Building ConsenSys for a new decentralised future

Oct 01, 2019
Claire Fitzpatrick FCA looks back on her career, from trainee auditor to the frontier of blockchain technology innovation.

What’s wrong with me?” For someone who has enjoyed a varied and successful career in professional services and large corporations, it might come as a surprise to learn that Claire Fitzpatrick asked herself that very question in her 30s as she watched her peers move into senior roles. “You just need to get on the track,” she was told – a less than subtle reference to the perceived linear path to CFO/CEO roles.

But as Claire readily admits, this isn’t how she operates. The Dublin native has made serendipitous career moves since leaving PwC in 2000 to work with one of her audit clients, Point Information Systems, but the draw has never been status or salary. Instead, her career has been guided by two things – people and culture.

Venturing out

While working as a PwC Audit Senior with Point Information Systems, Claire saw the culture she wanted to work in – ambitious, fast-changing and transformative. “I remember coming back after a year and the company had changed completely, whereas some other companies I audited would be the same year-on-year,” she said. “It was evolving at pace and the energy there just stood out for me.”

Claire joined the company and her role expanded her knowledge base in a variety of new disciplines from engineering to sales and marketing. This diverse exposure would be of great benefit to her later in her career, not least when she returned from a working holiday with Nestlé in Australia and New Zealand to a role in O2. The company was in expansion mode at the time and Claire managed to experience the full life-cycle from early adoption to the sale of the business, which she was centrally involved in.

From there, Claire moved to Wayra, Telefónica’s start-up accelerator, to accelerate digital embryonic businesses. As Claire recalls, it was a move that raised some eyebrows at the time. “A lot of my peers thought it was a step down for me in career terms, but I really wanted to get involved in the innovative digital space,” she said. “It reminded me of the energy and pace I felt in Point Information Systems and I had experience of both start-up and corporate environments, so I was able to bring a lot to the table.”

Start-up life

In her first three weeks in Wayra, Claire met with hundreds of entrepreneurs and developers across the tech ecosystem and this intensity continued unabated for three years. The hub was a success, investing €6 million in the Irish start-up ecosystem including 33 equity investments while returning the same amount. “For early-stage start-ups, that’s a great return,” she said. However, following the sale of O2 to Three in 2014, Telefónica ultimately closed its Wayra hub in Ireland and Claire decided to take on a new challenge. 

The idea of starting her own business had never entered her mind, but the closure of Wayra meant that Claire and her two colleagues faced a fork in the road. “We saw real value in what we were doing at Wayra, and we were good at it,” she said. “So, we decided to set up Red Planet and to flip the accelerator model on its head. We started with the corporate to understand the problem it was trying to solve, and then sourced the best start-up talent to solve that particular problem.”

The venture was successful and it achieved what Claire describes as “the holy grail” for start-ups – being sold to a large corporate. Red Planet was acquired by Deloitte in 2017 and Claire continued to work with the firm for 18 months. “Selling our start-up was a tough decision, but the right one. Deloitte was really good at the strategy piece and identifying the challenges facing their clients, while Red Planet was able to find the solutions in the start-up world and develop them to scale. We were very good at curating diamonds in the rough.”

Blockchain calling

At this stage in her career, Claire faced an inflection point. Not content to simply go with the flow, she began plotting her next move when an opportunity arose to join a new blockchain venture headed by the co-founder of Ethereum, Joseph Lubin. The company was founded in 2014 and was at the forefront of Ethereum blockchain technology innovation. It needed someone to establish its base in Dublin and build its team, and the company ultimately chose Claire as its Director of Strategic Operations.

The Dublin hub, which is known as ConsenSys Ireland, is developing the products that will enable society and enterprises to advance to the next level of blockchain adoption. Claire is very excited about the bigger picture. “In the future, you won’t even know you’re interacting with blockchain. It will be just like the Internet where nobody really thinks about or considers the infrastructure or protocols – they just see the applications,” she said. “Blockchain will be as transformational as mobile telecommunications was 25 years ago. We are part of a new industry, a new technology, new products, and a market which we have to create and educate. That’s a big challenge, but a very exciting one.”

Leadership style

But amid the excitement and potential lies ambiguity, and it takes a certain type of person to thrive in an ambiguous environment according to Claire. “Given the nascent nature of blockchain technology, we’re continually refining our vision and new industries are constantly wanting to explore new directions with the technology. So, although everyone in the company has goals to achieve, some are set in stone and some evolve to meet the needs of our clients,” she said. “That’s no different to a traditional organisation but we do differ in that we could have to tell staff to drop projects and pivot in a new direction at a moment’s notice – and some people find that challenging.”

Luckily for Claire, working in a maturing industry adds to the allure of her new role in ConSensys – one she believes will contribute to a decentralised, democratised future for individuals. “It’s a rollercoaster, but with experience and age comes perspective and balance,” she said. “And the most important thing for me, throughout my career, has been the people I work with. My colleagues today are not necessarily wired like me but we work well together in the good times, and the challenging times, to make something great happen. That’s what it’s all about.”

 

Claire’s advice for Chartered Accountants

Chartered Accountants will have a central role in the deployment of blockchain technologies and rather than wait for mass adoption, Claire believes the time to upskill is now.

“The conversation around blockchain has moved from proof of concept to pilot schemes so when we’re talking to clients, we’re discussing real systems as opposed to hypothetical ideas,” she said. “So, I wouldn’t recommend waiting to start blockchain projects because we will reach the point of mass proliferation quicker than most people expect.”

“The first step for all Chartered Accountants is education. There are free educational resources through ConsenSys Academy and Blockchain Ireland is working to raise awareness of what’s coming down the tracks,” Claire added. “But it’s vital that Chartered Accountants realise that anyone can quickly become a laggard in this dynamic environment.”

“Finally, I would stress the point that Chartered Accountants don’t need to worry about losing their heads in the weeds trying to understand the programming and coding side of things,” she said. “They should educate themselves with regard to the characteristics and applications that they can see for blockchain in their business.”