Fintechs divided over Coinbase chief’s apolitical stance on social activism

The UK fintech scene has been split down the middle by controversial comments from the CEO of cryptocurrency firm Coinbase, in which he argued social issues and politics serve as “a distraction from [the company’s] mission”.

In a blog post on 27 September, Brian Armstrong said the $8bn company does not engage in broader societal matters such as protest movements or political campaigns if those issues “are unrelated to our core mission”.

The comments caused a stir among fintech firms and the wider tech community, as a number of prominent British investors and executives spoke both for and against Armstrong’s argument.

Social activism has exploded onto the corporate agenda this year, galvanised by the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. This spurred prominent executives such as JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon and BlackRock CEO Larry Fink to speak out via social media and other channels, and follow up with more concrete action, such as setting firmwide targets to improve diversity, or new positive-action internship programmes.

It arrived on the heels of several years of pressure on businesses to embrace gender equality, which has also led to similar acknowledgements and target-setting — though the traditional dominance of white men in finance and technology means many still feel that the sector has much further to go.

READ The race and ethnicity gap: finance sector’s deafening silence on diversity in its ranks

But Armstrong’s blog is seen by some as potentially encouraging a pushback against such initiatives — whether intentional or not.

“I’d like to think I understood the intent — and that Brian wants to ensure his workplace does not become non-inclusive of people with different views from what’s assumed to be progressive tech-sector views,” said Eileen Burbidge, an early Monzo investor and partner at Passion Capital, in written comments provided to Financial News.

“However, what he’s really only done is highlight his tremendous position of privilege.

“Privilege doesn’t mean that he hasn’t struggled or hasn’t worked hard at being CEO of his company or in life. It simply means he thinks social activism can be a ‘distraction’. It means he thinks it’s a distraction to think about human rights and whether or not what’s happening around us is just or not.”

Starling Bank chief executive Anne Boden told Financial News that instead of helping Coinbase become more successful, Armstrong’s mission-focused mentality would bring about the opposite.

“If you want to remain relevant to employees, customers and communities, you can’t just stand on the sidelines,” she said.

“What I am surprised at is that anyone expected any better from Silicon Valley — the sector is shockingly bad at diversity and inclusion.”

However, an executive at digital bank Revolut, a rival to Starling Bank and one of the UK’s most valuable fintech firms, said he agreed with Armstrong’s stance.

Revolut’s global marketing director Chad West wrote on Twitter: “Armstrong is spot on, and I applaud him for having the bottle to speak up.

“Your politics belongs at home. If you don’t like that, go work somewhere else.”

Others also echoed Armstrong’s sentiment, such as Harry Briggs, a former partner at leading venture capital firm Balderton and early Uber investor Jason Calacanis.

But Burbidge reiterated the argument that social activism can be good business too, with consistent poll and survey evidence showing younger consumers say they prefer to do business with socially-aware companies.

“We’ve seen so much evidence in recent years that consumers and purchasing power gravitates toward brands and companies that articulate what they stand for,” added Burbidge.

“No longer is it enough for brands to be likeable or just upbeat. Their silence on social injustices is deafening… It would be a shame for consumers and all stakeholders to lose that trend.”

To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email Emily Nicolle