Camila Russo Refuses to Be Crypto’s Diversity Checkbox

The Defiant founder is at the forefront of the emerging DeFi media landscape, and she has no plans of stopping there

November 9, 2021 10:14 am
Camila Russo is the founder of DeFi media organization The Defiant.
Camila Russo is the founder of DeFi media organization The Defiant.
Camila Russo/InsideHook

I first met Camila Russo during New York City’s three-day Mainnet conference in September, tickets for which cost nearly $1,500. Rumors that the SEC had served subpoenas earlier that day swirled around the Times Square Marriott where the conference was held (those rumors have since been confirmed) as some of the spaces’s biggest investors hopped in black cars to escape the chaos, seeking refuge at an after-party for The Graph.   

Despite an air of residual panic, party guests seemed relieved to be able to tow their backpacks to the long VIP line, slink into a crowd of costumed crypto unicorns and throw back tequila sodas under a blue haze of nightclub fog. As I stood with a group of friends, a young woman quickly said hello, shook hands with each of us and then disappeared into the night to mingle with the rest of the distinguished guests in attendance. As soon as she was out of earshot, a friend whispered, “That’s Camila Russo. She essentially wrote the bible on Ethereum. She’s a celebrity in the crypto world.” 

But Russo didn’t act like a “celebrity.” She was more of a tide that swelled around the room, quietly drawing eyes and whispers as partygoers gravitated closer. She was nothing like the unsavory Bored Ape fanatics swinging their metaversal dicks all over the room depicted in this postmortem from New York Magazine. The crowd, while eccentric, was much more than the “blockchain bros” and “crypto socialite” caricatures they’re often reduced to. Not everyone was just here to party — least of all Russo.

As rumored, Russo did, in fact, write the historical “bible” on Ethereum, The Infinite Machine: How an Army of Crypto-hackers Is Building the Next Internet with Ethereum (which InsideHook recommended last year). After spending eight years working as a market reporter at Bloomberg, she quit her position covering cryptocurrency to freelance and work on the book that would become an oft-referenced resource in the community. With extra time on her hands and hoping for some supplementary income, Russo decided to start a free, educational newsletter to break down the complexities of the DeFi (decentralized finance) space. She called it The Defiant because she planned to exclusively cover DeFi, but the name conveniently doubled as an identifier of her status: a young Latina woman defying the precedent that American financial institutions are spaces typically dominated by older, wealthy white men. 

In the mother tongue of CT (Crypto Twitter), Russo is definitely Gonna Make It. Actually, check that: Russo has made it. After all, we’re living in the aftermath of DeFi Summer 2020, in which players up and down the space — like Uniswap, the exchange that ascended from a $200 million valuation in April 2020 to $15 billion by that September — have skyrocketed in value. Just last week, the NFT NYC conference hit Times Square, attracting sponsors like Christie’s and Samsung and after-parties hosted by Playboy and serial entrepreneur nonpareil Gary Vaynerchuk. As of this week, the cryptocurrency market is now worth over $3 trillion. At long last, crypto seems to be gaining legitimacy, notoriety and global users at lightning speed, and Russo just might be its chief prognosticator.

As Ryan Watkins of crypto research firm Messari tweeted, $ETH — or ether, the transactional token that facilitates operations on the Ethereum network — is a “bet on internet money, the metaverse, DeFi, NFTs, Web 3 … all rolled into one powerful asset. $ETH is the center of the cryptoeconomy.”

And at the center of Ethereum and Web 3.0 — a more transparent and secure iteration of the internet which operates on a blockchain, enabling internet users to own and protect their personal data — are Camila Russo and The Defiant.

Russo is also the author of "The Infinite Machine: How an Army of Crypto-hackers Is Building the Next Internet with Ethereum."
Russo is also the author of “The Infinite Machine: How an Army of Crypto-hackers Is Building the Next Internet with Ethereum.”
Camila Russo

A New Dawn for The Defiant

The founder and editor-in-chief (or “chiefess,” as she calls it) of DeFi media organization The Defiant, Russo now lives in Brooklyn with her husband, who is also a startup founder in “the space,” as everyone in “the space” calls it. They work out of a shared office in Dumbo, which, of course, isn’t just any office, but a co-working space they founded for DeFi teams in the New York area. And both within and outside of that office, Russo is having a year.

In February, the former Bloomberg financial markets journalist snagged a coveted podcast interview with billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban — the first journalist in the DeFi space to do so. (Since then, Cuban has coined himself an “Ethereum maxi,” and ether hit its all-time high earlier this week.) In April, The Defiant’s parent company, Defiant Media Inc., closed a $1.4M pre-seed round from investors including IDEO CoLab Ventures, ParaFi Capital, Blockchange Ventures, MetaCartel Ventures, Defiance Capital, Mechanism Capital, GBV Capital and a number of angel investors. And in June, Russo, who is Chilean, spoke at the 2021 Mainnet conference alongside an impressive who’s who of all the major players in the cryptocurrency space, from content creators to venture capitalists to Web 3.0 founders. 

For many financial normies still jumping through the hoops of centralized banking, the actual mechanics of cryptocurrency and the hyper-cerebral concept of DeFi is still hard to digest. And that’s exactly the issue The Defiant is hoping to fix. DeFi is the future of finance, Russo believes, and through accessible, multi-platform education and objective reporting, she wants everyone to have access to that future — not just the same group of people who have benefited from traditional financial institutions of the past.

Before we continue down the rabbithole that is cryptocurrency, let’s pause for a moment to digest what we’re even talking about. At the most basic level, cryptocurrency is decentralized digital money meant to be sent or received over the internet. How’s that any different than Venmo or PayPal? Well, Venmo and PayPal, according to Coinbase, “rely on the traditional financial system for permission to transfer money.” In normie speak, those services, just like our banking system at large, are centralized, meaning there’s a small group of individuals or financial institutions that decide whether or not you — a tax-paying citizen — can open a bank account, access your funds, apply for a loan or send money to another account. And that leaves a lot of room for various types of discrimination, which (surprise, surprise!) run rampant within our current financial structures. A bank can — arguably unfairly — decide whether or not you can participate in that very financial system by requiring multiple forms of identification, a financial history to their liking and personal demographic information. 

Cryptocurrency is “decentralized” in that anyone can send or receive crypto without the permission of a bank or government. But crypto is also “trustless” — meaning everything is transparent and everything is auditable. Through the open technology of blockchains — essentially what powers cryptocurrencies and records every transaction — you can check and verify the balance of your account at any given time. If you’re putting money in a bank and the bank’s website says you have $100,000 in your account, you have to trust that the bank is telling the truth; there’s no way for you, a private individual, to independently verify that number. 

That’s why Bitcoin, the world’s first major cryptocurrency, was born in the wake of the financial meltdown of 2008. Meant to be digital money, the technology was a response to a global financial failure. The second-biggest cryptocurrency, Ethereum, is much more than just a currency: it’s a general-purpose blockchain that allows anyone to build applications on top of it, including different cryptocurrencies, NFTs, games or things developers haven’t yet imagined. Bringing things full circle, DeFi (or “decentralized finance”) encapsulates all “financial services on public blockchains, primarily Ethereum,” according to Coinbase. And that is what Russo and The Defiant report on: this global, peer-to-peer, pseudonymous and transparent new financial system.  

As veteran freelance journalist Leigh Cuen (who founded Des Femmes Magazine with help from Russo) puts it, “Welcome to the crazy world of crypto.” 

Russo with members of The Defiant community at a meet-up.
Russo with members of The Defiant community at a meet-up.
Camila Russo

A Trusted Figure in a Trustless Space

With cryptocurrency invading banking faster than regulators can keep up and Boomer moms finally inquiring about what “a crypto” is, Russo has been walking a delicate line between journalist, founder and influencer as she expands her business operations. Russo and her team are steadily ramping up The Defiant’s ambitious growth marketing strategy, offering newcomers a gentle welcome and robust education into their world. And for those put off by the volatility of the market (or what some call FUD: fear, uncertainty and doubt), Russo’s straightforward voice, financial background and gentle but confident demeanor offer a much-needed ladder to greenhorns looking to descend down into the rabbithole alongside her.

“It’s a very organic story,” says DeFi Dad, an advisor to The Defiant and the head of DeFi at Fourth Revolution Capital, who gained massive popularity among burgeoning crypto users for his educational posts and videos. And he’s right. Russo hasn’t forced herself on anyone. She hasn’t strong-armed her way into the space, and she hasn’t stepped on anyone to get where she is. “Her success is, rather, just a result of her preparation meeting opportunity,” DeFi Dad says.

The Defiant itself was such a runaway success that Russo didn’t even track expenses in the newsletter’s early days. There was no big investment, no friends and family round. It wasn’t until she decided to turn on Substack’s paid subscriptions that she even realized anyone was willing to pay for the content she made. When sponsors like Aave began sliding into her inbox, she knew she was onto something with real staying power.

“At this point in time in the evolution of the space, there were very few information sources, and I knew this thing was going to take off,” Russo tells InsideHook. “I had the opportunity to be here first and become the most trusted news source of this space.”

Just like Russo’s own presence, which stands in opposition to the crypto bro scuttlebut, the tone of The Defiant is accessible, succinct, educational and — above all — objective. “I’m not an investor promoting any of my ‘bags,’ as you call it in crypto,” Russo laughs.

The lack of objectivity in the space, DeFi Dad says, presented a huge issue in DeFi’s early days. There were plenty of creators and podcasts, but other than CNBC’s reporting on the price of bitcoin and Laura Shin’s Forbes podcast Unchained, most of the individuals distributing updates about different products and developments in DeFi were either the companies building the products, or the traders who stood to gain something by promoting them. 

Russo took a selfie in front of the Bloomberg building right after she quit her job as a Bloomberg reporter.
Russo took a selfie in front of the Bloomberg building right after she quit her job as a Bloomberg reporter.
Camila Russo

But Russo was born out of the Bloomberg school of reporting: she brought the trained news eye of an institutional financial journalist and used it to wade through the “crap,” report both the good and the bad, and do so in such a way that readers could actually understand why the numbers on CNBC’s screen shot up and then inexplicably crashed in whiplash fashion. The Defiant’s journalistic integrity, DeFi Dad says, is one of the primary reasons why subscribers are willing to pay for Russo’s content.

Today, The Defiant is much more than just a newsletter. It’s an entire media ecosystem that includes a podcast, YouTube channel, website and (soon) a data terminal that will analyze market and on-chain DeFi data in real-time. Russo’s YouTube channel alone grew from 77,000 to nearly 85.7K subscribers weeks after we first spoke for this piece; the newsletter, meanwhile, has nearly 40,000 subscribers, totaling upwards of 120,000 unique viewers a month between those two channels. 

But DeFi Dad offers an ever more compelling piece of evidence that The Defiant is impacting the crypto economy in real time. After Russo secured her podcast interview with Cuban, DeFi Dad reached out to Cuban via DM, letting the magnate know he’d be happy to teach him more about Ethereum. To his surprise, Cuban responded, and later ended up investing in Zapper, the company DeFi Dad worked for at the time. That investment can be traced right back to Russo’s influence.

To Be or Not to Be the “Woman in Crypto”?

Having grown up in Chile, where class and status are embedded into the banalities of everyday life (she tells me strangers in Chile always asked for her last name, so they could quickly decode which social rung she belonged to), Russo knows that to truly galvanize the world to embrace DeFi as the future of finance, she has to bring more people in: that means more women, more people of color and looking beyond the United States.

While things at The Defiant seem relatively rosy from a diversity perspective, they’re certainly not perfect. Despite being a female-founded venture, Russo says that across all of her platforms, her audience is 80-90% male. And within her team, there are 14 men and just three women.

It’s not for lack of effort. According to Gemini’s 2021 State of U.S. Crypto report, 75% of crypto holders are men and 71% are white. The report, unsurprisingly, shows that the “average” crypto owner is a 38-year-old male making approximately $111,000 a year (like the Delphi Digital Team pictured below, which one CT user called “Sausage Digital”). For women of color, the outlook is even bleaker. The NCWIT released a report in March of 2021 based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that Black women make up only 3 percent of the computing workforce in the United States.

“I really wish there were more women who consumed our content,” Russo says. “But it’s not surprising from what I’ve seen in general and in crypto. It’s a result of crypto being a mix of tech and finance, and those two sectors have been historically very male-dominated. Crypto carries that baggage.” 

Alexis Gauba, the founder of Opyn, which is building a decentralized options platform on Ethereum, is also one of the founders of She256, a 501c3 nonprofit focused on diversity and inclusion in crypto. She believes that Russo’s content is some of the most accessible for newcomers to the space.

“At the end of the day, what we’re trying to build in crypto is a better system. And the traditional systems have been built by the same group of people,” Gauba said. “So the only way that we can build a system for the globally diverse population that we want to serve is for those people to be building that system, too.”

To get more women in crypto, the narrative in the media also has to change. That means Vice publishing more nuanced takes than “long-suffering partners of crypto bros hate their lives,” and NY Mag doing away with the tired myths that most women in crypto are like one “acronym-tossing Girl Boss” who screamed at a reporter: “‘…fucking let’s go! Women energy! Get you on stage. Everything. Supportive. Inclusive. Inclusivity.’” These cringe-inducing stereotypes — starting with the ubiquitous Bitcoin Bro that’s spawned derisive meme accounts and propagated the idea that “hot people follow money, always” — precede the community and keep many people (namely, women and women of color) out. It also keeps them from making money.

“The crypto bro definitely exists. I know crypto bros! Some are my friends,” says Russo. “But from the outside, I see how that can alienate a lot of people, and unfortunately I think that character is just a lot louder than others.”

Just because women are visibly missing from the space, however, doesn’t mean women aren’t interested. The Gemini report indicated that more than half of crypto-curious consumers are women, with the “potential to disrupt what we think of as the ‘average’ crypto holder.” And while women-led groups like She256, SheFi, Crypto Femmes and NFT projects like World of Women have allowed women to locate their community within a male-dominated space, Russo doesn’t want readers to come to The Defiant because of her gender or her ethnicity. She wants them to come because the content is best-in-class. And she wants them to invest because the product is promising, not because she runs a woman-led startup.

“It’s weird, because on one hand, I am proud to be a woman in crypto. There’s so few of us, so if I can be loud and be an example for other women, I want to be that,” Russo says. “But I wouldn’t want people to value me or The Defiant because I’m a woman, I don’t want people to include me in a panel because I’m a woman and I don’t want to be anybody’s diversity checkbox. I want people to respect me because they like my work.” 

Camila Russo
Camila Russo

“A Voice of the Future” 

With the additional pre-seed round funding this year, Russo hired a team of 15 full- and part-time contributors, including a 20-year veteran of Bloomberg, Brady Dale from Coindesk, who DeFi Dad calls “one of the best writers in the entire space,” and a team of developers to build out the data terminal. 

And she’s not done yet. Russo has plans to pursue another round of funding once the data platform kicks off, “to really scale up.” And a score of those in the space believe in her — excuse me, are “bullish” on Camila Russo — too.

While journalist Cuen isn’t necessarily as bullish on Ethereum’s underlying technology — what Russo is betting on within her business — she believes wholeheartedly in the founder herself. “She’s just doing everything right,” says Cuen, referencing Russo’s open leadership calls, physical spaces and meet-ups, virtual collectibles, and the products and services for which she’s currently using Ethereum. “This connects her readers and builds a community. No matter what happens, I think she’s going to be making something that’s really significant to a lot of people and that audiences are actually really willing to pay for. This is a very dramatic change and shift from the way that most people used to found new media companies.”

Marina Spindler, a consultant in the crypto and blockchain space who does business development and communications for different projects, wrote a report on the state of women in crypto for The Defiant earlier this year. But she also has a background in recruiting female executives and identifying diverse talent for major corporations. In her eyes, Russo is “a quiet force,” not the sort of founder who’s jumping up and down on a couch at a conference panel. 

“My job is about paying attention to the future, and I think she’s a future voice,” Spindler said. “That’s what I saw when I heard her. She’s the voice of the future.” 

And the future of finance, in Russo’s mind, doesn’t just belong to wealthy people. In a landscape where traditional financial institutions are failing the world’s poorest global citizens, the cryptocurrency movement is becoming less of a rat race to get rich quick and more of a mission to genuinely change the world. Russo’s founder story encompasses that larger theme, which has proven difficult to communicate to the masses: that, for many in the space, crypto isn’t a joke, but a clear vision rooted in systemic financial inequalities. 

Because of her prowess in the space, Russo says many assume she’s been around crypto “forever,” and that — because of her association with an industry that is perceived to value get-rich-quick shit coins like $SHIB — she should be “a millionaire by now.” But Russo first covered Bitcoin when she relocated to Argentina. There, she was shocked by the financial instability of the country, and just how much of that issue had been enabled by governmental inadequacy. Rather than solving the problem, the country kept printing more money, and the poorest people — those who couldn’t receive their paychecks in American dollars — suffered the most. 

“With decentralized finance, I see a better financial system. I see an internet where companies aren’t exploiting us for our information,” Russo said. “So if this is true, we’re about to see everything change.”

There’s a sort of inexplicable and unspoken feeling that arises as I read through Russo’s body of work. It’s as if, beneath the nuanced financial reporting and the calm, well-mannered disposition, there’s something that says, “Okay, I’m home. I’m safe. This is for me.” That’s what Camila Russo is: A bridge to the future. A reliable guide. A safe place for the uncertain. And she’s ready to lead crypto investors of all socioeconomic backgrounds into that future not because she is the loudest in the room, but because she is the most capable.

Amid the frenzy that is New York City mayor Eric Adams pledging to make the city’s own coin and accepting his first three paychecks in bitcoin, normal people who don’t know jack flooding to the very space they once derided, and Gwyneth Fucking Paltrow — founder of the vagina egg and candle — interviewing crypto advisers on her Goop podcast, stands Russo, defying expectations at every turn. 

The blockchain revolution is only just beginning. And with it, Camila Russo’s inevitable reign. 

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