Why more bankers are leaving stable jobs for the high-flying world of cryptocurrency

Pamela Draper at her office in Calgary on April 14. Draper made the switch in 2018 after working for banks for 14 years and is now the President & CEO of a cryptocurrency trading platform Bitvo.Gavin John/The Globe and Mail

Four years ago, Pamela Draper said her colleagues were astonished that she was leaving investment banking for crypto. Today, many of them are following in her footsteps.

Ms. Draper was working in investment banking at Bank of Montreal when a client approached her with a proposal: move from Toronto to Calgary and help him start a cryptocurrency exchange company.

“My first response, was ‘absolutely not,’ ” she said.

But over the 2017 Christmas holidays, her feelings changed: This was not just a new job, she realized. After 14 years in banking, it was a rare chance to join a new industry on the “ground floor” and build a business from scratch, alongside experienced shareholders.

By the time those holidays were over, she said, her feelings had turned. “I went from ‘how could I do this’ to ‘how could I pass up this opportunity?‘ ”

When Ms. Draper became chief executive at Bitvo Inc., a cryptocurrency exchange now with more than 14,000 users across the country, she was one of the first bankers to enter the then-nascent sector in Canada.

“Four years later, a lot of my ex-colleagues at the Bank of Montreal have come into this world,” she said. “It’s great to work with them again on this side of the fence.”

Today, the cryptocurrency landscape has grown legs: It has expanded in value, in public engagement, and in regulation. An influx of capital into the space in recent years has meant that many crypto companies are on the hunt for talent, especially for people with experience in regulation, investment and payment systems. These abilities are often held by employees working in TradFi – traditional finance.

The demand means a growing flow of professionals are leaving traditional banking jobs and embracing a sector once considered too risky.

While the crypto world is not yet large enough to make a significant dent in the hiring ability of big banks – which together employ hundreds of thousands – it is adding some pressure to an already tight market. The past two years have brought bounty to the banks through a record number of mergers and acquisitions, and this demand for bank employees has created a shortage of talent.

Guy Shaul, recruiter for executive search company Heidrick & Struggles International Inc., said his company’s crypto department has grown steadily larger over the past year as financial professionals shift their thinking about roles in the growing field.

“When we first started working in this space, we would call people and would have to try to convince them that our clients weren’t laundering money,” said Mr. Shaul, who is based in London, England. “Now, we actually have to try and work out who’s genuinely interested, because most people are open to hearing about it because there’s a lot of money being made.”

One point of attraction is the opportunity for wealth creation.

“Crypto salaries are finally starting to become competitive with TradFi,” said Tanim Rasul, chief operating officer at National Digital Asset Exchange, a Calgary-based crypto trading platform. “I think that’s a huge part of why people are starting to, not just move over, but come out of retirement to get involved.”

Mr. Rasul said his company has received thousands of applications from employees working in traditional finance. Many of the skills needed to work in a bank – such as handling mergers, investing and regulation – are transferrable to crypto companies and highly in demand, he said.

Ms. Draper said she has indeed worked directly with securities commissions to influence the shape of the regulatory landscape.

It’s an interesting paradox: While the industry itself is aiming to disrupt the existing financial ecosystem, many are turning to executives with decades of traditional experience.

Sebastien Davies is among those with a TradFi background who made the switch. After years of work at financial institutions including CIBC, Royal Bank of Canada and Rayne Capital Management Inc., he decided to leave traditional finance for a job at Aquanow, a Vancouver-based infrastructure and liquidity provider for digital assets.

“I was motivated by a real sense of curiosity. I wanted to jump into something new and innovative, and work at something totally different,” Mr. Davies said. “It’s not to say you can’t innovate when you’re working at a bank, but it’s a lot faster if you move to a startup.”

Overall, he said he has seen employees leaving the industry “at an increasing rate,” part of a wider trend of young people wanting to switch jobs more frequently.

He said he was also attracted by the “unquestionably” different culture, which prioritizes collaboration over moving up ladders. Meanwhile, the urgency of the work has made his days more unpredictable.

“At the bank, the market would open at 9:30, we’re closed at four, and I have a list of things to do on a regular basis in between. But now, I just try to jump in and figure out how I can help,” Mr. Davies said.

This, for many, is the draw: the ability to build something from scratch, from idea to “fully functioning business model available to the public,” said Bitvo’s Ms. Draper. It’s what has made her “leap of faith” worth it.

“There are very few things more rewarding than watching your company grow over the years,” she said. “And being part of growing the industry – being part of regulatory decisions and helping to shape that regulatory landscape – that’s a legacy that will stay in place for decades.”


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