coinbase, black employees, cryptocurrency, DEI
Alysa Butler, who resigned from Coinbase in April 2019. Jim Wilson/The New York Times

By Cleve Mesidor | Columnist

The cryptoeconomy is in its infancy. The time is now for Members of Congress to stand with workers. 

Recently, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong made the rounds on Capitol Hill and posted a picture with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Twitter. Black innovators in crypto were caught off guard because at the height of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession, Armstrong instituted a controversial policy that prompted 5% of his staff to leave in protest. Black, Latinx, LGBTQ and female employees bravely spoke out about the hostile working conditions at Coinbase.

Earlier this month, Armstrong announced that he is dissolving the company’s California headquarters, going completely virtual, so the imperative to protect workers at Coinbase is more urgent than ever.

Certainly, Diversity, equity and inclusion is an issue in the blockchain and cryptocurrency industry, but there are efforts underway to try to tackle the problem at this early stage for the emerging technology. Armstrong is the only CEO with an ongoing war on inclusion.

Last September, in an announcement that invoked the name of Breonna Taylor in its opening sentence (he deleted her name a few days later), Armstrong declared that “Coinbase is a mission focused company.” He said, “it would go against our principles of inclusion and belonging to be more of an activist company on issues outside of our core mission.” He added, “We won’t: Debate causes or political candidates internally that are unrelated to work…Take on activism outside of our core mission at work.”

Armstrong also sent an internal staff email stating that any employee who is not on board with his anti-activism policy should leave immediately. Over 60 left, including top executives who disagreed with the new direction. And Blockchain industry leaders pushed back in opposition to the Coinbase policy, which goes against the core tenets of bitcoin.
A November 2020 New York Times article cited 23 current and former Coinbase staff with horror stories.

“Most people of color working in tech know that there’s a diversity problem,” said Alysa Butler, who resigned from Coinbase in April 2019. “But I’ve never experienced anything like Coinbase.”

Additionally, LGBTQ staff recounted being targeted by executives during an incident labeled “bathroomgate.” And it was revealed that women were paid, on average, 8% less than men in comparable jobs, while Black employees were paid 7%, less than other races.
In a hypocritical act right before the 2020 Presidential Election, Armstrong tweeted an article titled, “Why I am Voting for Kanye West.” He faced industry backlash for violating his own apolitical policy.

When Armstrong took Coinbase public this year, he opted to do a direct listing, instead of the tradional IPO path, ensuring mostly high net worth investors could participate. The stock opened at $381. 

Last month, a company called Basecamp announced that it was going to also implement the Coinbase anti-inclusion policy. While employees left that company in droves in opposition to the CEO’s stance, Armstrong dug in and tweeted: “Another mission focused company 👏 it takes courage in these times. Who will be next?”
To date, he has refused to address the allegations employees raised and has never apologized for how poorly he handled the matter.

There are several bills floating in Congress calling for diversity data to foster greater inclusion in the workplace and on corporate Boards of financial services companies. Officials should start by probing Coinbase’s billionaire CEO.

Last fall, I joined with a group of diverse blockchain industry leaders and sent an open letter to Coinbase and its Board of Directors asking for answers and greater transparency. Just like the voices of employees calling for basic human rights in the workplace, Armstrong and its Board ignored our correspondence.

Members of Congress should stand with the Black, Latinx, LGBTQ, female workers in desperate need of champions, rather than pose for photo-ops. Coinbase is a government contractor and now a publicly-traded company. It’s past time we hold the CEO accountable for his policies, actions, and contradictions.

Cleve Mesidor

Mesidor leads the National Policy Network of Women of Color in Blockchain and is the author of “THE CLEVOLUTION: My Quest for Justice in Politics & Crypto.” Follow her on Twitter @cmesi. Subscribe to her weekly newsletter here. Mesidor is based in Washington, D.C.

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