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Laura Degiovanni - The Tech leader Portrait| Boeck & XOXO

Laura Degiovanni, founder of TiiQu, in conversation with Fabian Böck for the Tech Leader Portrait #73. The following is the full interview, which was previously recorded live (recording here.




How have you been since the pandemic started - both personally and work-wise?

I would be lying if I said the pandemic really had any impact on my personal or professional life. I am, in fact, among that section of society who was fully WFH from before the pandemic. My team has always been a dispersed team, as we have team members from the UK, Germany, India, Poland, France, and we are now running a research project on developing countries with students of NHSU located in Lebanon, South Africa, Rwanda and Kenya.

It’s not only about how we work, it is what we work on, and who we work with. By default, the pandemic has forced everyone to experience the working style of a startup, which includes the following:

  • We work remotely, with dispersed teams, we plan work, and we stick to plans because we know that on the other side of the ocean somebody is expecting our delivery. There is no need to be at the end of the corridor to be accountable.

  • We work on a product that is not a real product. It has no shape, it can’t lie on a shelf, it’s virtual. It doesn’t exist apart from online, therefore doesn’t need storage except virtual storage of data. Furthermore, it does have an address, but this is also virtual, and we don’t need to travel to reach it.

  • We work globally without ever meeting who we work with. We are really conscious that we work across countries. In fact, for us the world is a unique ecosystem where like-minded people meet, interact, and operate. The nationality of our interlocutors only comes in when we issue or receive an invoice and eventually see a different currency or apply for a different price list.

So, I am definitely part of the virtual economy, and as such, the pandemic didn’t affect how I worked or what or when I delivered. This said, the pandemic had an important “side effect”: it made me more conscious that a virus has fewer prejudices than humans. To fight it, we’d better stop thinking about people in terms of race and status, and think of them more than our neighbours. Boundaries between people don’t stop hackers from stealing data. We need to live and work in a world where we can trust each other.


What was the most striking aspect of development you saw in the blockchain space since the pandemic started?


I am afraid that I see more missed opportunities than surprising developments: we have assisted the delivery of the vaccine, but also the testing campaign could be the pilot for blockchain-based portable health credentials. We missed it.

Why?

Not a technical problem, if there is something I learned from technologists it is that technology is there to solve problems, to simplify things, to make processes more secure. If there is the willingness to make something happen, technologists will help to achieve the goal. Blockchain-based health credentials would have significantly helped to map test validity and distribution, and latterly vaccination validity and distribution.

This didn’t happen because we have not yet moved to an ecosystem mindset: our society is still siloed so the “norm” that the aviation industry worked in one direction to facilitate travel, while the health sector reacted with disparate solutions, all of them aiming to own the entire process, but not necessarily thinking of what the user will or could do with the piece of information related to his state of health. Finally, governments are paralysed by various ethical issues that pertain to freedom of information and the ownership of data.

Prediction for the ongoing digital transformation in post-Covid times?

From the perspective of the working practices, I think we learned that trust is key and that people can be trusted.

This will fundamentally affect the way people work. Although some large organizations want their people back, others have taken the opposite stance, and people in the middle will start evaluating jobs based on the degree of freedom they can benefit from. It’s an incredible shift that will lead to potentially having more than one job, and possibly more revenue streams, as people will have more time to dedicate to their interests and skills with the support of an increasingly wide array of informal learning opportunities.

I like what I see coming: freedom. Freedom inspires accountability which drives performance, self-worth and personal fulfilment. Luckily, those employers will grasp the opportunity of the post-COVID era, and shift to a new pact with their employees.

At a global level, I see an intensification of the effort towards digitalization. I don’t think we will avoid big differences, though. Although the effort to level up technological readiness in emerging countries will consistently help in reducing poverty and hunger and increasing education, we will still live in a multi-speed world where someone travels to Mars and others travel to the neighbouring market.

However, IoT and 5G (if 5G continues to expand) will exponentially change how we cure ourselves, how we manufacture, how we distribute and hopefully, how we live. Think of healthcare provided remotely and the impact of it on healthcare and illness prevention in developed countries. I also think of how the combination of the two will entirely change urban cities; hopefully in a direction that is more human friendly through smart-cities that are designed to include, and to facilitate positive experiences, decrease crime, maximise work efficiency while at the same time offering citizens places to enjoy themselves and learn.


You are CEO and founder at TiiQu – what is this organization about, and what’s your mission?


We see a future where everyone can access opportunities based on merit and merit can be fairly evaluated. Regardless of whether you are applying for a job, a physician starting out in a new country, a founder seeking funding, a citizen interacting with public services, a student applying to a university, or a business owner dealing with a new customer, you find yourself having to prove again and again, who you are, what you have done, what you own, what you can deliver, and how you have delivered in the past. It results in endless costly research and continuous assessments that unfortunately and inevitably end up being affected by conscious or unconscious biases. The purpose of TiiQu is to remove guesswork and assumptions from an individual's claims about their identity, work, education, performance, skills, and eligibility, through portable, immutable and shareable blockchain-based credentials. The veracity, validity and integrity of proofs are synthesized in the universal language of numbers: the TiiQu score. The name comes from Trustworthiness Quotient. It is a score derived from multiple proofs of identity, verified elements about work, professional experience, eligibility, qualifications and knowledge, in addition to reputation and performance. The system continuously assesses new sources, balancing them against one another. It works as an equalizer of trusted sources, and it will not compare apples with oranges, so to speak: it will only compare like with like. It considers aspects like the trustworthiness of sources, as well as their recency and validity so that the resulting score is a robust representation of “to what extent” you can trust an individual’s claims.


Can you remember how you came up with the idea to start this venture?


From conceptualization to development, I see two founding steps, with the discovery of blockchain technology in the middle. My Why was a need for justice, equity, freedom. It started looking at how large organizations involuntarily end up being the grave of one’s potential when the person is not strong enough to explore/safeguard/implement their uniqueness. My How popped up when I came to the UK and learned about the credit score and how it signalled one’s trajectory based on facts. Actually, we are very far from signalling one’s financial status, however, the TiiQu score can be associated with the credit score because its sources are mainly objectively verified and most importantly, neither of the scores are a monolith: they evolve continuously, and the individual can manage them, but nobody can manipulate them.


Can you share a current project or case to understand better your core values when utilizing technology?


Sure. I’d love to talk about a project I care very much about. We collaborate with the IT Academy Powercoders to enable refugees to earn and cumulate credentials about their skills, learning and apprenticeship. Powercoders represents the typical ecosystem we are looking at. They are an NGO providing IT learning to asylum seekers and refugees in collaboration with UNHCR, the UN agency in charge of refugees. They identify candidates that can benefit from reskilling in the IT space. But that’s not all: upskilling for everyone is just the starting point of reinventing themselves. Powecoders from the beginning understood that it’s not only about providing learning, but these people also are subject to every kind of subjective prejudice when they reach the labour market, so their need, in addition to having the right skills, is TRUST. Trust that they know that they can deliver, that they have delivered in the past. So Powercoders collaborates with a huge ecosystem of employers providing internships to learners and TiiQu provides the technology to convert validated skills into shareable proofs. The second phase of the project will see holders of credentials cumulate them into the TiiQu, and continuously grow their TiiQu score taking assessments and getting them crystallized into immutable proofs that can be shared and represented at every step of their professional evolution. Prejudice is a hard thing to defeat, however, if you can counterbalance prejudice with proofs validated by many...then prejudice is challenged.


What is maybe an aspect in your domain that only a few people talk about, but there should definitely be more talking about it?


Well...I would say what generates TRUST. Trust is something that we commit every day, we take it for granted that TRUST is essential. However, trust is a highly subjective exercise based on the belief that someone else is honest. Today, we can’t rely on an emotional response to judge whether we can trust someone or not. Our brains process so much information all the time that it is difficult to know whether our thinking is valid and based on objective information. If not, our decisions may leave others at a disadvantage unnecessarily. We need to understand how our brains work, and distinguish what WE are deciding and what Others make us think, and learn to help ourselves with more elements that can help to make really informed decisions.


Where do you see potential synergies coming up in your field with other emerging technology verticals?


In terms of technologies, TiiQu is all about blockchain, and AI is more precisely about machine learning. On one side we use the blockchain to make the truth “immutable” and on the other side, we enable AI-driven projections based on validated truth. Basically, we avoid projecting on projections. We try to stick to an irrefutable truth that is fair and objective, and then we move on, allowing projections to self-educate and make projections.

In terms of verticals relevant to TiiQu: well, I think trust is a ubiquitous need across any industry. We initially look at the employment sector, but we expect the future of work where 70% of individuals will have freelancing or independent work as a primary or secondary source of revenues. So, the freelance economy, any professional platforms and possibly the emerging distributed finance sector are among the first natural targets and allies.


Have you always wanted to be working in tech one day? What made you go for this path, and what’s major learning along with your career?


I come from a career of over 25 years in the retails sector. I am the daughter of two entrepreneurs, and I have been a manager in a multinational group managing their retail development in the EMEA market and then an independent consultant in Asia. I have never been a fan of technology per se, but I have always been driven by an interest in people, and that is what brought me to explore how to empower people, how to maximise the potential of everyone to reach their goal, their fulfilment.

Major learning: Somebody said stay hungry stay foolish, I do agree, and I add: stay angry. Meaning that you really need to have your say in how to solve a problem, you really need to be furious about something you want to avoid seeing any more, to find the force, the courage and the persistence to reach your goals and learn from every mistake.

I was lucky enough to be angry for how little people come to give for the simple reason that they are not in the perfect condition to give. I was certain since I was a child that I had some kind of mission. Actually, it took me a while to identify which was ... That’s why I am the founder of a start-up at the age of 54!


What’s your take on how to create an overall, more inclusive and diverse environment in business & tech?


It’s all about embedding equity and equality in our processes. In the blockchain space, the term “trustless ecosystems” refers to contexts in which trust between members is not necessary because the underlying technology guarantees the desired outcome and prevents undesired access.

Likewise, to make our ecosystem diverse and inclusive, we need to add to our processes systems that fairly and objectively equalize the approach to team-building, hiring, rewarding, awarding and recognition in general that are EQUALLY applied to anyone, with the intention of widening participation and diversity. Above all, the system must work for anyone and everyone.


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