about the power of crypto and Web3 to change the world as we know it, and she hopes to contribute to making it happen with her role at Binance Labs. "We want to know how we can help more Web3 startups to be really successful," she says. "The industry is much bigger than one crypto exchange, and there are definitely many fantastic use cases that really can make people's lives better, but we don't know which project can be successful, and so, I'm always asking where's the best founder, where's the best solution, where's the best product that will really help people."
By this point, we had been talking for about an hour, and even though it was past 9pm, Yi hasn't lost her zest, and seemed to be brimming with enough energy to take her through her next two appointments as well. But I decide to end our conversation then, and my final question to her was about what she would like to be known for. "I don't really hope that people will know about me," Yi replies. "I feel that everyone comes to this world with something that they need to do, and I want to do that one thing that is mine." And, maybe, changing the world might just be that "one thing" that Yi is here for.
'TREP TALK: Binance co-founder Yi He's tips for women in business
1. Adopt a growth mindset "For every woman, it's important how you define yourself. Women should not limit themselves too much. I strongly recall that, when I was a television host, a friend was telling me about her dream of getting married, while I dreamt about changing the world. Three years later, when I was working for a mobile video company, a media company in China wrote about me, and she messaged me, "You did it!" Yet, that was much before Binance and the impact I can have now."
2. Stay the course "Consistency is very important. Repeat, repeat, repeat. People tend to change focus too much, but I believe that the power of knowledge, understanding, and gut feeling actually develop from being persistent, from practice, from your day to day training."
3. Develop (all) your skills "There is too much talk about female power, or people call it soft skills, but I don't believe that it's the right way. You should truly understand the power of your skills, and not define them as male or female."