Undergrads from the School of Hotel Administration collaborated with students from a range of disciplines to create Cornell Blockchain, a club that aims to develop the next generation of blockchain leaders.

Students from across disciplines forge Cornell Blockchain

As the fourth of five children, Joe Ferrara ’19 grew up cooking meals and baking treats for his family. As a teenager, he spent summers slinging pizzas and busing tables, envisioning a day when he would run his own business. “I really loved seeing people smile and providing the best experiences for them,” he says.

So it was no surprise when Ferrara transferred to the School of Hotel Administration as a sophomore in 2016.

But he couldn’t have predicted what happened after he arrived.

“My brother started telling me about Bitcoin,” Ferrara says, referring to the cryptocurrency that was creeping into the public consciousness and verging on a dramatic rise in value. “I really didn’t know what it was, but it caught my attention.”

His enthusiasm for Bitcoin spread to Lynette Ban ’19, a neighbor in Flora Rose House who had also recently transferred to the Hotel School. “The more I learned about it, the more I wanted to try to understand this new concept,” Ban says.

When Ferrara realized the powerful part of Bitcoin was the underlying blockchain technology, he started asking questions around campus.

“No one could really explain it,” he says. “At the time, Bitcoin did not have the best reputation, and some people would question the technology or even laugh until I talked about what blockchain could do.”

In time, Ferrara, Ban and other undergraduates from a range of majors and colleges would create Cornell Blockchain, a student club that aims to develop the next generation of blockchain leaders.

Cornell Blockchain members ring the opening bell at the Nasdaq Stock Market in April 2019.

Forming a campus-wide club

Ferrara soon discovered the resources he was seeking were hiding in plain sight. As he scoured the internet for blockchain news, he stumbled on an interesting tweet.

“I looked up his bio, and it said he was a Cornell professor,” Ferrara said.

The author of the tweet was Emin Gün Sirer, associate professor of computer science and co-founder of the Initiative for Cryptocurrencies and Contracts, a consortium of eight top computer science institutions around the world, from London to Zurich – and based at Cornell Tech.

“We had no idea,” Ban says. “Cornell had this organization of professors and grad students researching and developing blockchain protocols, but there was no undergraduate organization. That was an opportunity waiting to happen.”

Ban and Ferrara envisioned a campuswide club that would welcome students from all academic backgrounds. They asked Sirer to serve as an adviser.

“I would have expected somebody incredibly technical with a computer science background to come to me. Instead I had these students from the Hotel School come in and they showed great interest in the area,” says Sirer, who had unsuccessfully tried to establish a blockchain club a few years earlier. “They were quite savvy.”

In fall 2017, Cornell Blockchain held its first meeting. “There was a growing excitement about the technology,” Ferrara says. “The price of cryptocurrencies was going through the roof. We were expecting 30 or 40 people, but 120 showed up.”

Sirer predicted 80% would be computer science or electrical engineering majors. “But it was all over the map,” he says. “Hotel School students, bio students, business students and philosophers. It was my first indication that this area was truly interdisciplinary.”

What gives the blockchain field such broad appeal is its decentralized nature. Fans of the technology argue the platform will ultimately make everything we do – from banking to buying real estate to mapping a supply chain – more efficient and transparent.

“Every new technology brings with it some hardcore tech, but also a different set of values,” Sirer says. “The values embedded in blockchain technology are all about democratization of business, opening new fields for new startups, pushing aside people who are incumbent and creating space for newcomers.”

So it makes sense that Hotel School students launched Cornell Blockchain, Sirer says. “Business management is part and parcel of the skills taught in the Hotel School,” he says. “The students there tend to be entrepreneurial. And they also tend to be quite adaptive and quite eager to pick up new technologies.”

A demand for blockchain know-how

Ban and Ferrara’s Hotel School experience was put to the test in spring 2019, when the club staged its first Cornell Blockchain conference at Cornell Tech in New York City. The conference drew 250 academics and industry leaders from around the country. The Cornell Blockchain team started the conference by ringing the opening bell at the Nasdaq MarketSite in Times Square.

“I’m so proud of this,” says Sirer. “We were the first blockchain institution to open the Nasdaq, to press that button.”

Ban and Ferrara are now club advisers and work at blockchain startups. Ban’s unlikely background often elicits a surprised reaction at her workplace, the derivatives exchange and clearinghouse CME Group.

“Cornell had this organization of professors and grad students researching and developing blockchain protocols, but there was no undergraduate organization. That was an opportunity waiting to happen.”

Lynette Ban

“Once I explain to them what the Hotel School taught me and the experience I bring, they agree that it’s actually really cool and way better than the traditional route,” Ban says. “What really makes the Hotel School extremely special is that every class is focused on providing excellent service. And every business is about providing a service. ‘How can we make your company successful and our company successful?’ The Hotel School teaches that.”

Ferrara works at AVA Labs, a Cornell-based startup co-founded by Sirer that is building a high-performance blockchain structure.

“Joe is all about human processes,” Sirer says. “He’s incredibly good at talking to groups of people and describing a technically difficult field with effectiveness and enthusiasm.”

Eric Hu ’20, a biology and economics major who helped establish the club and served as president in 2019-20, works in investment banking at Evercore. “More and more,” he says, “companies are looking to work with the technology, and want people who know something about it.”

Cornell Blockchain today

Xavier Lu ’22, a computer science major, and Brian Kim ’22, a linguistics major, are the newest leaders of Cornell Blockchain, which now includes 40 undergraduates.

Using LinkedIn Live, members are transforming the club’s transcribed Q&A interviews with leaders of blockchain-enabled businesses to live, interactive virtual events. “Last semester, a lot of club members were interested in blockchain protocols and off-chain interactions, so we set out to look for experts in those fields,” Kim says.

And club members are prototyping a central bank digital currency with the club’s newest faculty adviser, Robert C. Hockett, the Edward Cornell Professor of Law at Cornell Law School. These currencies are inspired by Bitcoin, but are different.

“[They] are issued by a central institution and have the legal tender status declared by the government,” Lu says, “all while maintaining the perks of a blockchain-based digital currency: low transaction time, low processing fees and implicit anti-money-laundering features.”

The club’s research and development team will develop a prototype using languages such as JavaScript, while the advisory team focuses on implementation operations and strategy.

Club members continue to represent a range of majors.

“Some might be working on code, others on marketing and some on the technology’s implications,” says Hu. “Everyone adds to the story.”

This article is adapted from the original by Karen Gross, a freelance writer for the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.

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