Alisa DiCaprio left her job as a senior economist at a development bank to join the frontline of blockchain technology and find out for herself the answers to the questions being asked in the trade industry today. In this chapter of GTR’s series about inspirational women, Shannon Manders gets an insight into what motivates this trailblazer, now global head of research at R3.
It’s fair to say that Alisa DiCaprio’s professional life thus far has had a truly wide-ranging and international scope. She trained as an emergency medical technician and a labour economist in the US; got her PhD in international development from MIT, writing her dissertation on the US-Chile free trade agreement; negotiated with garment workers in Cambodia; and worked for the US department of commerce on Andean negotiations, the UN in Finland on African regional trade initiatives, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Japan. She also speaks four languages. Today the Philadelphia-born DiCaprio is back in the US, this time in New York, at fintech company R3, which she joined in October 2017.
Her career path, although not exactly straightforward, has a degree of linearity, all driven by what seems to be her modus operandi: to understand every aspect of trade, from production to finance, working closely with the people she thinks will make a difference.
In 2012, she joined the ADB to work directly with policymakers on trade. In her role as senior economist she tracked with interest the burgeoning importance of distributed ledger technology (DLT), in trade finance. Coming to the realisation that DLT would take hold in the private sector before it moved to big institutions like the ADB, she decided to take her leave and reposition herself at the vanguard of trade’s next chapter.
“I joined R3, so that, rather than just reading about DLT, I could be directly involved – and really understand how to integrate it into trade in a way that makes a difference,” DiCaprio explains. “How we do trade finance today is not how we’ll do it in five years’ time – that’s so interesting. I want to help shape that.”
As R3’s head of research, DiCaprio’s remit is vast. (In fact, she adds, “everyone at the company has at least three jobs”.)
A lot of her research work, she says, is necessarily visionary. “We’re looking at the boundary of what we understand, and what we can do to bring everyone up to that frontier and then move beyond it,” she explains. “Much of the research is identifying what questions to ask, and then exploring how the answers reshape the way we do business.”
DiCaprio is also shaping R3’s trade finance strategy. “We’ve built a 10-year road map to figure out where are we today with our projects, where these are going to be in five years, and then projecting out from that. We don’t necessarily know what trade is going to look like in 10 years, but we need to create a trade finance ecosystem that’s agile enough to respond to it.”
To cap it off, she’s also responsible for training and education, which follows a two-pronged approach: business training – such as explaining to banks what DLT is – and developer training – which involves getting developers to understand the programming language and use it to build applications on R3’s platform Corda, for example.
How difficult a remit is it for someone without a technical background? Not as far a reach as it would seem, she explains.
“Every one of us in trade finance has the tools to understand and apply this technology. The reason is that the concepts aren’t that different from economics. Both use network theory and both reduce complicated relationships to discrete models. A lot of the terminology and concepts are similar to economic modelling. If you know economics, you can ‘get’ blockchain.”
A driving force
One of the most important factors in DiCaprio’s success has been the support that she has received from her professors and colleagues. In particular, she references her PhD thesis advisor, Alice Amsden, who did two things in particular: showed her how to act when men’s behaviour was “obnoxious”, and protected her while she was learning to do that.
“She came from the older generation where gender discrimination was normal,” says DiCaprio. “When I was her student, I’d see her on panels getting talked down to, talked over and interrupted by male economists who didn’t do that to each other. She’d let them finish, and then shoot back statistics and quantitative studies to tear down their arguments in front of everyone. She attacked their research, not their behaviour, but it had the same effect: it didn’t matter what their academic standing was relative to hers. It was a very emboldening thing to witness.”
Amsden also taught her student the importance of supporting and protecting the people who report to her – something that DiCaprio now actively strives to do for her own team.
“Part of my job is to get everyone that works for me their dream job – to figure out what that is and how to get them there,” she says. It’s something that she believes resonates equally with women and men. But because women are more receptive, she empowers them to be bolder, and more aggressive (but in a “really good way”). “That gets them more opportunities – and then it becomes easier to ask for what they want.”
One thing she always told the women she worked with at ADB was to “sit at the table”.
It’s quite a specific instruction, she explains, because at ADB all the conference rooms had one table in the middle, surrounded by chairs. Female staff would typically sit at the chairs along the perimeter of the room.
“Sit at the table,” DiCaprio says. “Just be there. And always say something. Because if you don’t ask a question, no one will remember you were there. You need to make your presence known.”
DiCaprio welcomes the change in gender diversity in the workforce that she has witnessed over the past decade in terms of women sanctioning other women. “10 years ago, if there was another woman in the room, that person was your competitor. We would do our best to make sure only one of us wins, because there was only one that would come out on top.”
Now, she believes the situation is a lot different: there’s room for more than one. At R3, for one, the trade finance team is 50% female. “It’s much more collaborative and co-operative among women. And that’s so awesome,” she says.
More articles in GTR’s Women in Trade Finance series: