Cover Giorgio Armani outfit (Photo: Affa Chan/Tatler Hong Kong; Styling: Cherry Mui; Hair: Peter Cheng; Make-up: Chi Chi Li; Set Design: Zoe Tse)

In July's Tatler cover story, the leading cryptocurrency advocate explains why she has dedicated her professional life to promoting digital finance and bringing women into the industry

If the dramatic impact of cryptocurrency, blockchain, NFTs and the whole nu finance schemozzle on the traditional financial services industry were to be personified in a single individual, it would probably be Vivien Khoo. Formerly a managing director for Goldman Sachs, the ne plus ultra of the old-skool investment banking world, she is now a crypto evangelist par excellence, trying to both fill the knowledge gap that has seen interest in crypto far outpace understanding of it, and also solve one of the key challenges the crypto industry faces: its fairly dismal lack of female representation.

In case you missed: For Siobhán Haughey, the Best Is Yet to Come

After first joining the crypto world with a job at Bitmex, a crypto exchange and trading platform, she is now running not one, not two, but three industry organisations that she also helped to set up: the Asia Crypto Alliance, and the female- focused Satoshi Women and Digital Women Leadership Network, which has been rebranded to W3W (Web 3 Women). "I feel like I'm overcompensating for lost time when I was stuck on conference calls at Goldman," she says.

Born in Hong Kong, Khoo moved to the UK to attend boarding school from the age of 11, and then lived for several years in Canada, where she attended university, before heading back to Hong Kong to start her career in the financial industry.

She has spent most of her career specialising in compliance: the business of making sure an institution and its clients stay with all the relevant legal and regulatory guardrails. In that respect, she says, "My career has been pretty straightforward." It wasn't, though, in any way intentional. She started off at Credit Suisse in the mid-Nineties, working on the equities trading floor, which she quickly found she disliked intensely. "The CEO offered me product control or compliance, and I hate number crunching, so I went into compliance by default," she says.

Read more: Crypto Queens – Women Making Their Names in Digital Cash and Blockchain

She moved into the regulatory world with Hong Features Kong's Securities and Futures Commission fairly early in her career, just three years later, working in its Corporate 120 Finance Division. Regarding it as a good opportunity- jobs with the regulator are hard to come by, largely because people don't tend to leave very often-she stayed there for a further three years. The world of regulation probably wasn't her natural home, she admits, but it was good experience. "If it weren't for the SFC, I probably wouldn't have got the Goldman job. I got a lot of good exposure there, but culturally, as an organisation, there's a lot of bureaucracy. It's very difficult and it takes up a lot of your time."

“Institutions are moving into crypto, and there are plenty of women in traditional finance who want to know about it”
Vivien Khoo

She moved to Goldman in 2000, with her focus still on compliance. She eventually rose to the role of managing director and co-head of compliance for Asia Pacific ex-Japan. Although the investment banking industry has a deserved reputation as a boys' club, she says, her former employer was surprisingly good at developing female leaders. "In investment banking, there are not that many women, and you have to go drinking, get into sports-boys' stuff. But Goldman were exceptional in driving diversity. They were very good to me: they put me in a leadership development programme, and I developed women at all levels."

Having spent nearly two decades working for the most prestigious name in investment banking, her decision in 2019 to move on was pretty momentous. "A lot of people were shocked" when she announced to her colleagues that she was leaving the bank, she says. "I was the sort of person who people thought was going to be a lifer-who would still be there turning off the lights."

How about: Bling Empire’s Christine Chiu on Making an Impact With Her Fame While Dealing With Haters

"I figured I was too young to retire, but I could see myself doing the same thing for whatever number of years. I didn't see how I could do anything new there." Perhaps those colleagues were particularly shocked at her choice of destination: Bitmex, the Seychelles-registered, Hong Kong-based cryptocurrency exchange that was founded in 2014 and quickly went supernova, largely thanks to the innovative derivatives trading platform it offers.

She joined the company in March 2019 as its chief operating officer. "I had no interest in crypto before Bitmex," she says. "But when I realised how crypto was developing, banking felt a little bit more like a sunset industry, and I felt that crypto would have more opportunities. Also, there was a fit between what they needed and what I had. I don't know of any other senior compliance people working in crypto. I saw the senior people there had clean backgrounds and were well regarded in the crypto world, so I joined."

Her background in compliance made her a particularly attractive employment prospect for Bitmex, which has had its fair share of legal and regulatory travails. In 2020, its founders Arthur Hayes, Ben Delo and Samuel Reed were charged with violating the US Bank Secrecy Act for failing to establish an anti-money-laundering programme; all three stood down from their roles and have since pled guilty to the charges.

From the most traditional of investment banks to a freewheeling crypto exchange: it's hard to think of two financial organisations that you'd expect to be more different from each other in culture. "The only similarity is that Bitmex wants to be the Goldman Sachs of crypto," says Khoo. "The guys who founded it are seriously smart individuals."

"The CTO [Reed] was 29 when I joined and the other two 34 or 35. I ran a business that was bigger than the division I ran at Goldman. It was fascinating. The culture could not have been more different. They were geniuses in their way of thinking about doing business."

She continues: "But they're young, they don't know how to run a business and they're not interested in doing so. People who are so young and so smart and have so much money probably think that money can solve everything. I think they underestimated the regulatory issues. In the early days of the crypto industry, the regulations were very lax, and the problem was that there was too much grey- things you didn't have to do but could end up being sanctioned for if you didn't do. The founders of Bitmex didn't look at it from that angle; that's not their area of expertise." After that rather dramatic introduction to the crypto industry, she left the company in May 2021 and set out on her own.

In addition to taking on roles as a senior advisor to Singapore-based retail robo advisory platform StashAway and as a board advisor to Hong Kong-based crypto exchange Fusang, her time has been dominated by her attempts to bring the industry together—or, as she puts it, by "so many industry associations".

Read more: How We Can Use Web3 to Break Gender Biases and Create a More Equal World

Two of those associations aim to address the fairly shocking shortage of women in the crypto space. While the gender balance at the level of crypto investment in Hong Kong, at least, isn't too bad, the industry itself is still pretty much a sausage party. "It was an idea I had while I was working at Bitmex because there were so few women there. There was nobody leading women in the industry. I always thought that I wanted to do something." The result was W3W, which is aimed at professionals working within the crypto and finance industries.

"Institutions are moving into crypto, and there are plenty of women in traditional finance who want to know about it," says Khoo. "We're going to focus on promoting female leadership. There are a lot of things we can do with Web3; women are going to be able to move the needle more. The whole concept of Web3 is different: it's community-driven. How does that define leadership? What does it mean to be a leader in the world of Web3?"

“There are just so many projects out there, it’s insane. You really have to pick and choose; most of them are just noise”
Vivien Khoo

By contrast, her other female-focused organisation, SatoshiWomen, founded alongside her co-founder Lyndaine Demetilla, chief of staff at Fusang, is aimed at everyone.

"Women from all walks of life can be involved; my helper can take part in SatoshiWomen if she wants. It's mainly about one-on-one education. It just grew organically very quickly because people needed a group to lean on-somewhere they can ask stupid questions. What we're trying to do is just create more access; people don't need to be investing or speculating.”

In case you missed: Women are Helping Other Women Claim Their Space in Web3

In addition to the intended market, she's been amused to find that another group has shown interest. "We get a lot of wives and girlfriends of people who work in the crypto industry. When guys find out what we're doing, they say: 'You should go and join that group.

It's certainly time-consuming, especially as she and Demetilla have been doing it entirely on their own ("People always think I have a crew of people working for me," she says). Still, she's also found time for a deep immersion in industry lobbying via yet another new group, the Asia Crypto Alliance.

"I started thinking about it when I was at Bitmex," she says. "I needed to interact with regulators like I used to do, and I started looking around for an association. There was nothing. There still is: the organisations that are there don't do lobbying. "All these crypto firms are very new, and driving the industry forward is probably at the bottom of their priority list."

The regulatory situation with regard to crypto in Hong Kong remains unresolved. The regulators find themselves in a difficult position, given mainland China's explicit antipathy towards the sector, and there could be a danger of Singapore and a host of other jurisdictions eating Hong Kong's lunch where the industry is concerned; crypto companies have already left the city due to the uncertainty.

Khoo has been liaising extensively with various regulators in fact, she says, she still encounters some of the people she worked with when she worked at the SFC herself, back in the late Nineties.

Read more: Sandra Ng Becomes First Hong Kong Actress to Join Oscars Committee

"We're having quite intense conversations with regulators in Hong Kong and Singapore. There are so few people in this space who know compliance. It's a thankless job with big hassles and no money, dealing with people who live in the Stone Age. But I felt like there should be someone bridging the gap between the digital asset managers and the regulators."

She adds: "You can get put into prison for unlicensed activity, and that scared a lot of people, so I had to do something. Crypto is definitely not going to be a key priority for the Hong Kong government, but they can see companies leaving Hong Kong."

The SFC has been trying hard to get on top of the ever-changing situation, she says. "The challenge for them is that they're very, very under-resourced, and the people they have don't really understand about crypto. But since last summer they've really tried to get people together and find out their concerns. "Clearly the firms who are already licensed will be in a better position than crypto firms like Bitmex to get a licence. For crypto firms it will be close to impossible. I think they'll move people outside Hong Kong. There's lot of limelight on you if you have a big unregulated exchange here."

Apart from hoping other people can come in and run her various industry bodies, her plans for the future are open-ended but ambitious. "The medium-term plan for me is all about creating an ecosystem,” she says. “I have some investments in different areas, like exchanges, infrastructure and blockchain analytics. But there are just so many projects out there, it's insane. You really have to pick and choose; most of them are just noise."

While she concedes that "I clearly have a vision of where I want things to be and how things should move, and I consider myself an early mover into this space”, she chafes at being described as a visionary. Nonetheless, she very much appears to meet her own definition of one: "You have a view and you stick to it—even when no one else thinks it'll happen."

A resource for women to become their best selves, Front & Female celebrates trailblazers and tackles timely, provocative issues through inspiring content and events. Join the community by subscribing to our newsletter and following #frontandfemale


© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.