How Rhetoric, Film, And Chinese Have Shaped My Career In Blockchain
When I tell my colleagues at work that I come from a non-technical background, yet work in tech they assume I study economics or business, but not something as intangible as rhetoric. My studies in the humanities have brought me lessons in ancient Chinese history, method acting, philosophy, and the power of the oratory. As my professors have helped me understand, rhetoric is rhizomatic — an ever-changing, below the surface, chain of ideas that has no center. The field contains a slew of topics from philosophy to history to public policy that are connected by the rhetoricians’ desire to explore the choices a writer makes and the meaning that is communicated as a result of those choices. I had entered this discipline in hopes of securing a law degree after graduation, and through my passion for the intricacies of the law — how words on a page and a collection of signatures on a contract can literally change our lives — I became a part of Blockchain at Berkeley.
Blockchain at Berkeley was in the process of evolving from a bitcoin interest group into a hub for high level blockchain research, education, and consulting services. In the midst of this transition, they found themselves in need of someone interested in law to ensure the structure of the organization was appropriate for its status as a student organization, and that the client contracts were drafted fairly for the student workers. After being referred in by a friend in the organization, I hit the ground running. I joined in June of 2017 and spent that summer learning everything I could about blockchain. By serving as, what some students called a “legal guru,” I kept things under control when dealing with the University, our clients, and our actual lawyers. I not only furthered my knowledge of the law, but found myself researching blockchain use cases and cryptocurrency news articles on my own time. Excitement drove me to create a Legal Department and meet with interested lawyers visiting Berkeley to discuss blockchain regulation.
What seemed like another task for the legal department — reading through the Mobility Open Blockchain Initiative’s (MOBI) memorandum of understanding and founding documents — transformed my relationship with the blockchain space. The organization married my greatest interests: blockchain and cars. It was Blockchain at Berkeley that brought me into the space and taught me what I need to know in order to be competent, but MOBI has ignited my passion in the possibilities of blockchain. I have since joined the MOBI team and am able to utilize my rhetoric skills effectively to develop new partnerships and communicate with our community. Although Blockchain at Berkeley, an organization to which I still happily serve as Legal Advisor, gave me depth of knowledge into blockchain technology and the ecosystem, I had often felt “out of the loop” because of my knowledge background. This feeling is not at all a product of the organization, but simply the way tech has been and still is — exclusive.
As with any interest or identity group, tech has a culture that is difficult to understand for those who do not have a technical background. Acknowledging the rampant sexism and racial discrimination in the field (most fields), is unfortunately a part of the journey when making a career in this industry. Although being an LGBT+ identifying woman has had its challenges, I have similarly found difficulty as a result of my academic background and work experience. It felt, and still occasionally feels, like the information I have is intangible — I cannot comprehend lines of code nor can I confidently speak on economic incentives associated with decentralized negotiation of rights of way. I am often surrounded by peers who can explain some real-world phenomena with facts they have learned in their industry, not only have I felt different, but that feeling has translated into ignorance.
Rhetoric is rhizomatic — an ever-changing, below the surface, chain of ideas that has no center. The field contains a slew of topics from philosophy to history to public policy that are connected by the rhetoricians’ desire to explore the choices a writer makes and the meaning that is communicated as a result of those choices.
Ironically, it wasn’t until I started diving into my work head first, and putting my studies on the back burner, did I benefit from my coursework. During my first few weeks working for MOBI, the team was in the process of launching the MOBI Grand Challenge promotional video. When I saw what was intended to be the final draft, the rhetorician in me couldn’t resist providing commentary on the tone and pacing of the video’s narration. After communicating suggestions and explaining my reasoning, as if I was writing a final paper, I was met with positive feedback from our organizations’ CEO. Seeing my obscure degree put to work, and the surprise with which it was met, helped me realize that the skill set I’m developing is unique. There is utility in the uncommon, my experiences have helped me not necessarily by ingraining information in my brain, but rather training me in a way of thinking. From this initial experience at work, I have since come to a greater appreciation for the skills that my education has helped, and continues to help, me develop. Not only am I able to craft arguments about some ancient text, but these skills are transferable. My rhetoric degree has given me the skills to build a compelling partnership pitch and concisely explain the fundamentals of blockchain or the benefits of consortia in networked technologies.
Ten experts in the field — during a roundtable discussion — may be an interesting exploration of what an industry is capable, but it is the outside perspective that can provide meaningful critique of what the expert may not see. All too often we are confronted by people of the same identity, whether it be racially, politically, socio-economically, or otherwise. Ideas should not be inbred, else we run the risk of running in a direction without being able to understand its effect on the community as a whole. This issue is not home to the blockchain space, but rather most big industry that exists today. The idea I am suggesting is not novel. It is this concept that fuels consulting firms, therapists, and life coaches. We need outsiders to tell us how to not only include them, but also to see the inconsistencies in our ideas to which we are blind. Fortunately, I made this discovery alongside a high level team of blockchain and industry experts rather than during a struggle to find work in a field that doesn’t understand the value of the “other.”
Moving forward, we, the students on the margins of this growing industry, must look within to consider how we can add value to any kind of organization, then hone those skills to make them marketable. The only lesson anyone needs to know about business is to have something that people want and make that thing easy for people to get from you. This same lesson translates to marketing yourself, but with a dash of creativity — help people understand the usefulness of your skills and experiences, then showcase how you can act on them to benefit another party. As for feeling like less of an outsider, this can only be accomplished by making impactful contributions to an organization that remind you of your value. You must shake initial intimidation stemming from misunderstanding concepts or struggling to follow along with ideas. Spend some time reminding yourself of how your skills can add value and bring in other points of value when possible. You never know when your diversity of identity and background will come in to save the day, so you should always be prepared to use it.
Rachel Feher is in her third and final year of earning her undergraduate Rhetoric degree at UC Berkeley, she will graduate with high distinction. She serves as Legal Advisor for Blockchain at Berkeley, after successfully founding and heading their Legal Department. Rachel now works as MOBI’s (Mobility Open Blockchain Initiative) Community Manager, working closely with community member companies while focusing on developing MOBI’s ecosystem in China and the greater Asia market. She has earned many merits for her study of the Chinese language and uses these skills not only in her work, but also as a tutor and friend to international students and visitors.