The North American Bitcoin Conference wrapped up 10 hours of speeches by inviting 5,000 attendees to what it called a networking party. “It’s been a long day,” read the description. “Join us at E11even for some networking and R&R. Or dancing.”
The agenda didn’t mention that the networking event would be held in a 20,000-square-foot Miami strip club, praised on review sites for aerial acrobats and a relatively permissive attitude toward touching. During the mixer, waitresses in revealing tops and lingerie served drinks, and when the event technically ended at 11 p.m., plenty of attendees kept their conference badges on and stayed to party.
“We’re a bunch of dudes with a lot of money in our 20s. We like naked girls,” said Jeff Scott, a cryptocurrency trader from New York. He got a table for 12 with a hedge fund analyst and the heads of two startups, and said the evening wasn’t much different than his typical night in a strip club. “If you don’t like it, that’s fine, but you’re not going to expect us to change.”
Not everyone agreed. As financial wizards and tech entrepreneurs before them, cryptocurrency’s early enthusiasts are confronting more mainstream expectations for decency and decorum. The chief executive officer of Dash Core Group Inc., the corporate sponsor of the event, said he hadn’t known the venue was a strip club and was “deeply disappointed.” Several women who attended the conference said the party made them uncomfortable; many chose not to go.
Moe Levin, CEO of Keynote, which organized the conference, at first defended the choice of venue, calling it “the ideal layout for networking.” Nude performances were halted until 11 p.m., and if it later became a place where people felt uncomfortable, that wasn’t the conference’s fault, he said in a phone interview.
Within a few hours, he did an about-face, a real-time demonstration of the growing pains in the nascent industry. “Having the networking party at E11even was a misstep,” he wrote in an email. “We always aim to be as inclusive as possible and create a safe environment.”
Keynote also will take steps to improve the gender balance at next year’s conference, starting with inviting more women to speak on panels. This year, 85 of the 88 slots for presenters were assigned to men, according to a list posted online.
The earliest days of cryptocurrencies were dominated almost entirely by men, but that’s changing, at least slowly. A 2015 survey indicated that more than 90 percent of Bitcoin users were male; a different survey a year later put the share around 87 percent. Then last year’s price surge transformed Bitcoin into a more mainstream investment, and a January survey found men made up 71 percent of users in the U.S.
After the Miami conference, one of the biggest such gatherings in the world, some women chose their words carefully. Zineb Belmkaddem, a cryptocurrency trader in Washington, noted that she doesn’t have a problem with strip clubs, per se. She just wasn’t comfortable networking in one.
“There was a message being sent to women, that, ‘OK, this isn’t really your place,”’ said Belmkaddem, who spent about $1,000 to attend the conference, and then skipped the party. “‘This is where the boys roll.’”
Hadjar Homaei, a co-founder of a Seattle tech startup, wrote about her experience and posted some photos on Twitter. A fellow attendee suggested she get on a stage for strippers. Another offered her a lap dance for Ether. She offered him a Bitcoin to “ fork off.”
“There were no strippers before 11 but all the servers were in lingerie, even that was enough to set the tone in how my male peers behaved towards me there,” she wrote. “Will a conference attendee who tells me to go on the stage … take me seriously the next day?”
Like Wall Street
Her posts were met with mixed reactions, including support and also plenty of hostility. The great thing about crypto, one man wrote in response, is that enthusiasts can tune out women. “Blockchain is going to decentralize and reveal the truth about everything, including human biology,” said the user, named @cryptokaze666. “Obviously none of them have a rational or logical argument. Let’s stop arguing and just f—ing code them out of existence.”
In interviews, many attendees made a similar observation: Bitcoin’s creators set out after the 2008 financial crisis to replace a system they deemed corrupt. They built a new one with nobody in charge. Yet as more enthusiasts pour in, the scene has begun to mimic Wall Street’s worst behavior.
“You hear them criticizing Wall Street and their regression constantly,” said Elizabeth Hansson, the chief technology officer of a blockchain startup in Michigan. Yet, “the leaders at this conference literally led the attendees into a strip club.”
It wasn’t lost on some that the party was held the same week women marched in hundreds of cities around the world for better treatment. It also was the same night that the Presidents Club Charity Dinner convened in London for the last time, before getting shut down over reports of men harassing and groping hostesses.
Several women said they think crypto culture has gotten worse, not better, while churning out quick riches. But it may be hard to stage more events like the night at E11even.
“It was a bunch of newly minted millionaires getting drunk and rowdy, and then you introduce naked or half-naked women into the equation, and that’s what happens,” said Veronica McGregor, a financial-technology lawyer at Goodwin Procter who spoke on a regulation panel at the conference. “So maybe we need to eliminate one of those factors.”