A Black Expert On Being In The Room

Written by Ebony Grimsley-Vaz

Tonya Evans at the Enterprise Blockchain Awards. Photo provided to Moguldom by Tonya Evans

Trying to learn more about blockchain on your own can be confusing. Lawyer and Professor Tonya M. Evans is doing her part to make access to this information easier and less biased.

Evans is the founder of Advantage Evans Academy, teaching online courses on blockchain and cryptocurrency. On her website, she identifies her target audience as “underestimated lifelong learners traditionally locked out of tech and finance.”

“I empower (them) to take control of their financial futures and participate in the new digital cash economy safely, legally and confidently in a welcoming space,” Evans says on her website.

Advantage Evans Academy (the name hints at Evans’ life as a former pro tennis player) is on its third cohort of her popular “From Cash to Crypto” course, which launched this year.

An expert in blockchain, law and cryptocurrency, Evans is considered a leader in the space. She educates people not only on how to work in the industry but on being an entrepreneur using the technology.

“We need to think about wealth in the present generation, but also to create generational wealth in our community,” Evans told Moguldom.

Evans is credited with creating and directing the first-ever Blockchain, Cryptocurrency & Law online professional certificate program at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, according to a 2018 press release.

She is currently a visiting full professor of law at Penn State University Dickinson Law School.

Her expertise in intellectual property and new technologies including blockchain and crypto means she often speaks on stages where she is the only Black person. She has been published in law reviews.

Evans is chairwoman of maker community Maker DAO’s Maker Ecosystem Growth Foundation and received the inaugural Enterprise Blockchain Award for governance and policy leadership during the 2019 Blockchain Revolution Global Conference in Toronto. Licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Washington, D.C., Evans also makes time to host the weekly podcast, “Tech Intersect.”

Evans spoke with The Moguldom Nation about privilege, how she handles being the rare Black expert at blockchain events, and how to find your way into the blockchain space.

Moguldom: How did you become involved in blockchain?

Tonya Evans: About three-and-a-half years ago, I had a friend who was in a master’s program, and they were looking at various uses of blockchain technology. Around the same time, I came across an article by a law professor focused on the intellectual property aspects and potential for distributed ledger technology.

At the time I knew little about crypto, but I at least knew about bitcoin. I fell into the hype machine of all nefarious activity and drug money surrounding its use and I was like “No, thank you.”

But after hearing my friend’s experience and reading more about the underlying technology, it piqued my interest as an academic to say I needed to learn enough about it. (I needed) to prepare the next wave of lawyers who will represent people involved in utilizing or building on Web 3.0 technologies.

At the end of the semester, I had time off so I went to YouTube University to learn more. I looked at one video and one video turned into 50 videos. I fell into the proverbial rabbit hole trying to find unbiased information and clear information. It was not easy.

Once I did, I tried to understand enough about the technology to understand its potential as a disruptive force across a range of industries. It was a mind-blowing moment. In many cases, a garden variety client-server model of a centralized database is going to be great for many situations. But for many others, there’s the potential to do things better, faster, cheaper. Lawyers need to be positioned to have that conversation with clients to determine whether or not this technology can be beneficial, or what is the potential impact and how to stay ahead of the curve.

As a lifelong learner, and often an early adopter of new technology, even though I don’t have a computer science or a tech background, my intellectual curiosity got the best of me. The academic in me wanted to prepare my students with the information.

Moguldom: Thanks to you, people do not have to go to YouTube University. Can you explain what the Advantage Evans Academy is and what students can expect from it?

Tonya Evans: I launched the Advantage Evans Academy to create an online educational environment for those who are not necessarily in law school. I teach blockchain cryptocurrency and law at Dickinson Law School, but I wanted to create something that was accessible to the person who wanted to position themselves for success concerning the future of money, entrepreneurship, and work.

I do not push a particular coin at all. We do spend time talking about bitcoin as it is the OG in the space. We talk about it because of its dominance in the market, and its longevity in the crypto economy. It is important to understand what bitcoin is, why it was created, how it compares to other digital cryptographically secured assets.

What I found with my first “From Cash to Crypto” cohorts over the summer (is that) women and Black people were taking this course. There was a great opportunity for people to see me and trust me because of my resume. They may not understand the space, but at least they can trust me enough to sit down and know that I will teach them what they need to do to enter the space safely, legally, and confidently.

So many of us were left on the sidelines with the dotcom boom. When I think of the Web 2.0 boom and venture capitalists, oftentimes underestimated communities are left on the outside. Before we even know what is happening, there is a bust or people have moved on.

To borrow a phrase from “Hamilton” — the play — we need to be in the room where it happened. We have that opportunity now with Web 3.0.

I created various courses for people to learn the terminology and taxonomy in the space, how to set up their first wallet, get on their first exchange, how to be discerning and how to not succumb to FOMO (fear of missing out). We need to think about wealth in the present generation, but also to create generational wealth in our community. Students in these cohorts can also learn about positions so they can work in or become an entrepreneur using blockchain.

Moguldom: We do struggle to be in the room. However, you figured out how to merge your law background with blockchain and have gone on to speak and write a law review article. How can people position themselves to get in the room? 

Tonya Evans: This is such a niche area. When I think of finance and the challenges for Black and brown folks to move within that space, and then I think of tech and the issues there, you put tech and finance together and what an even bigger challenge!

Historically it has been challenging for us to find information because we do not know what we do not know. What we do not know keeps us on the sidelines and outside of participation. That being said, there are more and more of us in the space every day. And by us, I mean Isaiah Jackson, Maureen Murat and a lot of people who you’ve spoken to and interviewed, who are making a significant impact in mastering the space in their particular area, and then making that information accessible to everyone.

I am proud of the people who are already in the space doing the good Lord’s work, as my Nana would say, to make sure that we are connecting with our people and empowering them.

I advise students and also mention in interviews: start with your core competencies and passions. Go to your favorite search engine and start searching. Do not do a lot of clicking unless you know that you are at a legitimate source but see what roles in your industry go with blockchain. What are thought leaders saying? What impact has crypto assets and blockchain technology already made in your sector? What are the unique problems, challenges, and concerns that might benefit from a decentralized record and storage of data? That will lead to more opportunities.

I guarantee students, in most cases, will be the only one in that room talking about these things. And you can add value as an entrepreneur within an existing work structure or as an entrepreneur on your own. And oftentimes, people can find their way as a result of that exercise.

Moguldom: Where do you see blockchain being applied to help Black people to move forward?

Tonya Evans: Obviously, the Black community is not a monolith. I think the opportunities that blockchain provides — and when I say that I’m talking about the fact that the technology exists — it creates opportunities and ways for the Black community to participate, and for us find our own way to determine how we want to leverage it to add value individually.

Within our families, and certainly, within the community, access to information is a major impediment. But give us some space, some money and some opportunity, and then let us shine. We are very good at doing that and turning very little into a lot in a very short period of time.

When you think historically about Black people in America, I am two, three generations away from sharecroppers. One, two generations away from grandparents without a college education. The next generation, my father, is a surgeon, and now I am who I am, right? In a very short period, we’re able to take a little and make a lot.

And if we can do that with technology and finance, then there is nothing that can stop us. We have a great opportunity at this moment to take it. Only 6.2 percent of the population owns bitcoin, 22 percent of people never heard of bitcoin.

We have to keep amplifying the message, the good work that you are doing to do that, and making sure that we speak about it early and often to create opportunities. That is the reason for Advantage Evans Academy and From Cash to Crypto. We are all doing our part with our gifts to make sure that the opportunities are there, and the information is there so others can take it and run.

Moguldom: Speaking of all doing our part and the Lord’s work, you are everywhere speaking and in spaces where there is a predominantly white male audience. Are you finding those audiences receptive? Are they giving you more respect because you are a professor or a lawyer? Or are you not getting respected at all?

I try and play down the lawyer thing because this group does not like lawyers. But I do play up to the academic side because they do respect professors.

Tonya Evans,

Tonya Evans: There is always a curiosity about me when I am in the room, right? That sometimes is annoying, but other times it opens up the way for the conversation, where I demonstrate not as showing off, but I demonstrate my command of particular aspects of the community. Then, they are like, “OK, she talks the talk and is here. Respect.”

I have gotten into some Twitter wars about social and political issues. Most people who were early in the space tend toward the libertarian point of view. I do not lead with my politics, but I am a Black queer woman. I am who I am, and I am unapologetic about that. And I do not use my timeline to argue a lot, but to the extent that people are open to a conversation to challenge assumptions, I am willing to engage in a conversation.

For example, on the topic of privilege, some receive. People say technology is a great equalizer. Those people have the privilege of failing forward. The privilege of throwing up a white paper with no business acumen or knowing anything and raising millions of dollars, and then failing. The privilege that allows them to be like, “Oh well, what’s the next?”

How many Black people have that opportunity? I grew up at a small Quaker school that was 98 percent white. I am a former professional tennis player, one of the whitest of white spaces in sports. I was one of the few at the time who went to Northwestern University. I know who I am, so being in those spaces is not intimidating.

It is unfortunate for me to still in 2020 to be a first and only but I have generally been received. On the other side, there are a lot of places I am not invited to.

I am the chairperson of Maker DAO’s Maker Ecosystem Growth Foundation and I have accomplished a lot in the space, and I should be a lot more places. But still, we persist. And I am grateful for those who are conscious in this space and being proactive about inclusion. Because it is not enough for people to say, “It’s open to everybody. We’re not excluding anybody,” but only white males are there.

And yes, you have a website where people can submit to speak but are you being proactive about diversifying and in an inclusive manner? It’s very Yoda, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

2020 has created a lot more consciousness in those who were lost in their privileged thinking believing in a post-racial society. “You had a Black president.” “You have Oprah, what else you want?” Well, we are going to need a little more than that. That is not exactly reparations.

Tonya Evans

Moguldom: For Black people or people of color still leery about blockchain and crypto, what is that one thing you would say to them to get them to jump in?

Tonya Evans: I talk a lot about not being left behind again. For very understandable reasons, we do not trust healthcare because of Tuskegee and other experiments. We do not trust banks and traditional establishments because they were not created or designed for us. It is not that there is dysfunction. The system’s functioning the way it was built.

We have to disrupt the pattern. And that means we have to become educated so we do not get left behind. There is no being static staying in place. You either move forward or you are moving behind and that is your choice. The best way that we empower ourselves is through education. I just put it back on them. The choice is ours about what role we intend to play in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. And we have to make that decision now. Usually, people will come around.

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